Posted on | October 22, 2014
Written by | Kristen Wolfe Bieler
Roussillon has quietly emerged as one of France’s most exciting wine regions. Finally, the word is spreading.
Which French wine region features the sunniest, driest climate? (No, it’s not Provence.) Which is home to the lowest-yielding vines, the largest concentration of AOC regions and the most organic and biodynamic viticulture? (Nope, not Burgundy or Northern Rhône or Loire). If you guessed the answer to be Roussillon, you are one of the very few people to do so.
“Roussillon has long been disrespected and overlooked because for many decades the wine was not high quality,” says Pierre-Olivier Camou, Sales Manager, Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits. “Today, outstanding wine is made here, and most people don’t realize it. Even many in the wine business think of low-quality bulk production when they hear ‘Roussillon’ and many others don’t know what to think at all.”
Why Grapes Thrive
On a check list of what features define a quality wine region, Roussillon is an embarrassment of riches. Hemmed in by the Mediterranean and three mountain ranges, including the Pyrenees, the Roussillon has 320 days of sunlight every year, and a mild climate with low rainfall and lots of mildew-repellant winds. It’s a rugged and wild place, dominated by heights that can be difficult to traverse, and a huge range of soil types, which means that there is not really one “Roussillon terroir,” says Eric Aracil, export manager for Roussillon, but a collection of micro-terroirs. “We have a very old story to tell in terms of viticulture—dating to the 7th century B.C.—and offer incredible diversity with all the grapes that succeed here.”
The Roussillon’s specialty is blends, and across the 17 appellations (14 AOC and 3 IGP) there are 23 grape varieties. Wedged between Southern Rhône and Spain, Roussillon is Grenache territory, yet the grape’s expression here hews an appealing middle-ground between the styles of its neighbors. “The Grenache-based wines from Roussillon are less woody than the Spanish examples and they are darker, and more licorice-flavored than the Rhone; they possess an enticing dark, savory mineral quality,” explains Camou.
Carignan is another regional star, a favorite of many American sommeliers: “I love its freshness and mineral, schist flavors,” says Michael Madrigale, head sommelier at NYC’s Bar Boulud, who consistently has a good half-dozen Roussillon wines on his list. “When cropped low and taken care of, Carignan is a beautifully floral and elegant grape.”
“There is no other region in the world that pulls together so many different cultures and influences,” says Brent Kroll, Wine Director of DC’s Neighborhood Restaurant Group. “In Roussillon’s wines you can taste the influence of Provence, Catalan Spain, Rhône, the Mediterranean and the mountains. The diversity of production is similarly impressive—terroir-driven reds, mineral-rich whites and amazingly complex sweet Vin Doux Naturels. No other place in the world can claim this.”
A Roussillon Profile
Like conjoined twins, Languedoc-Roussillon are one in the same in the minds of most, though they are in fact very different places, points out Aracil: “Both regions complete each other; however, we want people to see Roussillon on its own.” The much larger Languedoc is flat with some gentle sloping hills, while in Roussillon, 80% of the vineyards are planted on slopes, ideal for ripening, drainage and air flow.
Roussillon’s unforgiving soils and low rainfall drastically restrict yields making its vineyards the lowest-yielding in all of France—less than half of what most French vineyards put out. Close to 70% of the vines here are AOC-classified, and are farmed by families (around 2,500 of them).
Old Vines & New Money
A growing number of outsiders have been lured by Roussillon’s unique terroir and old vines—many Grenache and Carignan vineyards date over a century. Abe Schoener of California’s cultish Scholium Project launched his tiny Clos Thales project near Maury, with neglected 70-year old vines. Also near Maury is Dave Phinney, of Napa’s Orin Swift and The Prisoner labels. His D66 label is crafted from 60-plus year old Grenache vines, and is black, minerally, and ultra-rich—“a new expression of the terroir,” says Aracil.
Rhône-based Michel Chapoutier’s Bila-Haut Côtes du Roussillon wines hit the U.S. market in 2011 and reflect what he believes is some of the most interesting soil types anywhere. Roussillon is one of the “only places in France where in such a small place you have four geological types with schist, gneiss, clay and, in higher elevations, granite,” says Chapoutier, who started buying up land in Banyuls over a decade ago, and farms biodynamically.
“There is a lot of excitement generated by outsiders from all over the world who are making wine here,” says Aracil. He is also seeing a lot of younger Roussillon natives who have made wine elsewhere choosing to come home, and bring new technology and know-how with them. To encompass and encourage innovation, the wine board recently ramped up promotional efforts for two IGP categories, Côtes Catalanes and Côtes Vermeille. “This shows that Roussillon is always evolving,” says Aracil.
Flaunting the Value Card
Finding good wine from Roussillon is no longer the challenge, but getting Americans to pay attention to the region is, says Camou: “Americans like levels and classifications, like 1st or 2nd growth in Bordeaux; it gives them confidence. This doesn’t exist in the region.” His solution: Play the value card. “In terms of price point, they are most often competing with New World wines from Australia or Argentina,” he says. “Yet they deliver a lot more complexity. I promote them as New World wines from a very Old World region.” Kroll does the same thing in his restaurants: “I tell customers who like wines from the Rhône that they can get a similar profile and much more for their money if they consider Roussillon. Once they try these wines, they see that I am right.”
Visit winesofroussillon.com to explore more.