Hyphenation, in this case, is unfair. Ordinary usage directs attention to the first-mentioned while virtually amputating the second. But fashion has also diminished regard for Roussillon. The region has always been best known for its vins doux naturels, a misleading term for wines that are sweet because they are fortified, a natural process only by virtue of human intervention.
As sweetly captivating as they can be, fortified wines have seen a precipitous drop in demand. Roussillon’s centers for these wines, like Rivesaltes, Banyuls and Maury, sadly serve today mostly as answers to trivia questions.
Nonetheless, like its sibling Languedoc, Roussillon is an exciting place, if only for seeing how efforts to adapt to a changing world will turn out. Dynamic winemakers have taken the challenge of this ancient Mediterranean land of rugged, stony hillsides, gnarled vines, fierce wind and relentless sunshine at the jagged foot of France. There, the Pyrenees form a physical and political border with Spain, but culturally and spiritually, Catalonia embraces both sides.
Languedoc is perennially termed a region in ferment, yet for all its experimentation and dedication to improving quality, the wines have never really found an identity with American consumers. Producers have veered from wines that express a singular Mediterranean character fragrant of earthy wild herbs, to wines that are powerful, fruit-driven and tailored to appeal to a modern global market. Neither style has caught on, though one, at least, possesses the virtue of distinctiveness.
Roussillon begins with a similar lack of identity, and as an added handicap, it is less familiar as a source of dry wines than Languedoc. Yet successful producers from outside the region, like Michel Chapoutier and Pierre Gaillard of the Rhône Valley, have set up operations there, while ambitious natives to Roussillon are making wines with painstaking attention to detail, hoping for the same sort of lightning-quick recognition that has buoyed Priorat, its Catalan sibling in Spain.
It’s not necessarily a far-fetched notion. Dry reds from Roussillon are often said to have more in common with Spanish reds than with French. Both regions have stands of old-vine grenache and carignan, although in Roussillon these grapes are increasingly supplemented by mandated levels of syrah and mourvèdre, while in Priorat international grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot have made inroads.
To get a sense of what Roussillon offers today, the wine panel recently tasted 20 dry reds from the region. For the tasting Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Hristo Zisovski, the beverage director of Ai Fiori, which has an extensive list of wines from Languedoc and Roussillon, and Byron Bates, a sommelier who plans to open a natural wine bar in the East Village this fall.
We had mixed feelings about the tasting. Not surprisingly for such a sunny region, many of the wines were powerfully fruity, dense and tannic, sometimes harshly so. Yet very few were jammy or had baked flavors, indicating that the grapes were picked ripe but not overripe. And very few left the impression of sweetness, meaning that the wines were well balanced, even with alcohol levels largely in the range of 14 to 15 percent.
Even so, I found few wines with complexity, a feeling the panel shared. Hristo suggested that some of the wines would become more complex with age. Byron felt that the wines had really progressed over the years, and if they weren’t complex, they at least showed nuances.
“I’m really excited about the region, though none of the wines were really exciting,” Byron said, neatly summing up a paradox.
The wines, purchased in various retail outlets, covered recent vintages from 2006 to 2009, with one 2004.
As with Languedoc, Roussillon does not yet have an appellation system that effectively communicates differences in terroir. Of our 20 bottles, we had three Côtes du Roussillons, the basic appellation for dry reds, and eight Côtes du Roussillon Villages, considered to be a step up because the grapes are generally farmed on slopes rather than the valley floor. We also had eight Vins de Pays (VdP) wines that don’t conform to the appellation rules for one reason or another. In Roussillon, the highest-level VdP wines are termed Côtes Catalanes. Our last wine was a Collioure, from around the picturesque port of that name.
As it turned out, the Collioure, a 2006 Cuvée Serral from Domaine Madeloc, Mr. Gaillard’s Roussillon project, was our hands-down favorite, with its juicy, spicy fruit augmented by flavors of herbs and licorice. It was one of the few in the tasting with any degree of complexity, and it was a reasonable $26.
In fact, many of the wines were rather expensive. While eight of our 20 bottles were $20 or under, seven were $45 or more, culminating in the $85 2004 Muntada from Domaine Gauby, our No. 5 bottle, surprisingly fresh with flavors of sour cherry and herbs. Gauby also produced our No. 4 wine, the 2008 Vieilles Vignes for $45, which we liked slightly more than the Muntada.
Price may be a problem for the region. Producers say the hard work necessary to improve quality is costly, but how many are willing to pay $85 for a Roussillon? Our best value was a $12 bottle, the 2009 Les Vignes de Bila-Haut from Chapoutier, an excellent deal for an inviting wine.
Allowing for our small sample, we did see a correlation between price and quality, with six of our Top 10 bottles costing $45 or more. We also preferred Côtes de Roussillon Villages wines over the basic Côtes de Roussillon, none of which made our Top 10.
I came away feeling hopeful about the region, especially if you like big, robust, lusty reds. I’m also intrigued by the good things I’ve heard about Roussillon’s dry white wines, though I confess I have not had too many of them. And I would be remiss if I did not mention those vins doux naturels. Why not revisit their honey-scented pleasures? I can think of no good reason.
Domaine Madeloc Collioure, $26, ***
Cuvée Serral 2006
Juicy, spicy fruit flavors tempered by aromas of tobacco and licorice. (Langdon-Shiverick, Los Angeles)
Clos del Rey Côtes du Roussillon, $60, ** ½
Lush, fruity, herbal, mineral flavors; you can smell the sunshine. (Massanois Imports, Washington)
M. Chapoutier Côtes du Roussillon, $12, ** ½
Villages Les Vignes de Bila-Haut 2009
Ripe and inviting, with sweet fruit, earth and menthol flavors. (HB Wine Merchants, New York)
Domaine Gauby Côtes du Roussillon, $45, ** ½
Villages Vieilles Vignes 2008
Pleasant drinking with rich, ripe fruit and earth flavors and a touch of funk. (Peter Weygandt Selections/Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, Pa.)
Domaine Gauby Côtes du Roussillon, $85, ** ½
Villages Muntada 2004
Fresh and bracing with flavors of sour cherry and herbs. (Peter Weygandt Selections/Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, Pa.)
Domaine Cazes Côtes Catalanes VdP, $16, **
Le Chalet 2008
Flavors of bright, high-toned fruit and smoke. (Monsieur Touton, New York)
Domaine de L’Edre Côtes du Roussillon, $45, **
Villages L’Edre 2006
Bright, fruity and dense, with plenty of power and a little heat. (Hand-Picked Selections, Warranton, Va.)
Domaine des Soulanes Côtes, $17, **
Catalanes VdP Cuvée Jean Pull 2009
Dense flavors of spicy fruit. (Peter Weygandt Selections/Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, Pa.)
Clos Thalès Côtes Catalanes VdP, $45, **
Clos du Pêcher 2007
Ultra-fruity and powerful, with lots of oak and tannins; tastes ambitious. (Angels Share Wine Imports, New York)
Clos del Rey Côtes du Roussillon, $45, **
Villages Mas del Rey 2006
Oaky and tannic, with rich, ripe, round and powerful fruit flavors. (Massanois Imports, Washington)