The growing conditions in the South West corner of France are so good that even the ancient Greeks loved them. After they extended their first colony in Marseille to a wine growing location in the 7th century BC, they discovered the region at the foot of the Pyrenees as a winegrowing area for themselves. The Romans, who came after them, expanded their province Narbonnaise into a trading hub. Both recognised the almost ideal location factors for winegrowing. Roussillon forms a valley basin, which is surrounded by three mountain ranges and the sea to the East. The formation is often called the amphitheatre, because the steep slopes with their terraces really open up towards the Mediterranean in the East, like an ancient auditorium. From the West, the three rivers Agly, Têt and Tech flow almost parallel through a fruitful plain.
In the mild Mediterranean climate, with over 2,500 hours of sun, the little rain falls in less than a hundred days and often in violent storms. This makes Roussillon one of the driest regions in France. To draw the water out of the soil all year round, the vines must grow deep roots. Regular down draughts from the mountains are also good protection against plant diseases. The wine of the region saved its good reputation until the Middle Ages, even if it was with reservations. However, altar wine was needed. But Charlemagne, who greatly promoted winegrowing in Northern Europe, primarily saw one thing on the border to the Iberian peninsula, a gateway to Islam. That is why he founded his own buffer state, the county of Rosselló, which later gave the region its name.
However, if the isolation policy had really worked, one of the best wines in the world would have been lost. The contemporaries liked sweet wines, but primarily attained them through drying out and over ripening the grapes. Then they were helped along with honey. So, it was a good job that Arnau de Vilanova, the Moorish medic of the King of Mallorca and the rector of the University of Montpellier, discovered distillation in 1285. He added fermenting grape juice to recently discovered brandy. He thus stopped the yeast activity and obtained the sweetness of the fruit. The Vin dou naturell was born.
Today, a unique selection of sweet wines has been developed from this in Roussillon. From the appellation Rivesaltes, which means "high bank" in English, come amber coloured Ambrés and brick red Tuilés. Their colour and range of flavours, from quince to coffee, are due to strong oxidation, which is called "brutal" when it takes place outside in demijohns. The most famous sweet wine is the Banyuls, which comes from terraces, which are sometimes so steep that they have to be farmed with mules. Here too, there is a wide assortment: Citrusy white wines and traditional wines ripened for many years with nutty Rancio notes. Rimage, which gets its deep fruity notes from long maceration on the mash, is only available in good years. As a Mise Tardive, they are aged for several years, and they thereby develop an overpowering complexity and concentration.
The muscats of the Rivesaltes are a cuvée of Muscat d’Alexandrie and Muscat de petits grains and result in an exotic and fruity bouquet wine with the aroma of white blossoms. The possibilities are so diverse - that over 80% of French sweet wines come from Roussillon. Except in the case of the premium wines, the prices are really very moderate, whereby often another aspect gets lost. That such wines with high sugar content can be kept for a long time, goes without saying. “Vins dous, however, can age for an extremely long time“, explains Eric Aracil, who has worked for the association of producers for many years. In vertical tastings, he presents wines that are sixty, eighty or more than one hundred years old – and still surprisingly fresh.