Where’s the wildest place in France? Where is the wind so fierce it seems likely to rip the very hair from your head? Where is the sun relentless and tameless and rough, not soothing your skin but blistering it with its heat? Where do the rocks jut out from an impoverished soil, where do the mountains soar to the south and to the north and to the west, and the sea, azure blue, glitters teasingly in the distance to the east? Where in France do you think – I’m not sure I’m in France at all?
And you only just are. You’re in the Roussillon, as far south towards Spain as you can go. This magic place has been French for less time than it has been Catalan. The Pyrenees are its Southern and Western frontier, and you feel the Frenchness draining away from the landscape long before you hit the border posts on the high mountain passes.
This is one of the windiest corners of France, with 8 different, competing winds battering it. This is the sunniest region of France, with 325 days of sunshine a year bleaching it. This is usually the driest part of France and vines have to work hard. The wines Roussillon produces are brilliant reflections of all that.
While they are found, don’t just expect subtlety, delicacy and elegance. But if in this damp, northern nation of ours, you crave an unbridled experience of how a wine can project the raw vigour of a landscape; if you gaze out at a drizzly grey day and long to be lashed by the sun’s heat and rocked by the power of the wind; if you dream of a wine source blasted by nature, gaunt and proud and unmanicured – Roussillon is your Nirvana.
Yet Roussillon manages to turn the savagery of its conditions to remarkably good effect. Indeed, the challenges that nature throws at winegrowers in particular, are exactly what the old, traditional grape varieties of Roussillon thrive on. And it is these indigenous varieties – red and white – which produce all of Roussillon’s most tasty wines.
The Roussillon isn’t some vast expanse of mechanized farmland casually churning out vats full of Cabernet and Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon. This is hardcore vineyard land where the tough, resilient grapes of the warm South relish the battle to survive – Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Macabeu, Grenache Blanc, Muscat. These are the grapes that have been here for hundreds of years, and nothing that nature throws at them will stop them from bouncing back for more.
For much of the modern ‘New Wave’ era of wine which reaches back into the last Century, planting the so-called ‘International’ varieties like Cabernet and Chardonnay seemed like the path to creating a new identity which would bring renown and fortune. Very few Southern French producers achieved this goal, because virtually every country in the world where the sun shone was following the same course.
Roussillon didn’t plant a great deal of these varieties, partly because the land is much more rugged and difficult to mechanize, and partly because production of every sort of Roussillon wine was dominated by an all-embracing and effective cooperative system. There were very few individual estates. Co-operatives have to look after the interests of all their members, great and small, and they are usually conservative by nature. New-fangled vine varieties? Stick with what we’ve got. As the rest of southern France seemed to be enthusiastically ripping up its history and trying to become ‘New World on the Med’, Roussillon appeared to be turning its back on what was widely considered progress and good business sense.
At the time, maybe. But now, in the 2020s, that rustic conservatism has been triumphantly vindicated, because those ancient, unloved vines, planted on slopes of every possible sort of rock and soil, are now being sought out, resuscitated, and cherished. At a time when provenance and integrity in wine are being increasingly demanded, and tradition in terms of vineyard sites and ancient vines is eagerly embraced, Roussillon is ideally positioned to play a leading role in the wines of southern France. Or ‘Catalogne Nord’ if you prefer.
And most of its grape varieties tell of this historical time before Roussillon became French. Grenache is the main black grape and is actually Garnacha, from Aragon in northern Spain. But it was so successful in Roussillon that it was originally called Roussillon elsewhere in France. Carignan is a crucial player in the black grape mix, yet its real name is Mazuelo or Cariñena – again from Spain. Mourvèdre also plays an important role – and this is actually Monastrell – from southern Spain. Only Syrah comes from further north.
It’s the same with the white varieties. Macabeu is an old variety from southern Catalonia which blends happily with white Grenache and white Carignan. Muscat is more likely to be Greek or Italian than Spanish, but you could indeed say that it is the most Mediterranean of varieties.
And between them, these varieties produce a wide array of reds which can be stern and muscular but offer an exhilarating taste of this timeless land. The whites are a fascinating array scampering from light and bright to deep and thought-provoking. And there are fortified wines too – sometimes sherry-like and dry, sometimes fruity and aperitif-sweet, and sometimes as sombre and exotic as any in the world. It shouldn’t surprise us really. This is where fortified wines were invented – over 700 years ago.
Keep an eye on our Instagram feed for an upcoming InstaLive with Oz Clarke and Tom Surgey at 7pm on Tuesday 10th October where they’ll be chatting about wines from Roussillon and tasting through some delicious examples.