Roussillon’s graceful reds

France’s most southern region, Roussillon, produces reds that age gracefully plus stylish naturally sweet wines. For publication in week starting 26 June 2017.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the awarding of AOP status to four Cotes du Roussillon regions, all located near France’s border with Spain. AOP, or Appellation d’Origine Protegee, is a term the European Commission coined in 1992 to define agricultural products with a distinct regional character.

It is equivalent to an AOC, or Appellation d’Origine Controlee, which refers to regulations established in France to define quality standards for products like wine and cheese. It ties the name of the product to specific geographic regions.

The four AOPs celebrating their anniversary are AOP Cotes du Roussillon Villages, AOP Cotes du Roussillon Villages Caramany, AOP Cotes du Roussillon Villages Latour de France and AOP Cotes du Roussillon.

Roussillon is in the deep south-west of France, in a sea-facing amphitheatre surrounded by three groups of mountains that form the borders of a rectangle, with the sea the fourth side. Wine has been made there for about 2,800 years, starting with the Greeks who arrived seeking salt and iron near the town of Banyuls.

The tallest peak, at 2,800 metres, is the Massif du Conigou in the Pyrenees. It constitutes the western border of Roussillon. Agriculture is the region’s main economic activity, and local market gardens produce high-quality fruit and vegetables.

About a third of Roussillon’s 23,000 hectares of vines are devoted to AOP wines, with another 5,000 used to make IGP wines, and another 7,000 devoted to sweet fortified wines known as VDN. This refers to “vins doux naturels,” or naturally sweet wines. They are fortified using a process called “mutage” which involves addition of grape spirit during fermentation.

IGP, or Indication Geographique Protegee, describes French wines that fall between ordinary wine (vin de table) and AOC/AOP. It has been adopted by winemakers who wish to have autonomy and freedom outside the strict AOC/AOP laws

Roussillon has an ideal climate for wine-making with dry and hot summers and mild autumns and winters. The region gets a lot of sunshine – about 316 days a year is one of the highest in Europe. Last year the nine AOP, three IGP and five VDN in the region produced about 605,000 hectolitres of wine, or about 75.5 million bottles. The region’s natural amphitheatre provides an ideal location for grape growing, and a range of winds that blow at different times of the year help to eradicate disease.

Yet the average yield per hectare in Roussillon is one of lowest in France because the countryside is arid and the soils dry, mostly schiste and gneiss. It’s really only suited for grapes and olives. About 30 co-operatives produce three quarters of all the wine, among them 2,200 family-owned estates. The average size of a family vineyard is 10 hectares.

The main white grapes are White and Grey Grenache, Maccabeo, Muscat a petits-grains, Muscat d’Alexandrie, Marsanne, Roussanne and Vermentino (known locally as Rolle). The main red grapes are the same as in the Rhone: Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsault. Syrah tends to suffer during very hot summers.

Almost all wines are blends. Carignan and Grenache are the most widely planted varieties, and Grenache accounts for about 8,500 hectares of the 23,000 hectares in the region. Many of the red varieties were imported from the Rhone about 45-50 years ago.

Domaine Cazes is one of the biggest organic estates in the region, and some of the estate is bio-dynamic. The number of organic winemakers in Roussillon is rising each year, though exact figures are not available. A tasting of Domaine Cazes reds from 2004, 1996, 1990, 1989 and 1988 showed the longevity of these wines.

The blend tends to be 40 to 50 per cent Syrah with the balance Grenache and Mourvèdre. Wines start fresh and young with lively acidity combined with flavours of fruit compote and soft tannins. The 1989 was especially good, with the Syrah contributing pepper and spices, and lots of cherry aromas coming from a touch of Mourvèdre.

In neighbouring Languedoc, Gerard Bertrand is a former French rugby player who used his reputation and contacts to develop a major wine business, Gerard Bertrand Wines. The company currently controls eight estates, including the beautiful Castle l’Hospitalet in La Clape Massif, a limestone range overlooking the Mediterranean Sea amongst hundreds of kilometres of pine forests and garrique shrubs.

Wine Enthusiast magazine named Gerard Bertrand Wines its European winery of the year in both 2012 and 2014. The company has grown from three staff in 1987, including Bertrand himself, to more than 300 today, with exports to 160 countries. “We’re looking at exports to Pakistan and Afghanistan next,” Bertrand said with a smile, “but I’m having difficulties convincing the sales directors to go to those countries.”

L’Hospitalet adopted bio-dynamic wine-making practices in 2013, based on a philosophy that this is the best practice for the planet and people. Bertrand said he has noticed changes since then. “The people who work in the vineyards are happier.” Most of his other vineyards are embracing bio-dynamics.

Aromas and flavours offer two key dimensions of a wine, and reveal the terroir or “sense of some-where-ness” that bio-dynamics guru Monty Waldin described in his book on the subject. A third dimension was a wine’s power to evoke emotions. “Only the greatest wines travel directly to the heart,” Bertrand said.

He acknowledged that time he spent with Aubert de Villaine, owner of the great Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in Burgundy, who taught the “vital fourth dimension of winemaking – spirituality”.

Bertrand concluded that the essence of an exceptional wine was a “combination of time, space, energy, spirit and soul”. A great wine is connected to its terroir, grape variety, and the plot of land of its birth, but also the universe that surrounds it. “With this realisation, I dared to experiment with a new path that links bio-dynamics with quantum theory,” he wrote in his autobiography Wine, Moon and Stars. It was named best wine book in Europe last year.

Bertrand is a fan of old fortified wines. He prefers to drink them alone at home by the pool, under the stars after 10pm, looking at the sky. “You need to be alone to be connected,” he said with a smile, “it’s a chance to find the spirit of the wine.”

Words: 1,045

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