Esteemed American wine writer Jon Bonné recently proclaimed Roussillon one of France’s “most radical and interesting places to produce wine.” He’s correct. There’s a lot to know – and love – about the region. From the pursuit of quality to the favorable climate and diversity of terroir; from the move towards sustainable winemaking to the raft of inimitable vin doux naturels. Roussillon offers variety and excitement for remarkable value, backed by a long, captivating history that’s still evolving with a fresh generation of vintners.
Roussillon has long been paired with its neighbor Languedoc, but Roussillon’s people, just like the region itself, have an identity of their own. Close to Spain, they’re French with a twist of Catalan, not unlike many of the grapes grown, whether Carignan blanc, Grenache blanc and gris, or Macabeu. Today, the vineyards of Roussillon fall within the border of the Pyrénées-Orientales department, a swath of rugged, sun-blessed land in southwestern France. In fact, it’s Roussillon’s blissful climate that lends itself to fine winemaking and to wines perfect for sipping through spring and summer.
In skilled hands, high-quality viticulture comes easily in Roussillon. Sun-drenched days allow grapes to ripen effortlessly, bestowing concentration to the wines, while cool nights preserve the wines’ mouthwatering freshness. This style, a balance of fruity while crisp and characterful while fresh, makes the wines attractive for all manner of warm-weather enjoyment. Whether a spring brunch at a sidewalk café or summer picnic in the park.
Furthermore, most grapes are planted on steep slopes which provide good soil drainage and the right amount of vine stress for reducing yields. Roussillon boasts the lowest AOP yields in France at 29 hl/ha, compared with 60 hl/ha in the rest of the country, much of that number attributed to the region’s wealth of old vines or vieilles vignes, some close to a century old.
But one can’t paint Roussillon in broad brush strokes. Shifting soils and micro-climates – terroir – contribute range to the winemaker’s palette. The region is shaped like an amphitheater on three sides, revealing itself to the cooling breath of the Mediterranean on the east, a result of violent geological upheaval. Soils vary, including traces of prehistoric seas found as limestone and marine sediment. The complex landscape dotted with marl, schist, granite, clay and sand brings further variations in structure, texture, and perception of minerality to wines.
Strong winds through arid conditions sweep disease and pests from vineyards. Because of this, disease pressure is low, freeing Roussillon’s vignerons to pursue sustainable, organic, and biodynamic viticulture far more easily than their counterparts elsewhere in France. And many of the 2,200 family-owned vineyards do, making dry whites, rosés, reds and fortified wines in an environmentally-conscious fashion. More than 60% are already managed this way.
While styles and grapes are broadly mixed, Roussillon takes pride in its legacy of Vins Doux Naturels or VDN. In the region of Banyuls, for example, the foothills of the Pyrenées burst from the ocean to vertiginous heights. Carved into the schistous soils are terraced vineyards, the laborious achievement of a bygone era. Heroic farmers work the vines traditionally to make the region’s famous sweet wine — Roussillon produces 80 percent of France’s fortified sweet wines. This nectar, going back to the 13th century, has been rediscovered by bartenders and sommeliers who appreciate its versatility in cocktails and with food, whether from AOP Maury, AOP Rivesaltes, AOP Banyuls or AOP Muscat de Rivesaltes. For example, the Villanova, a drink conceived at New York’s Experimental Cocktail Club, pairs a floral Muscat de Rivesaltes with flavors of ginger ale and grapefruit to create a refreshing spring cocktail.
Ultimately, value matters. On that point, Roussillon remains unparalleled, delivering incredible quality without the high price tag associated with better known French regions. And to that, America is paying attention. In 2017, the U.S. was the fourth largest import market for Roussillon’s dry AOP wines and third for the AOP fortified sweet wines. In terms of value, it is the 3rd and 1st market for Roussillon respectively for those types of wine, showing a growing appreciation of the market for the region’s most precious gems. Given Bonné’s declaration of fascination with Roussillon, those numbers should only continue to grow.