The Dry Side of Roussillon

While Roussillon is not a behemoth of overall French wine production, much has been written about it. Unfortunately, in what text exists, this Southern French region is almost always in a "suffix state," at the end of Languedoc-Roussillon. It may seem a convenient grouping, but these two regions, while bordering one another and sharing many grape varieties, are exceedingly different.

Languedoc is a long tongue of over 20 AOPs and just as many IGPs strung along the Mediterranean Sea on lower hills. Roussillon, on the other hand, is a compact batch of only a few focused AOPs and two local IGPs. While the region as a whole eventually slides out to touch the Mediterranean, it is generally buffered from the shimmering waters by a series of mountain ranges and river valleys.

Beyond physical traits, Languedoc and Roussillon don't even share a common history or language. Languedoc derives its name from langue d'occitan—essentially, the "land of Occitan"—a vast region that once stretched from modern Italy to Bordeaux. Roussillon was the most northern outpost of the Catalans, and while it was ceded to France in 1659, the language and traditions have continued to this day despite an international border and the not-insignificant Aspres mountains forming a barrier.

Roussillon's historic fame is in being the region that at one point produced around 90% of all of France's dessert wines. While these wines have been traditional and important to the region, now Roussillon is dominated by dry wines, which total 70% of production. The upward trajectory for these wines since the turn of the 21st century demands a closer look at what Roussillon was, what it is today, and where the region is going.

All Rivers Flow to the Sea

The drive up to the Château de Quéribus shouldn't be taken lightly, but it should be taken if one is to understand Roussillon.

Twisting and turning, the narrow road ascends 400 meters from the village of Maury up to a stony ridge along the Corbières Massif. It's one of the Five Sons of Carcassonne, a group of Cathar (Christians that occupied the lands between the 12th and 14th centuries) bastions that maintained the old border against Spain until it moved southward in the mid-17th century with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees.

Climbing the steps and eventually arriving to the keep, the view is spectacular. On a clear day, it allows a view across much of the Roussillon region, officially the département of Pyrénées-Orientales, from its far northwest corner.

There are three key rivers that shaped the valleys of Roussillon: the Agly, Têt, and Tech. Along each of them, civilization settled and evolved into the villages seen today. Perpignan, despite being a large town of 120,000 people and the regional capital, is just as dependent upon the rivers as the smallest villages, as it sits on a tributary to the Têt called the Basse.

Beyond bringing fresh water down from the mountains to residents of the region, these rivers also played a key part in physically forming the area. Looking at a soil map of Roussillon, it resembles a hairy dog with its head out the window of a car. There are various strands of soil in Roussillon that have been exposed throughout the years, and there isn't really any one soil type that's definitive to the region. It is important to note, however, that the two famous dessert wine appellations of Maury and Banyuls are both on very slatey soils. These soils played a large role in defining the dessert and then dry wines grown there.

A Sweet Foundation

When discussing the dry wines of Roussillon, it's impossible to ignore the dessert wines. Maury and Banyuls were some of the first defined appellations back in 1936, deemed quality regions at that time—and rightly so. Maury, in the northwest (and just below Quéribus), has since brought about Maury Sec, in 2011. As a southeast bookend, Collioure came to be in 1971, forming a layer of dry wines on top of Banyuls in the southeast.

Produced in the middle are the dessert wines of Muscat de Rivesaltes. Despite having the name of a village just north of Perpignan, these wines can be made anywhere wine is allowed in Pyrénées-Orientales, as well as in a couple of neighboring villages in the département of Aude. The dry wine partner in this case is Côtes du Roussillon, founded in 1977 along with Côtes du Roussillon-Villages and its system of named villages.

As with every wine region, there are still holes and work needed to refine the appellations further. But it's these individual classifications that form the skeletal system of the modern dry wines in the region and are key to understanding Roussillon on its own terms.

The Dry Wines of Roussillon

Maury Sec

Maury's dessert wines are epic. Very capable of aging and made from at least 75% Grenache, they come in multiple colors and styles. The dry wines of Maury, however, are something new and exciting, despite the fact that they're from the same four northern villages as the dessert wine: Maury, Rasiguères, Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet, and Tautavel.

Maury Sec is only a decade old, and there's still a lot of ebb and flow as to what a dry wine from the region should taste like, and many interpretations to show this. A winery such as Mas Amiel, estimated to be the largest independent producer in the appellation with 170 hectares, has fully embraced Maury Sec. Mas Amiel makes a more potent wine, using the advantage of the slate soils to find a stronger backbone to its wines, which need a great deal of time to unfurl.

The new producer Christophe Marin—who has vineyards literally right up against the edge of the appellation and the Corbières Massif—doesn’t make a single wine under Maury Sec, despite all of his vineyards sitting within the borders. His style of wines is completely opposite to that of Mas Amiel—they are light, delicate, and floral.

There are many producers like Christophe Marin, making Maury Sec wines but still labeling them as the generic Côtes du Roussillon or Côtes Catalanes. The main reason for this is that the regulations don’t allow varietal wines and, unless a producer has a vineyard that was planted to a field blend, they will probably have nearly 100% Grenache when the maximum can only be 80%. Yet Maury Sec is the only name available for dry wines from Maury that want to carry the region’s name. Thus, producers who don't meet these requirements are stuck under a different appellation, having to say that they are indeed Maury—but yet not Maury. This has made communication about the region extremely difficult. From my vantage, a great many of the most exciting wines (and this is one of Roussillon's best regions) can't state their actual point of origin. Maury should have been known by now as a destination for fine dry wines from this corner of France.

The cooperative Les Vignerons de Maury, which was founded in 1910, is still in operation, situated along the main road through the village and producing wines under all of the region’s appellations. It should come as a sigh of relief to those who wonder if tradition can carry on in such an environment and with so many changes to the general wine-drinking trends.

Joining the winemaking tradition, however, are many newcomers from outside the area. Foreigners such as Richard Case with his project Domaine Pertuisane; Carrie Sumner and Marcel Bühler with their winery Domaine des Enfants; and Master of Wine Justin Howard-Sneyd with his project Domaine of the Bee have all been attracted to the area, probably more so than any other in Roussillon.

What brought them to this outpost nearly an hour from a proper city like Perpignan, at the very bottom of France? The story I've heard again and again is that they were initially looking into vines in Priorat, Spain, but found themselves priced out and headed to Maury. These are two regions with a good deal in common in terms of slate soils, a wealth of old vine material, and similar weather. The key difference is that Priorat has just a touch more sun that opens the wines a bit more, whereas Maury wines are more closed initially—not to mention the varietal requirements that make for onerous issues in Maury that aren't found across the border.

There's a great deal of potential in Maury Sec, but the issue for anyone looking for the wines is to know when they're hiding in plain sight under another regional label. To "discover" a dry wine from Maury can still take a bit of work, but hopefully that's changing.

Collioure

It's only 12 kilometers in a straight line to the French-Spanish border from Collioure, but it's 25 kilometers of twisty roads and nearly an hour of driving to arrive there—if holiday camping vans don't slow you down.

On the other side of the border is Catalan Spain and DO Empordà, unarguably a continuation of the Banyuls/Collioure winegrowing region. Like Maury, Collioure is a tightly defined region of only four villages: Banyuls-sur-Mer, Cerbère, Collioure, and Port-Vendres. (Banyuls overlaps the same area.)

Augustin Parcé knows these winding roads well and has little problem racing about the crumbly vineyard slopes that tumble down upon his native home. He's the sixth brother in a family of nine siblings from the village. While he may just have started his namesake Domaine Augustin in 2015, the family has a much longer claim to the area, opening Domaine de la Rectorie back in 1984. Before that, as is wont to be with the region-born-of-ashes narrative, they'd been selling their grapes to the local cooperative.

What's interesting is that while it's easy to think of Banyuls and Collioure as the sweet and dry sides of the same coin, given that they completely overlap, it doesn't quite work that way. While Banyuls can be produced as a white fortified wine, it is instead the achingly long, persistent reds from Grenache that set mouths watering. And yet the still wines of Collioure find their strengths in the whites. As Augustin puts it, "The Collioure reds have a great deal of variation between the producers, but the whites are where you find more consistency."

Producers such as Domaine Madeloc with its Cuvée Crestall, Domaine de la Tour Vieille's La Pinède, and Clos Saint Sebastien's Le Clos show that there is indeed a path to the future for the reds as well, but like Augustin says, the whites show a uniformity for the region. This white-wine profile underlines and defines Collioure, with its crumbling, schistose soils rocketing up from the rough shores of the Mediterranean, dotted with old fishing villages that have long since submitted to seasonal touristic sprawl.

A key factor in the wines, and what makes them something of an outlier to the overall Roussillon profile, is their noted salinity. The exposure to the Mediterranean Sea lends this sensation of mineral rock salt—and whether this is the real or imagined source of this character, it's readily apparent, especially when tasting across the entire region.

Year upon year, the overall hectarage of Banyuls decreases while Collioure increases, given that an owner's vineyard needs to be declared as making one wine or the other. Collioure is clearly on the rise, and for me, it's one of the most exciting regions of Roussillon.

Côtes du Roussillon & Villages

Côtes du Roussillon makes up the majority of wines found in any color. According to the region’s 2020 statistics for PDO wines, it accounts for 69% of whites, 94% of rosés, and 48% of reds. This is not insignificant when talking about production of nearly 43 million liters of dry wines each year.

As an appellation that covers all of Roussillon, with all its elevations and soil types, is there any unity in terms of profile? How should a Côtes du Roussillon taste?

It's an appellation that verges more on a continental style of wine than a Mediterranean one. This may seem strange given the proximity to the water, but there's a sense of darker fruit that's seen harder climatic conditions. Wines in the midrange in terms of quality rarely see oak. There are some fine wines under this appellation (like Château Nadal Hainaut's Terre de Quarante and Domaine Treloar's Tahi), but typically, a producer making something that falls outside the lines will drop down to the Côtes Catalanes IGP for the flexibility of showing off a single vineyard.

Côtes du Roussillon-Villages is consistently a notch higher in terms of wine quality. In having the zones for this appellation focused in the northern portion of the region, with the one exception of Les Aspres slightly south, the higher-production zones of the plains have been excluded. This is apparent in the resulting regulations: Côtes du Roussillon allows 50 hectoliters per hectare, Côtes du Roussillon-Villages 45 hectoliters per hectare, and the named villages 42 hectoliters per hectare. There's also a chicken and egg situation, as the wines can command higher prices, so producers use their more expensive barrels and time-intensive techniques to produce finer wines.

Regardless, beyond the general Côtes du Roussillon-Villages, there are the named villages of Caramany, Latour-de-France, Lesquerde, Tautavel, and Les Aspres that, as should be the case, are where singular terroir definition is found. Opinions will of course always vary, but in general, the profiles are roughly as follows:

Caramany: Carignan in any blend must go through carbonic maceration, giving the wines a fruitier, fresher lift. The granite and gneiss soils provide something of a lighter, more delicate aspect to the wines overall.

Latour-de-France: The name alone should give no end of marketing opportunity and makes one wonder how they're not world famous yet. There's a lot of grey schist here, making for more concentrated wines with a great deal of backbone and mineral aspects.

Lesquerde: As in Caramany, carbonic maceration is required for Carignan. This is probably one of the more complicated of the Roussillon villages to understand. The wines will stand out with iodine, medicinal, and meat-liver aspects, which makes for a love-it-or-hate-it kind of profile, and admittedly, I've found both in the wines.

Tautavel: Wines from here can also be destined for Maury Sec. Despite the abundance of Grenache planted to limestone, which often can yield more supple, softer wines, there's a great deal of strength to these examples, which offer fine tannins and dark fruit. While grapes can be produced under this village from neighboring Vingrau, I've found they have nearly the same profile.

Les Aspres: This is the newest village and holds the most communes, with 19 total. It's also the only named village in the south, despite not actually being a village but the name of the hills that continue across the border into Spain. Les Aspres has a vastly different character from the other four villages and from the crus of Maury and Collioure. The soils are overall sandy and sedimentary due to the passing of the Têt and Tech rivers for eons. This lends a softer profile that can drift into perfumed aspects. As a minimum three varieties (as opposed to the general two) are required for these wines, many that could be labeled as Les Aspres aren't and are often released as either Côtes du Roussillon or, if monovarietal, even Côtes Catalanes. This leads to a similar identity issue as in Maury Sec.

Côtes Catalanes, Etc.

The frustrations that build for winemakers due to the rigid and often unchanging character of French appellations can often be released in myriad IGP/IGT labels. In the case of Roussillon, as a tribute to its Catalan roots, there is Côtes Catalanes (meaning “Catalan slopes”). This presents a much broader set of regulations that, while still stipulating varieties and yields, are laxer and, ironically, more like the Catalan denominations of origin to the south.

Because of the looser stipulations, Côtes Catalanes is, to use a Catalan phrase, una mica de tot (a bit of everything), and there is really no unifying profile to this category other than the fact that the wines are from the general Roussillon area. You can, however, find everything here, from very fine, single-vineyard monovarietal wines like the excellent Le Rescapé old vine Carignan from Domaine Treloar; to more basic supermarket wines blended from all over; to natural wines, especially from the village of Calce, which has become ground zero for those of non-interventionist leanings.

In addition to Côtes Catalanes, there's Côte Vermeille, but it's just for the area around Collioure and sees far lower production. It's also possible to produce wines under Pays d'Oc, which is better known in Languedoc. It's likely for that reason that I've never encountered a single one.

Despite the appeal of Côtes Catalanes, there are a few wines that slip into Vin de France. These are the rare exceptions, however, such as the young wines of Le Soula that are from high elevation and with very non-Mediterranean varieties like Sauvignon Blanc. The estate's winemaker, Wendy Wilson, uses Vin de France, as she prefers to make cross-vintage blends in her young wines, arriving at an intended profile for the wines that’s independent of vintage.

On the Horizon

With a great deal of effort, Roussillon seems to be disjoining itself from the larger Languedoc-Roussillon affiliation to have its own long-overdue identity. This has been helped in no small part by an influx of new blood from outside the region.

While there are many that rode an initial wave of being priced out of other regions 10 years ago, there's a new wave as well, due to the Department of Pyrénées-Orientales ordering every village to build new houses. This has, in turn, had the effect of growing the population by about 21% over the last 20 years. It stands in stark contrast to many winegrowing regions that are only seeing their populations decrease, leaving them with a shortage of workers.

But beyond getting more warm bodies in the region to both make and drink the wine, there has been gradual movement in the legislation. Some winemakers definitively disagree, but with the perspective of an outsider, it's easy to see that allowing dry wines to be produced in an excellent terroir like Maury or reducing the blending complications in the general AOPs has worked to increase the number of wineries using these as opposed to the catchall appellations. There is still more work to be done here, however.

Roussillon also seems to be looking down the road to an uncertain future. In May of 2020, the region allowed the use (as a minority part of blends) for the red hybrid Cabernet Cortis and the white hybrids Cabernet Blanc, Muscaris, Soreli, and Souvignier Gris. Much like changes afoot in other French regions such as Bordeaux, this was done with an eye to the unknown problems that climate change is starting to present.

Most importantly, it must be kept in mind that dry wines in Roussillon are something of a new venture. The region’s winemakers have only been relearning and reestablishing dry-wine production in the last 20 to 30 years as dessert wine sales have tapered off. Despite this, they've quickly come out of existing simply as le petit vin du Languedoc, as they used to be referred to in France. This lugubrious work of both producers and authorities continues to create a unique region of France that anyone serious about wines from the Mediterranean should seek out.

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