A Dry Wine Revolution in France's Roussillon

© David Lillie
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These 7 great wines have nothing to do with the Languedoc.

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”.

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:

2014 Domaine Laguerre ‘Eos’ Côtes du Roussillon Blanc ($13)
This white is a feat of freshness; although it’s hot, sunny, and Mediterranean where these Grenache Blanc and Macabeu vines grow grow, the wine seems to give off an alpine coolness. It also smells a little like hops – all white floral with a crystalline cut of acidity.
2014 Matassa ‘Cuvée Marguerite’ Vin de France Blanc ($27)
The more-than-centenarian vines used for this blend aren’t the region’s norm; they’re Viognier and Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, originally part of a monastery field planting. Foot-trodden and fermented in concrete, the wine is texturally rich with an ethereal herbs-and-flowers aroma that makes it feel wild and full of energy.
2014 Domaine de Majas Côtes Catalanes Rouge ($16)
Husband and wife team Alain and Agnès Carrère make this blend of Carignan and Grenache somehow feel both lip-smackingly juicy and light and lifted – its vibrant red fruit is tinged with schist-like minerality.
2014 Domaine des Enfants ‘Le Jouet’ Côtes Catalanes Rouge ($15)
Le Jouet (literally, “the toy”) is the Domaine des Enfants experimental cuvée, so the blend varies year to year, riffing on Grenache and Lladoner Pelut. In 2014, a portion underwent carbonic maceration, which might account for its playful, peppery, raspberry flavors and its vibrancy.
2012 Domaine Gauby Vieilles Vignes Côtes du Roussillon Villages ($40)
Gérard Gauby is considered the pioneer in the Roussillon that inspired a younger group of growers towards estate-bottled dry wine (Tom Lubbe apprenticed under him before starting Matassa). It’s easy to see why when you taste the wine; it has the firm structure of a serious, age-worthy red, exuding the richness of warm, southern fruit, reined in with mineral freshness and bay leaf-like herbal tones. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to decant it an hour or so before imbibing.
2013 Olivier Pithon ‘Mon P’tit Pithon’ Côtes Catalanes Rouge ($18)
Another transplant vintner from the Loire Valley, Olivier Pithon makes this cuvée of young vine Grenache in a vin de plaisir style. Easy-drinking and all about the bright, cheerful character of wild red fruit, it’s great with charcuterie.
2013 Clos du Rouge Gorge Vieilles Vignes Côtes Catalanes Rouge ($44)
Behold the power of old vine, whole cluster Carignan in the hands of a great winemaker. I typically hate describing a wine as “sexy,” but here I can’t really help it. It’s has a silken texture and savory-spicy fruit up front, with a cooling mineral tone to the tannins that seems to lead the flavors forward rather than slowing them down.
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