Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Ageing gracefully in Roussillon

Quality wine develops over time. If a wine has sufficient fruit, acidity, structure and tannins, it can develop over the years in the bottle, in exceptional cases over decades.  This is well known in relation to the classic wine regions. But what about up and coming ones – in this case, Roussillon?  Most wines in this region are made to be drunk in the first few years, whether they are inexpensive simple bottlings or better lines from today’s new, quality-oriented, producers.  Most estates here do not keep older bottles for sale, let alone sell cases of older vintages.  It is fresh fruit and immediate drinkability they have in mind. 

But there are of course exceptions.  Domaine Cazes in Rivesaltes has at least three lines that are intended for ageing:

  • the vin doux naturels, fortified sweet wines, of course (the current vintage of the very top VDN is an amazing 1978);
  • Alter, to which we will return shortly;
  • and the Bordeaux blend which made up the Le Credo line up to 2006. 

In fact, the shop still has some bottles back to the middle of last century.  So how does a typical South of France blend of 40% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 30% Mourvèdre, matured for one year in barriques, develop in the bottle? And, indeed, are the wines good enough to make it worth the wait? 

The six vintages of Cazes’ Alter which were tasted were served in twos.  Even the 2005 has some bottle age, but there was a marked difference between it and the 2003. 2005 has a modest fruit level – red plums and blackberry – and then some developing cloves and cedarwood notes but the tannins and acidity are still noticeable.  Without food, it is still quite a challenging glass of wine. This is surprising as most Roussillon reds are full of fruit and approachable.  No doubt the difference is due to the long maceration period the wine undergoes to give it the structure to develop in the longer term.   2003, from a very hot year, is much more approachable now, with a rather richer palate and much softer in the mouth. 

The next pair answer the main question.  There is a remarkable development in the 2001 and the 2000.  Within these wines the nose and the palate are beautifully integrated, positively perfumed.  There are some rather surprising vanilla notes on the 2001, but not the common new oak version, and a perception of sweetness which is probably the fruit showing through.  After an initial medicinal aroma has faded, most people thought the 2001 was the wine of the evening.  The 2000 showed very soft tannins and was highly drinkable. 

The final pair, 1998 and 1996, moved into another register – at first a marked ‘Bird’s custard powder’ smell and then the more typical aromas of fully mature wines: leather, truffle, mushroom.  There were still some years ahead of the 15-year-old wine, although it is already all tertiary notes.  So from our intermediate and final pairs, it is quite clear that these Roussillon reds of this quality develop markedly and attractively in the bottle. It is worth cellaring them. 

The final bottle of the evening was Domaine des Schistes, Les Terrasses, AC Côtes de Roussillon Villages Tautavel, Sire, 2002.  This wine was bought in the UK, whereas the Cazes is not currently imported – apart from privately that is. It is also a blend: 40% Syrah, 40% Grenache noir, 20% Carignan and about the same price of €13. The result is a rather richer style with again excellent development over the years.  Ageing gracefully is clearly part of the wine scene in Roussillon. 

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