Momentum has been quietly building in France’s Roussillon, where a handful of winemakers – many of them transplants from other regions and even other countries – are claiming their stakes of what is poised to be the next it growing area. And by “next,” I mean old. And by “old,” I mean seriously old vines.
Modern wine books tend to lump the region together with its northern neighbor, Languedoc, to create a 10,000 square mile-large hybrid zone covering the entire swath of Mediterranean that stretches from Provence to Spain known as Languedoc-Roussillon. But what distinguishes the Roussillon from the rest (apart from its physical separation by the Corbières hills) is that it identifies as more Catalan than French. Geographically, it’s closer to Barcelona than Paris. The local fare is comprised of things like anchovies, tapenade, and fresh pressed olive oils. And like Priorat over the Spanish border, its soil makeup is all about proximity to the Pyrenees – rocky and tumultuous to the Languedoc’s coastal plains. I’m not the only one who thinks it strange that the two occupy the same mind space. I recently overheard wine importer Camille Rivière liken saying “Languedoc-Roussillon” to saying “Burgundy-Champagne”.
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So, what makes the region ripe for a revolution? For one winemaker, Carrie Sumner of Domaine des Enfants (a former New York sommelier), it’s a question of changing tastes that have made these great old vineyards relatively cheap to buy. “Historically, this area was known for vins doux naturels – the sweet, fortified wines of Banyuls and Maury,” she says. “After the sweet wines went out of fashion, it went into a depression. Plus, it’s still a very unknown, wild region, with overgrown forests and interesting soils – schist, granite gneiss, terra rossa. In some places, it’s like sheets of rock piled on top of each other. You have to be ready to work really hard if you’re going to farm here.”
Her husband, Swiss-born Marcel Bühler, had wanted to buy land in Priorat after finishing viticultural school when he stumbled upon parcels of pre-WWII vines in the Vallée de l’Agly (classified AOP Côtes du Roussillon or IGP Côtes Catalanes) for a fraction of the price. They farm organically, working the vines by hand and by horse. “There’s no other way to do it,” says Sumner, “these sites were planted a hundred years ago, and back then, they weren’t planted for tractors.”
Sumner and Bühler add to the list of creative winemaking-types who have discovered the value of the Roussillon’s dramatic landscape. Take Tom Lubbe of Domaine Matassa, who came to the region from New Zealand, by way of South Africa. Or Cyril Fhal – who’s originally form the Loire Valley – of Clos du Rouge Gorge. They’ve all found the ideal convergence of altitude, soil, exposure, and extraordinary plant material and are carving out a new identity for the Roussillon, helping the region learn little by little how to make high quality dry wine from its original grape varieties: Carignan, Lladoner Pelut, Macabeu, and Grenaches rouge and blanc.
To get a sense of what that identity is, we gathered a couple dozen Roussillon wines and corralled sommeliers Pascaline Lepeltier MS (Rouge Tomate), Joe Campanale (Anfora, L’Artusi, among others), and Arnaud Tronche (Racines) to taste the best of the region’s offerings beyond Banyuls. Here, 7 wines that showed particularly well: