The many faces of Roussillon

Fast backwards to 1816: The Bishop of Perpignan and civil engineer Raymond Etienne Amiel are gambling. The Bishop, perhaps short of money, decides to bet one of his properties, known as Domaine de Goudous. Luck isn’t on his side, his property changes hand, becoming the acquisition of the engineer.
Such colourful was the start of Mas Amiel, the world famous Maury producer.

Fast forward to 2020: Mention Roussillon to many a casual wine consumer and they probably recall the EU wine lake of the 1980’s, not recognizing the great developments of the region since those days, or they have a vague knowledge of the regions stunning fortified wines.

The current and seemingly endless pandemic has proved travelling the beautiful wine regions around the world immensely troublesome, but fortunately, technology has come to our rescue with a whole new way of experiencing the world of wine:
Virtual wine trips. And a virtual wine trip to Roussillon in Southern France with Deputy Director and Export Department Manager, Eric Aracil, and Export Market Manager, Helene Losada, both of Wines of Roussillon, as our guides, was exactly what I embarked on in October. A 3 days trip during which 6 winemakers hosted us and shared both their wines and stories with us.

Photo: CIVR

Did you know, that Roussillon produces no less than 9 PDO’s for dry wines and no less than 5 PDO’s for fortified sweet wines from a vast number of different grapes. And don’t forget, that super premium wines are produced from the regions two PGI’s for dry wines, too. Such is the diversity of Roussillon. As of May 2020 Roussillon vignerons may opt to produce wines from grapes such as Souvignier Gris, Muscaris and Cabernet Cortis, well known names among Danish wine producers so much farther to the north.

The most famous of the PDO’s of Roussillon, Rivesaltes, Banyuls and Maury, all date back to 1936 – history is strong with fortified wines in Roussillon and it remains a highly interesting category to investigate. Danish wine enthusiasts are spoiled from choice within the fortified category. (See suggestions below)

Source: Wines of Roussillon

Roussillon sits beautifully at the foot of the Pyrénées and along the Mediterranean Sea from the Spanish border as far as Le Barcarès. Surrounded by the Corbières Mountains to the North, the Pyrénées to the West and the Albères to the South, Roussillon is in fact an amphitheatre open towards the Mediterranean. This amphitheatre makes Roussillon a highly diverse region with hills, flat plains, coastal parts and beautiful little towns. A region which offers plenty of options for active vacations to the active and adventurous visitor, should the wine itself not be enough. Hiking and biking, sea sports and even skiing. All is possible in Roussillon.

Also, this Roussillon “amphitheatre” enjoys premium conditions for wine growing with its wonderful, Mediterranean climate with plentiful sunshine and warm enough summers to ripen almost any varietal and a jigsaw puzzle of terroirs (see the Geological Map of Roussillon below) to make for the above mentioned vast number of different styles within the region. With such generous conditions, it is no surprise that winemaking dates back more than 2,000 years

If you wish to take at look at the beauty of Roussillon and the terroirs for yourself, the video Terroirs of Roussillon provided by Wines of Roussillon is both beautiful and inspiring.

Talking to the winemakers made it obvious how varied approaches to making wine are. Stainless steel, concrete eggs, new and used barrels, maceration carbonique and even thermovinification. Modern technologies have been placed at service of tradition dating back centuries.

1: Dom Brial, 2: Mas Amiel, 3: Vignerons Catalans, 4: Château de l’Ou, 5: Domaine Cazes, 6: Lafage
Source: Wines of Roussillon

It makes sense to devide Roussillon into three parts: The northern Roussillon, Central Roussillon and Coastal Roussillon and we got to spend a day in each part of the region.

Photo: CIVR

Day 1 was spent in Northern Roussillon, hosted by Dom Brial and Mas Amiel.

Dom Brial is a cooperative with more than 200 members, based in the small village of Baixas, producing wines from 5 different terroirs. At Dom Brial a great deal of focus is devoted to sustainablility and they take pride in being one of the five earliest to sign up to the Vignerons en Développement Durable initiative.
Dom Brial also owns Château les Pins, where 23 hectares of vines are cultivated.
Their 2014 Côtes du Roussillon Villages Château les Pins is made from 60% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 10% Mourvèdre, and is aged 12 months in a mix of new, 1 year-old and 2 years-old barrels

At Mas Amiel we were the guests of winemaker and General Manager, Nicolas Raffy. As famous the estate is for their beautiful fortified Maurys – Mas Amiel is the biggest private producers of Maury – just as important is the dry wines to the domaine and 2005 through 2007 Mas Amiel was actively promoting a new appellation for dry wines, Maury Sec AOP, which was finally granted in 2011, and today the production at Mas Amiel is roughly a 50/50 split between fortified and dry wines.
The Maury terrain is dominated by limestone cliffs with the soils mainly being black schist and a more chalky schist in some areas – a very important asset which allowed for Maury Sec AOP to be granted. When comparing Maury to Banyuls, Raffy pointed to the absence of limestone in Banyuls.

Mas Amiel Maury 15 hors d’Age comes with a definite oxidative character. This a complex wine with pronounced aromas of walnut, raisin, caramelized sugar, confected fruit such as apricot, tea notes, coffee, cedar and spices. The high levels of acidity are beautifully balanced by both the sweetness and the amount of fruit. For a fortified wine the alcohol is somewhat lower than for e.g. Ports, but the wine is still a full bodied wine with a long finish. Their 1969 Maury is even more unique, having spend 12 months outside in glass demijohns with temperatures climbing to 60-70° due to the glass vessel. After the time in demijohns the wine spent decades in big oak casks prior to bottling.

Photo: CIVR

Day 2 brought us to Central Roussillon, where we visited Vignerons Catalans and Château de l’Ou.

Vignerons Catalans is both the oldest and the biggest cooperative in Roussillon and they produce wine “from all appellations of Roussillon and in all quality levels”, as Selma Regincos, marketing and communication manager, explained.

2018 AOP Côtes du Roussillon Villages Tautavel Signature is a Syrah/Grenache/Carignan blend, which offers cherry, olive, thyme and rosemary along with a peppery note and eucalyptus. One might describe the bouquet with the word “garrique”. The wine is round and soft with a refreshing finish and it is a good example of really well made wines available at affordable prices in Roussillon.

Château de l’Ou is located in Montescot just outside Perpignan and it is a wonderful example of winemakers who make wine out of love for the wine and the region and not because it is a heritage of theirs. Séverine Bourrier studied oenology and worked in Bordeaux for a decade before meeting her husband, Philippe, and relocating to Roussillon.
At Château de l’Ou winegrowing has been organic since 1998. In 2009 they went along and purchased land in both Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet, Caudiès-de-Fenouillèdes and Maury, allowing for different styles based on the different terroirs.
When asked what inspired her to become a winemaker in Roussillon, Bourrier replied: “I’m in love with Roussillon landscape, the diversity of terroirs inspires me! Roussillon is like a diamond, we just started to shape it.

Their 2017 Secret de Schistes is a stunning 100% Syrah of three different Syrahs from brown, mosaic schist parcels from Aigly. The yield is extremely low: Only 13 hl/ha of first press juice only which is then both fermented and aged 12-14 months in the same 300 litres barrels. The three different wines are only blended prior to bottling.
This  juicy wine displays garrique and violets, rosemary and thyme, crème de cassis, blue fruits and classy oak. A graphite note opens up with time in the glass. It is a wine that plays on full-bodied richness, yet a voluptuous, weightless texture with such fine tannins. This wine blends elegance and richness brilliantly and it will hold up perfectly for at least a another decade.

Day 3 we spend in Coastal Roussillon and we were the guests of Domaine Cazes and Domaine Lafage.

Photo: CIVR

 Emmanuel Cazes, Wine Ambassador at Domaine Cazes explained how the domaine’s entire 220 ha of vineyards yielding 20-45 hl/ha and spread across Roussillon are converted to organic an biodynamic viticulture.
Domaine Cazes also own Les Clos Paulilles, beatifully located between Banyuls and Coilloure. From the 63 ha of vineyards at Les Clos Paulilles, internationally acclaimed wines are produced, predominantly from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. The yields from Les Clos Paulilles are as low as 18-30 hl/ha.

 Domaine Lafage might be one of the best known producers of Roussillon, having produced wine in Roussillon from their historical base in Maury from 1798. Today, though, they are based overlooking the road from Perpignan to the Mediterranean coast but with vineyards spreading from the coast to Maury and Aspres at the foothill of the Pyrénées.
Their 2019 Miraflors rosé made from Mourvèdre, Grenache Gris and Grenache Noir, immediately explains Domaine Lafage’s reputation. It spells Summer to me. Summer’s berries, citrus and orange peel. And the wine has a lovely, mineral grip. A crispy quality rosé, yet with a rounded and creamy texture displaying good length in a style that is easy to understand. The freshness and minerality of this rosé is not by chance, as it is quite a common feature in the dry whites and rosés of Roussillon, we were told, despite its hot and dry conditions. Granted, Roussillon receives 5-600 mm of percipitation per year, but most comes in thunderstorms, predominantly in autumn, and lots of it is lost as run off.  In fact, drought is already a serious hazard to the region.

From the very South East of Roussillon, from Banyuls, I have tasted Abbé Rous Banyuls 5 ans d’Age, a full bodied wine showing pronounced dried fruit aromas of raisin, fig and dates, pickled plum and caramelized sugar. The wine plays on a high sweetness/high acid combination. Consider this a very good alternative to several Tawny Ports. 

Located adjacant to Spain, it is only logical that the region draws upon both French and Catalan cuisine, food that matches the different styles of wines perfectly. Suggestive food and wine pairings include two suggestions of Emmanuel Cazes, Wine Ambassador at Domaine Cazes: 2018 Collioure Rouge Clos de Paulilles, a Mourvèdre/Grenache/Syrah blend, paired with a lamb tagine, with black prunes and sweet potatoes or their Banyuls Rimage, made from 100% Grenache, with duck magret with roasted figs or a blue cheese such as Roquefort.

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