In Roussillon, vines grow behind the beach, and in sight of the snow topped peaks of the Pyrenees. Very different wines come from the various terroirs. Few growing regions have a comparable range, from Mediterranean whites to vintage Banyuls.
If a wine lover could play God, he would create himself an ideal growing region. Expressive grape varieties, a lot of sun, cold nights, varying mineral soils, good locations and a variety of wine types would be the ingredients. All in all, something similar to Roussillon would come out of it. Whereby, the region still has some extras to offer, like sea breeze, dirt cheap introduction wines and almost unlimited life span.
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.
Artists replace smugglers
The wine industry in Roussillon survived the Middle Ages tolerably well. The wines remained export hits in Paris, and even in Italy and Flanders, even though the region was a political plaything between the kingdoms of Mallorca and Aragon. Only after the thirty years war did Roussillon fall to France, but at the cost of its first identity. Today, you rarely hear the original Catalan language in the streets.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the winegrowing area grew from 9,000 to almost 80,000 hectares. Until the vine pest plague wiped out the vines. In Roussillon, there was the additional problem that there was actually no drinking culture. Therefore, they resorted to high yield varieties when replanting, and mechanisation. Numerous cooperatives were founded - even today they produce up to 70% of wine – in order to market the quantities more effectively.
At the same time, however, artists such as Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso discovered the unique light of the landscape for themselves. For the Fauvists, their pictures were a harmony of bright colours, for which they found the best motifs here on the Mediterranean coast. Picturesque villages such as Collioure with its harbour bay, which was popular with smugglers in earlier times due to its border location, boomed. With the artists, came art enthusiasts and tourists. A cannon on the beach promenade with its expensive cafés, still shows the connection even today.
In the 2nd World War, Banyuls was still a way station for people fleeing from the Nazis. This included great minds such as Walter Benjamin. Today, you can follow his route from the vineyards to Portbou, Spain, on the "Chemin Walter Benjamin". In the struggles that followed, however, the forces for good slowly prevailed. The previously undifferentiated region developed the first winegrowing locations, and therefore placed quality over quantity. Rivesaltes, Banyuls and Maury were the first. In the 1970s Collioure and Côtes du Roussillon joined in. There is particular potential in the dry red wines, which is best communicated via the geology.
The development of the Pyrenees brought a variety of soil types to the surface, of which particularly limestone and slate provided some great terroirs. But there was also granite and gneiss, marble and marl and many others. At some of the best locations, remarkable sub-appellations such as Tautavel and Les Aspres emerged. There, the vines fight against the eternal dryness on steep terrace slopes - and yield extraordinary red wines.
In particular, Grenache emerges as very dense, complex wine. Shale promotes dense graphite aromas, limestone fresh mineral tones. It is similar with the slightly more sensitive Mourvèdre. Most wines are cuvées from another abundant range of varieties. Carignan, Syrah, the Muscat variants and Macabeu are the most important. There are also blends of Marsanne and Roussanne or white Grenache and Macabeu, which get better with the years.
In total, 23 grape varieties are approved. All of them find good to very good conditions on site. It is a wine lovers dream. All in all, Roussillon is clearly steering in the direction of quality. Out of the 70,000 hectares of winegrowing area from the 1970s, 24,000 still remain today, two thirds of which are AOC wines. What is particularly unusual is the low yields, not just for the sweet wines. The winegrowers only produce around half as much as the national average. With around 70 million litres produced annually, the region produces a mere 2% of French wine. The many family operations are also rather small by French standards, at just ten hectares.
Big fight concerning Lu-Xi-Long
Precisely because there was hardly a tradition for quality wine, Roussillon was overshadowed by all-powerful Bordeaux for a long time. But today, many winegrowers have modern cellar technology, and above all they observe the terroirs very precisely. Organic wines also lend themselves to the dry climate and are amongst the successes of the region. The harvest sizes are relatively stable. Roussillon even remains widely protected from the frequent freak weather conditions.
Also international wine drinkers notice all of this. More than a quarter of the exports go to Belgium. Germany is a close second, just behind are the Netherlands, the USA, Great Britain, China and Canada. So the exports are well distributed. "The sun shines on Languedoc“ was a title in the British industry magazine The Drinks Business recently, to let their readers know that you can expect a fantastic relationship between price and quality on the Pyrenean slopes. It is "like the American dream".
The reason for the euphoria was the great freedom of movement when it comes to grape varieties, the many stylistic possibilities and "the increasing quality", confirms Matthew Stubbs MW, who lives in the region. "Everything is possible" - for example, growing Riesling and Sangiovese – "you can just come here and do what you want". And many are good at what they do. Roussillon attracts top winegrowers.
In spite of all the dynamism that the region has captured, everything is pleasantly calm. Perhaps sometimes a little too calm. Obviously impressed by the good reputation, a company in China protected the name Roussillon - translated into Chinese as Lu-Xi-Long - as a brand name. The association brought legal proceedings before the Chinese Chamber of Industry and Commerce and was able to stop the sale for the time being. The former smugglers’ paradise contains hidden treasures that it does not even know about yet.