The extraordinary diversity of France never ceases to amaze me. Each region, even the most established, offers a note of originality, but the farther you go off the beaten path, the greater the surprises.
Roussillon, in the deep south, nestling at the foot of the Pyrenees, is quite distinct from the rest of France, for it is part of Catalonia and has more in common with Barcelona, with the Pyrenees unifying Spanish and French Catalonia. This is the region that developed the fabulous vins doux naturels, the fortified wines made from Grenache and aged for years in old barrels. Think port, fine ruby and old tawny, but with a French touch. However, these days table wines, which they call vins secs, are more important. The red wines from appellations such as Côtes du Roussillon Villages, Collioure and Maury are based on Grenache Noir, with Carignan, Syrah and Mourvèdre, and offer rich spicy flavors.
And the real surprise of my last visit to Roussillon was the stunning quality of the white wines, from Grenache Blanc and even better Grenache Gris, as well as Roussanne, Marsanne Vermentino and other local varieties. And Roussillon is well worth a visit, not only for the quality of its wines, but also for the breathtaking scenery, with wild hillsides inland and steep terraced vineyards close to the coast.
What follows are five of my favorite wine growers, but I could easily have chosen yet another five.
The Cazes family has been making wine in Rivesaltes for several generations. While now part of the large group Advini, Cazes is still independently run. They have extensive vineyards in Collioure, an estate called les Clos de Paulilles, as well in Rivesaltes and a smaller plot in Maury.
In the 1980s, they were pioneers of table wine in Roussillon, planting Cabernet Sauvignon as well as the more conventional grape varieties of the south. Their vineyards are organic and they concentrate on southern grape varieties, producing a range of table wines and a delicious selection of vin doux. The star of these is undoubtedly their Cuvée Aimé Cazes (Aimé Cazes did much to develop the family estate and he died in 2000, a few days short of his 100th birthday). The wine is a blend of 80 percent Grenache Blanc and 20 percent Grenache Noir, which has been aged in old foudres for 22 years. Grenache Blanc turns amber in color after 22 years in wood, and the evaporation is such that 26 gallons reduce to about 8 gallons. This is fabulous, with an elegantly dry walnut nose, and long-lingering nutty flavors on the palate. As Bernard Cazes, Aimé’s son, observed: “It’s the wine to drink by the fireside, with your favorite music and a purring cat.”
I first visited this estate in the mid-1980s when Fernand Vaquer was the winemaker. He is now 85 and these days it is his daughter-in-law, Frédérique, who runs the estate. She comes from Burgundy, where she met her husband, Bernard, at wine school, and then went on to make her first wines in Roussillon in 1991. Very sadly, Bernard died soon afterward, but the reputation of Domaine Vaquer is brilliantly maintained by Frédérique.
She makes an elegant range of wines, with a delicate feminine touch. Esquisse Blanc is a blend of Roussanne and Macabeo with some Grenache Blanc, with some lovely texture and white blossom on the palate, and a defining freshness. The classic Côtes du Roussillon is a blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah. Best of all is Expression, a pure Carignan, and a vin de pays, Côtes Catalanes. Frédérique is lucky enough to have eight and a half acres of Carignan, planted in 1936. The palate is beautifully nuanced with red fruit, elegant tannins and wonderful freshness on the finish, making an excellent example of this often decried grape variety.
This is another estate that I first visited in the 1980s, when it was owned by Charles Dupuy. At the time, he was almost the only independent wine grower of the village of Maury. Now, there is a village cooperative and 30 other wine estates.
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These days, Mas Amiel is the property of Oliver Ducelle, who has invested hugely in his estate; you will see one of the best-equipped cellars of the entire region, run by a talented winemaker, Nicolas Raffy. They still have the enormous old foudres for aging the fortified vin doux, but there are also amphora, concrete eggs and barrels of different shapes and sizes. Maury Sec is a new appellation; the village was dominated by vin doux, but Mas Amiel’s Vers le Nord is a lovely example of the new appellation. The blend is mainly Grenache Noir with a splash of Syrah and the wine is redolent of ripe red fruit with elegance and spice on the finish.
Even more memorable is their 40-year-old Maury, a pure Grenache that spent one year outside in large glass jars, subject to all the climatic vagaries of the changing seasons, and then another 39 years in large oak casks. It has the most extraordinary length with long nutty fruit.
Domaine la Rectorie
The Parcé family have long been wine growers in Collioure and Banyuls. There are two strands to the family, with Domaine du Mas Blanc and Domaine de la Rectorie. They both make wonderful vins doux, but for me Domaine de la Rectorie has the edge with its white wine, Cuvée Argile. But first, you have to admire the vineyards — they are on steep hillsides lined with little walls, or murets, making small terraces, with fabulous views over the Mediterranean. There are apparently more than 3,700 miles of murets in the area. Cuvée Argile comes from a plot where the soil is mainly clay (argile in French), planted with Grenache Gris and just a little Grenache Blanc.
For the Parcé family, the character and quality of white Collioure depends upon Grenache Gris; they call it the pillar of the appellation. Some of the vines are centenarian; others are a mere 50 to 80 years old. Both grape varieties are fermented together in old oak barrels; the oak is very discreet but gives the wine some structure with some firm minerality and saline notes from the proximity of the vineyard to the sea. The white appellation of Collioure is relatively recent and Cuvée Argile show just why it should be an appellation.
Roc des Anges
This is one of the newer estates of Roussillon, created by Marjorie and Stéphane Gallet, who met while studying oenology at Montpellier. Stéphane then went to work for Mas Amiel, so it was logical to look for vineyards close by. Marjorie comes from the northern Rhone, but land in Côte Rôtie would have been much more expensive.
Besides, everything is possible here in Roussillon, without the constraints of a more established appellation. Altogether, they have about 100 different plots in just 86 acres and since 2011 a smart streamed-lined cellar with an underground barrel hall. They make a range of different table wines, classic Côtes du Roussillon Villages, a pure Carignan Côtes Catalanes and a delicious white wine, Llum, from old vines of Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc and Macabeo. And then there is Maury, both dry and sweet.
The hallmark of their wines is indisputably elegance, and I find difficult to chose a favorite, but if pressed I will opt for Carignan 1903, so called for that was the year the vines were planted. It is a lovely combination of richness and power, but not at all heavy, with a fresh finish and a firm streak of minerality; in short, it illustrates the classic flavors of Roussillon at their finest.
Main photo: Roussillon is well worth a visit, not only for the quality of its wines, but also for the breathtaking scenery. Credit: Courtesy of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon