Roussillon is not Languedoc. The two regions are often bundled together—by tourist guides let alone wine writers—but they have very different cultures and histories, and produce very different wines. Languedoc is a horizontal rectangle on the map, and its wines are influenced by the two dominant wine cultures on its sides—the Rhône to the east and Bordeaux to the west. By contrast, Roussillon is more of a vertical amphitheater, and produces wines that owe little allegiance to anyplace else. Many of them are relatively new arrivals in the global marketplace, but the best taste deliciously distinctive.
Roussillon is surrounded on three sides by hills and mountains, the Pyrenees to the south and west being the highest and most foreboding. But the craggy granite hills of Corbières to the north, coupled with the shimmering Mediterranean Sea to the east, mark it as a region with an identity all its own. Culturally, that identity is as much Catalan as French, Roussillon having been ruled by Aragón and Majorca for nearly 500 years. (It did not officially become part of France until 1659.) Most important for wine production, the climate is both hotter and drier than in Languedoc to the north or the various appellations and vins de pays farther west. This is the driest and sunniest region in all of France, and ripening grapes fully is never an issue of concern. If anything, much as in California, the challenge consists in not allowing the fruit to become too ripe and the resulting wines too hot or heavy.
This fairly isolated region has a long history of independence and individualism. Roussillon was home to the Cathars, a radical religious sect that denied the divinity of Christ and were persecuted and killed by the Catholic church. Today, the ruins of Cathar castles perch precariously on the mountainsides, overlooking wide swaths of vineyards.
Roussilon used to be known exclusively for sweet, fortified wines, its confusingly named “vins doux naturels” serving as France’s answer to port and, in “rancio” form, sherry. The heady wines from Rivesaltes, Maury, and Banyuls are still worth seeking out, but the market for them has shrunk significantly over the past decades. In response, growers are focusing more and more on dry wines—red, white, and rosé—sales of which now constitute roughly 80% of the region’s output.
Wine production in Roussillon is something of a paradox. On the one hand, the area is filled with small growers who insist on farming their own way. On the other, production is dominated by cooperatives, so viticultural independence can all too easily become sacrificed to oenological sameness. To be fair, the cooperatives tend to do well with both vins de pays wines (including those labeled Catalan or Côtes Catalanes) and the time-honored sweets. The best dry wines, however, come from controlled appellations and are made with grapes that are both grown and vinified by independent producers.
The largest appellation is Côtes du Roussillon and its step-sister, Côtes du Roussillon Villages, the latter including four (soon to be five) named communes in the northern half of the region. Though producers can make red, white, and rosé wines here, reds prove dominant. As a general rule, they tend to be powerful—richly flavored, sometimes with an overt oak character, and so provide youthful exuberance but all not much finesse. This isn’t surprising, as the grapes grow inland, away from any cooling effect provided by the sea. To find wines that exhibit elegance as well as muscle, you need to look south and east, to the appellation called both Banyuls and Collioure—the first name being used when the wine in question is fortified and sweet, the second when it is dry.
That one delimited area can function as a designated source of two very different kinds of wines reveals one of the many problems with the French appellation system. Nonetheless, Banyuls/ Collioure is home to some absolutely delectable wines—powerful sweet ones and an increasing number of compelling dry ones.
The dominant grape variety here always has been Grenache—Noir for red wines, Blanc and Gris for whites. Other varieties grow alongside these, including Carignan, Mourvèdre, and Syrah, as well as Maccabeu and Vermentino. But Grenache is the unchallenged king. Unlike other parts of Roussillon, where other grapes, including imported ones like Cabernet and Chardonnay, find their way into more internationally-styled wines, in Banyuls/ Collioure growers tend to value tradition rather than innovation. Their steep, stone-terraced vineyards, many of the best with stunning vistas of the Sea below, have been planted to Grenache for centuries. Not surprisingly, those sites contain many old vines, with gnarly roots that extend deep into the rocky subsurface in search of water and nutrients. They don’t find much, the climate being so dry and irrigation forbidden, so yields tend to be relatively how, leading to fruit with full concentration at harvest.
While the vineyards are quite traditional, the wineries are not. More than anything else, temperature control equipment introduced roughly a generation ago is what has made it possible to produce high quality dry wines, and vintners delight in experimenting with different sized fermenters, storage tanks made from various materials, and different fermentation periods. The days of putting all of one’s wine in large, wooden foudres and then leaving it alone have passed. Some people do use smaller (and newer) oak barrels, but wood does not play a leading role in the appellation’s best wines.
Though high quality dry wine is fast becoming rule rather than exception in Banyuls/Collioure, it is important to remember that the development of distinctive styles in the appellation remains very much a work in progress. As one vintner said recently, top-notch dry wine in Roussillon “only really has fifteen years of history.”
As seems to be true all over the world these days, red wines tend to be more popular than whites in Banyuls/ Collioure. I tasted some delicious ones during a recent vacation in the charming seaside artists’ village of Collioure, but the unexpected (and delightful) surprise came from the whites. The best of them display a distinctive minerality alongside their deep but always refreshing flavors. They have plenty of acidity, malolactic fermentation being generally eschewed with whites in Roussillon, and often finish with a haunting salinity—tasting a bit of the sea breeze that blows through the vineyards in the afternoons and evenings.
While not expensive, good wines from Banyuls/ Collioure are also not all that cheap, the cost of production being high given all the difficulties involved in farming such old vineyards in such steep, rocky terrains. And save for sweet Banyuls, they are far from well-known. That explains why so few are imported into the United States, and when they are, usually only into a few select markets.
Nonetheless, these are wines to keep in mind and to keep an eye out for—when travelling or if you are lucky enough to see them for sale at home. Domaine La Tour Vielle’s wines are imported by Kermit Lynch so fairly widely available. Their 2014 “Les Canadells” white is simply superb. Other producers that deserve better American distribution include Bruno Duchêne (imported in small volume by Louis/ Dressner), Coume del Mas, Domaine du Mas Blanc, Domaine de La Rectorie, Domaine Vial Magnères, and the small biodynamic estate of Domaine du Traginer. I surely have missed others that are just as deserving, as the overall quality in the appellation appears to be very high. So just remember the name—Collioure, the same appellation as Banyuls, but designating some fantastic dry wines from Roussillon. Not Languedoc.