Mainly red

While virtually every winery in this corner of Southern France will have a white wine and a rosé, it is the reds which shine here. Choose the rosé if you are going to the beach, the whites perhaps for fish dishes, but then savour the reds, made with the traditional Carignan and Grenache Noir, now added to by Syrah, imported from the Rhône.

Featured wineries include two cooperatives, the Les Vignerons de Lesquerde and Terroirs du Vertige, an ex-cooperative now called Préceptorie de Centernach and a South African venture, Domaine Grier. But let’s be honest, every winery which we visited could feature in this section.

In general, the grape varieties in Roussillon and Southern Languedoc are fairly simple to describe. 


Grape varieties

White Macabeu, Grenache Blanc, Muscat
Also: Malvoisie du Roussillon, Marsanne, Roussanne, Vermentino, Viognier
Red Carignan, Grenache, Syrah
Also: Mourvèdre, Lladoner pelut, Cinsault
Rosé As red, but also Grenache gris
Vin doux naturels White: Muscat, others
Red: Grenache
Sparkling wines (Limoux) Mauzac, now may be complemented with Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc

In Roussillon, if we set aside vin doux naturels which have their own page, the production is predominantly red (at various quality levels) and rosé, the latter being the drink of the hot summer months.  At Appellation Contrôlée level, if you take the two big appellations together (Côtes du Roussillon and CdR Villages), the total production of Roussillon is 207 000 hectolitres, of which about half is red and half is rosé.  White accounts for just 2.5%.  In Southern Languedoc, Limoux specialises in sparkling wine and Corbières in red blends. 

IMG_8988Village and larger cooperatives continue to dominate the wine scene in this area of southern France.  After the agricultural unrest of 1907, villages organised themselves to have some power in the market.  Today, many of the cooperatives have amalgamated to be more effective but the underlying point remains: the 30 cooperatives produce 75% of the entire output, now joined by 500 independent producers and around 60 négociants.  But one should not draw the conclusion that the cooperatives are only interested in cheap, bulk wine. Rather, because of their size, they can pick and choose the best grapes for their top wines, while continuing to produce high volumes of inexpensive wine.  In this review of ‘mainly red’ it seems appropriate therefore to start with two excellent cooperatives, move to a third winery that is based in a former cooperative (and has done amazing things with the plant) and add a further private company. 

Terroirs du Vertige – rebranded cooperative

While we spent most of the week in Roussillon, we had one day in the Corbières and took pot luck for wineries.  We had an excellent visit in the morning and had two misses in the afternoon. On the longish drive back south we were therefore delighted to find Terroirs du Vertige open in the late afternoon in Talairan.  The fancy name of the enterprise was created when the cooperatives of Talairan and Cucugnan merged.  They now process the grapes from 170 producers who work a total of 45 hecatares, so we are IMG_8982talking about a lot of tiny plots. Their white, Fraicheur de Padern Corbières Blanc AC, 2010 is a blend of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Vermentino, Roussanne and Macabeo, that is virtually every non-aromatic white grape grown in the region.  It is fragrant, very refreshing and good, and intended to be drunk young.  Rosée d’Octobre AOC 2010 is based on Cinsault (45%), the rest being Grenache Noir and Syrah, for a fragrant, fruity/strawberry nose, decent fruit on the palate and good refreshing finish. The six reds we tasted show the relentless march of Syrah, taking over the traditional varieties of Grenache and Carignan.   The wines are between 50 and 90% Syrah, predominantly unoaked and all showing a good combination of attractive red and black fruit and a properly IMG_8874tannic finish.  With regard to tannins and fruit balance, we may be in the far South of France but we are not in the New World. I particularly enjoyed Ch. de Villerouge Termenès 2008 (50% Syrah, then half and half Grenache and Carignan), with 12 months in oak. Some of the lighter wines showed intelligent use of carbonic maceration, showing bright, polished fruit, for example, Dames de l’Ere 2009.   The whole range of reds is worthwhile, showing good distinctions between the various blends of the same three grape varieties and approaches to wine making. They are all great value.  Thus the cooperatives are achieving very good price to quality ratio for bottled wines, while serving their local customers with their unbottled wine – every cooperative we visited had a steady stream of known customers who arrived with their containers to be filled up for around €1.50 a litre. It’s a way of life very different from the supermarket-dominated cheap wine market of the UK. 

Les Vignerons de Lesquerde – a cooperative with a special terroir

Back in Roussillon, we also visited a village cooperative which has a very distinctive offering and indeed an AOC, Côtes du Roussillon Villages Lesquerde.  The vineyards of this village are on a granite outcrop and this gives the wines their distinctive profile.  35 growers and tending 200 hectares of very low yielding wines (17-25hl/ha, with 45 hl/ha being aIMG_8985 more typical level of production for quality wine).  Only one wine in the range sees any oak ageing so all depends on the quality of the fruit and that granitic sand in which the vines grow.  The range starts with Terrae 2008, being a 40/20/40 blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan, with only the last named being treated to carbonic maceration.   It has excellent deep ruby colour, blackberry fruit on the nose and good depth of flavour on the palate. All this for €5 a bottle? 

A level up is Cuvée Georges Pous 2004 (€7.50), with 50% old vine Carignan, 40% Syrah and 10% Grenache.  It has been in bottles since 2005 and the result is an evolved nose, a superb intense palate of red berries, spicy notes (pepper) and violets, and an elegant finish. Outstanding.  Cuvée Hesiod 2008 was a one off offering, leading with 60% Grenach – attractive minerality and fine red berried and black cherry fruit.  In case you have missed the point, the next wine is actually called ‘granitic sand’ or ‘decomposed granite’: Les Arènes de Granit 2009 (see label above), made of 70% Syrah which is subject to carbonic maceration.  It has intense fruit on the nose, a very dense palate of blackcurrant and black cherry and was still pretty tannic.  Finally, there is the one oaked wine, Cuvée Foun del Bessou 2002, named after a local water source. At €11 it is still great value despite being nearly twice the price of most of the other wines – but they have been looking after it for you for nearly a decade!  50% Syrah, 20% Grenache, 30% Carignan, lovely oak ageing notes of balsam and smoke, the fruit is not as obvious now – though we later noticed that this bottle had been opened for more than two weeks so it was incredible that it was still drinkable!  This cooperative has a faithful following both locally and in north European markets – it’s followers know they have found a small treasure! 

La Préceptorie de Centernach – new life for a cooperative

The cooperative movement waxed and waned during the twentieth century.  As they IMG_8891rationalised in the last two decades, mergering and moving on to fewer sites, they inevitably left behind quite a few large scale wineries which needed a new use.  The cooperative in Saint Arnac has found such a use – to provide the base for a private winery.  But the plant is much too big to use fully and is full of large, cement fermentation vessels which the new owners don’t need.  However, with a bit of lateral thinking they make excellent, well insulated, storage spaces, so why not put them to good use?  In the picture they are being used to store barriques full of maturing wine.  We later saw an even better use. 

Two families with deep viticultural roots now run the concern, with between them 35 hectares of vineyard, some in the Maury AOC for vin doux naturels but others suitable for red and white table wines.  (The history of the families is given on their website.) The vineyards are in the hills on suitably poor soils, with the tramontane wind adding to the already hot and dry climate.  The entry level wine carries the Coume Marie name (available from the Wine Society), while the product of the higher vineyards is sold under the Terres Nouvelles label.  For the whites and the rosé they stir the must on the lees to add complexity. The whites are distinctive with Terres Nouvelle Blanc 2008, made from Grenache Blanc and Macabeu, being herbal and peachy, with a sort of petrol accompaniment and lingering yeasty flavours.  For the Coume Marie Rosé 2010 the Syrah and Grenache undergoes a short maceration.  A pleasant cherry fruit nose leads to a fresh palate with a hint of bitterness and a mildly tannic finish. It’s seen as a solution for a sommelier recommending a bottle for those eating fish and meat dishes. 

Terres Nouvelles Rouge 2008 is the star dry wine here: Grenache and Carignan is fermented in small containers which allow for punching down of the must to increase the extraction of colour and flavour.  This results in intense aromas of ripe fruit and minerality, superb depth of flavour on the palate of red and black fruit, herbs, a tiny bit of leather and smoke: excellent. 

IMG_8918IMG_8920I will leave the vin doux naturels to the ‘sweet’ page but the Préceptorie have yet another style here too: old fashioned oxidative wines, which they keep in a special place – in those empty fermentation vessels of course.  That requires a special disappearing act to find them. They only continue to have these bottles as they are difficult to get at!  The line of wines is called ‘Les Improbables’: Des Pierres naquirent des fleurs, Rancio sec, aged for 10 years.  The wine looks and smells of caramel, dry oxidative aromas on the nose and then dry and rich on the palate but with a counterbalancing sweetness of ripeness.  Old and particular. 

Many thanks to the Préceptorie for this visit and for your distinctive and excellent wines; and to Maison Guihlot, congenial wine merchant in Perpignan, for arranging this visit.


Domaine Grier – South Africans in Roussillon 2

Rather like the Tuscan Maremma, Roussillon has proved a very attractive proposition to wine makers from other parts of France and the world.  Land is relatively cheap and the conditions very favourable for wine production.  If you add the beauty of the landscape and the Mediterranean lifestyle, it is a winning combination.  Jeff Grier, South African wine maker, is making the most of it.  With his Villiera estate in Stellenbosch and Domaine Grier in the Agly Valley he can have two wine-making seasons a year and work with wide range of grape varieties and wine styles. He sounds genuinely content with his lot … and why not?

We had the very good fortune to be present for the launch of Grier’s new sparkling wine – the first wine launch I have been at on a privately hired train! – but more about that on the sparkling wines page.  Grier have an exemplary still wine range, made at their winery at St Paul de Fenouillet, with the vineyards about five kilometres away.  The white used to be a blend but now is 100% Macabeo, Blanc 2010,  which is rounded and complex, brought about by working with the yeasts, both in terms of yeast selection and the more traditional stirring for richness.  Nose of garrigue and herbs, mildly floral, then the rounded palate with good acidity.  Jeff explains that the critical issue is picking at exactly the mature point and not letting it go over.  The Rosé 2010 is made from 70% Grenache and 30% Carignan and shows delicious strawberry fruit and a slightly savoury palate.

We tasted three reds in ascending order of seriousness.  First up is the beautiful purple-ruby colour and fine fruit of Grenache Noir 2009, with its almondy tones.  In this land of blends, it is a bold move to make your ‘basic’ red a mono-varietal.  By contrast, Odyssea 2009 (€8) is 50% Syrah, 30% Carignan and 20% Grenache, of which only a part of the Syrah is oak-aged.  Attractive fruit-led nose, dense fruit on the palate, mid-weight, nice refreshing edge, very good. The top wine is Galamus 2009 (€10), named after the remarkable gorge nearby.   The grape mix here is basically one third each of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan, grown on black slate with all the vines being pre-1975, with Syrah and Carignan being oaked aged.  There is a big jump up in complexity here, with the red and black fruit being closely knit with subtle oaky notes, a satiny texture and a full, fruit led mid-palate plus herbs. The finish is well handled with tannins present but perfectly covered by fruit and the warmth of alcohol.  Rather than just commending the value,let’s say that these wines are very well made and full of interest.  I was not surprised to see that the Galamus has just received a gold medal at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles 2011. 

IMG_8556IMG_8553We finished our tasting at Grier with the a superb late harvest Chenin Blanc from the South African Villiera estate. The moral is that even Roussillon can’t produce every style of wine. though it does pretty well on that front.  ‘Mainly reds’ is both fair and unfair.  The top quality table wines are indeed red, but the wine scene is much more varied and interesting than that.  This small selection of wineries shows that there is tremendous value and quality to be found in this mostly southerly part of France. 

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