Roussillon: The Terroir Lover’s French Riviera

Photo courtesy Maison Cazes

There is an appellation in the far, far southwest of France, on the border between Spain and France, called Roussillon. Some people may know it for its famous fortified sweet wines Vins Doux Naturels, such as Banyuls or the white Muscat de Rivesaltes. But for me, it’s the home to exceptional dry red wines of very old vine Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvedre. This is not the true French Riviera to the east with its white sandy beaches and posh lifestyle, it’s the extreme part of Southern France, the terroir-lover’s South of France.

Bound by an ampitheater of mountains, the Alberes to the south, Canigou to the west and Corbieres to the north, and the sea to the east, the place seems isolated from the rest of France and in a way, it is. This is Catalan France where 35% of the population speaks Catalan, the food, culture and even the grape varieties, so widely produced in the south of France, are said to be Catalan. This region, in fact, only became part of France in the 1700s.

It’s a region defined by the Pyrenees orogeny over 250 million years ago when the African plate pushed the Iberian plate into where France is now, thrusting up ancient rock into one of Europe’s highest peaks and forming in its wake a series of transverse valleys the Agly, Têt and Tech. Over the course of time, several marine incursions into the basin and weathering of rock has resulted in a huge variety of soils.

In the north, in the foothills of the Corbieres, one will find Jurassic era limestone and marls in Maury and Cotes du Roussillon Villages Tautavel, in the southern coastal appellations of Collioure and Banyuls, Cambrian-era schist, and to the northwest, in Cotes du Roussillon Villages Lesquerde and Caramany, granitic and gneiss soils.

In this mountainous region, 80% of vines are planted on slopes, some, like in seaside Collioure, so steep they’re on terraces.

The complex folding of earth during the rise of the Pyrenees also caused the lateral strata in many places to rotate to the vertical (above photo), which allows the vines’ roots to pierce deep down to a source of water.

And they need it. It is an exceptionally warm, dry and sunny region cooled year-round by seven winds, the dominant ones being the Tramontanes, sliding down the western mountains and coursing through the valleys, and the Marinade from the sea. The vines are old, up to 150-160 years, growing on poor soils. The little water they receive, about 20-24 ” a year is lost through runoff, and the vines aspirate moisture through windy conditions every other day and over 316 days of sun/year.

To deal with these conditions, Domaine Gauby, an organic vigneron, wraps their canes to retain humidity without losing ripening capacity. Gerard Gauby also started to co-plant drought-tolerant acacia trees in the vineyards to aid in shading and soil fertility. Generally, vines, especially Grenache with its upright growing habit, are trellised in low gobelet to create shade and bear up against the wind.

The result of all these extreme conditions in Roussillon, is extremely low actual yields of under 30 hl/ha (vs. 40-45 for highest quality AOC reds in rest of France), at all levels of appellations. In these stressed conditions, the fruit picks up the slightest nuance of the terroir, whether it be the marine air, the minerality of the soils, even the herbal garrique of wild rosemary, lavender in the landscape.

These conditions also permit the region, per Eric Aracil of the Roussillon Wine Council, to be a leading organic/biodynamic grower in France with 55% of vineyards certified.

For more information on the true South of France, visit the Wines of Roussillon website. To explore this extreme corner of France, fly into Barcelona International, then taking a short 1-hour high-speed train to Perpignan, or by rental car, 1 + 1/2 hour drive.