As a wine-producing region, Roussillon is often lumped in with its larger neighbor, Languedoc. But Roussillon -- in far southern France, just north of the Spanish border -- is a distinct area, with its own terrain and culture.
Roussillon shares a common history with Catalonia, on the other side of the Spanish border, and didn't become a permanent part of France until 1659. Catalan influences are everywhere, from the Catalan-inflected French spoken in the area to the cuisine -- and even the Barcelona soccer jerseys that hang proudly in many bars and cafes.
The region is shaped like an amphitheater, with mountains on three sides and the Mediterranean to the east. It is purported to have the driest, sunniest climate in France. That's a mixed blessing: It's usually easy to ripen grapes, but it can be a challenge to harvest grapes that aren't overripe or pruney. That's my chief complaint about some of Roussillon's wines, especially reds.
Roussillon has a well-deserved reputation for its sweet wines, like the fortified Banyuls, which I told you about several months ago. But production is about 50-50 for sweet and dry wines.
There are 11 appellations for dry wines, which can get a little confusing, but the ones you're most likely to see are Côtes du Roussillon, Côtes du Roussillon Villages or Côtes Catalanes. Terrain ranges from the steep, rocky vineyards of Collioure, many of which overlook and practically spill into the Mediterranean, to the terraces above the river valleys in central and northern Roussillon. Vineyards that are 50 or more years old are sprinkled throughout the region.
Those old vineyards -- and affordable land prices -- are what attracted Hugo Stewart of Les Clos Perdus, a winery based in Languedoc. He and his partner now own 25 acres in Roussillon.
"It's hard to resist," he says.
Other vintners from outside the area also are setting up shop in Roussillon. Michel Chapoutier from the Rhone Valley has established Bila-Haut. Pierre Gaillard and his daughter, Elise, from the northern Rhone started Domaine Madeloc. Even Californians Dave Phinney and Joel Gott are making a Roussillon grenache.
"The terroir is fantastic," says Gilles Troullier, vineyard manager for Bila-Haut.
Thirteen grape varieties are permitted for dry wines. Grenache, syrah and carignan are most common for reds; grenache blanc and macabeu are popular for whites. Blends are common and are required in some appellations.
With so many grapes, such a range of terrain and a mix of old vines and new, it's not surprising that there is a lot of variety in the wines. But you will have to hunt for them. As Elise Gaillard points out, Roussillon isn't even well-known in France, much less in other countries. But much of what you're likely to find is attractively priced.
Among reds, for example, the 2011 Domaine Fontanel Côtes Catalanes ($14) offers lively berry fruit with some spicy notes and firm tannins, while the 2011 Bila-Haut Côtes du Roussillon Villages ($13) displays ripe red fruit with a slight roasted note, a hint of wild thyme and fine tannins. The easy-to-drink 2011 Domaine Cazes "Le Canon du Marechal" Rouge ($14) has bright berry fruit and notes of spice, anise and white pepper. The 2011 Les Clos Perdus "Le Rouge" ($14) is more full-bodied, with red fruit, spice and firm tannins.
Domaine Gardiés produces a brand for export, the 2011 Mas Las Cabes ($14), which is more tannic, with ripe black fruit and a mineral note. The 2012 Domaine Ferrer Ribiere "F" Rouge ($15) is also fairly tannic, with lively berry and spice.
If you pay a little more, there's a lot to choose from, but here are three wines that stand out. The 2012 Domaine Ferrer Ribiere Old Vine Carignan ($24), made from vines that are more than 130 years old, is dark, concentrated and a little floral, with berry fruit and fine tannins. Another carignan, the 2011 Domaine des Soulanes Kaya Rouge ($23), displays ripe black fruit, notes of licorice and mineral and a lot of elegance, especially for carignan, which can be sort of rough-and-tumble. The 2010 La Tour Vieille "Puig Ambeille" ($27) is dark and a little wild, with black fruit, a savory note of wild herbs and firm tannins.
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More tasting notes
White wines from this region can be attractive, too. The best ones preserve a lot of freshness, despite the hot surroundings.
The 2011 Domaine Lafage Cote Est Blanc ($13), for example, is very fresh and crisp, with citrus and green apple, while the same winery's 2011 Cuvee Centenaire ($17), which is mostly grenache blanc, is fleshier, with creamy white fruit and a mineral note, but it still has a brisk core of acidity.
The 2011 Domaine Gauby Les Calcinaires ($30), from a winery better known for reds, displays a lot of minerality, with green apple, white stone fruit and a long finish. The 2011 Domaine Gardies "Clos des Vignes" Blanc ($28) also has a strong mineral note.
Some other good reds that aren't terribly expensive include the 2010 Domaine Gardies "Les Milleres" ($21), which is structured yet easy to drink, with pretty berry fruit and some spicy notes, and the same winery's 2009 "Clos des Vignes" Rouge ($28), which is spicy and concentrated, with dark berry flavors and fine tannins.
The unoaked 2011 Domaine des Soulanes Cuvee Jean Pull ($20) offers exuberant, fresh berry fruit with fine tannins, while the 2011 Jean Louis Tribouley Mani ($19) is elegant, with earthy berry fruit, some floral notes and firm tannins.
Other producers to look for include Domaine Cabirau, whose wines are very affordably priced; Domaine de l'Edre, a tiny winery that turns out only about 1,600 cases of wine each year from a garage in Vingrau; and the Gaillard family's Domaine Madeloc, which makes very good wines but has limited distribution.