Some wines have a defining quality. The sharp acidity and mineral quality of Chablis or the big bones of Molletieri’s Taurasi have been commented on in recent posts. The defining character of Roussillon’s wines is sunshine and lots of it. Tucked up against the Spanish border, this Catalan region is literally sun-drenched, with the most hours of sunshine in France. And it shows in the bottle and in the glass.
Here’s a typical example of the dense, red fruit, with the purple rim of a young wine. It’s a product of the hundreds of hours of sunshine and of winemaking which mainly tries to preserve the fruit flavours in the finished wine.
Our guide to Roussillon was Jean Pla, négociant, vine and wine consultant, from the village of Maury. If you want to join the current gold rush into the south (cf Tuscany’s Maremma), he is your man (www.restocave.com). At the invitation of Paul Gumn, one of our members who has a house in the area, Jean and his wife, Genevieve, flew from Beziers to lead the tasting for Andover Wine Friends. On a blustery November night, Jean’s genial nature and good humour, great pictures of Roussillon and excellent wines certainly lifted the spirits. And as the reds really cry out for food, Paul had also bought regional cheeses and wild boar sausage to go with the wines.
Jean Pla’s selection of wines showed three great strengths of the Roussillon wine scene: powerful modern reds, innovation, the tradition of world-class sweet red wines.
With all that sun and the heritage of Grenache, Carignan and Syrah, it is hardly surprising that Roussillon produces great, big, fruit-led reds. First, kill your wild boar, roast over a spit for half a day, gather the tribe and crack open some bottles which will stand up to any meaty challenge! 15% is commonplace on the label but only because of legal reasons for not declaring a higher percentage of alcohol. But this is not to say that the wines are unbalanced.
Here we have two wines at different quality levels. The Sarrat on the left is a quality wine which costs €12 in France. It’s made of Grenache, Carignan and Syrah, with only the last-named spending 6 months in casks – so it’s red fruits all the way, smooth, with enough acidity to make this big wine highly drinkable. By contrast, the L’enfant perdu on the right is a serious customer, €20, with more use of oak ageing. It is initially more restrained on nose but with a dense bouquet with some balsamic notes and then a great intensity of fruit in the mouth. It would be a great wine for ageing.
Jean Pla also introduced his everyday wines with which he has had great success in the Japanese market – how the world of wine has changed! His entry-level duo, red and white, is a good value €5 and have cheeky labels!
What’s in the bottle is just as good: predictably gorgeous red fruits in the red with good grip from the acid and tannins. Made basically
from Grenache, it also has a touch of Syrah and Carignan to help with Grenache’s proneness to exposure to air in the winemaking. Also shown above is the old vine Grenache – here old vines means 80-year-olds! The wine spends two years in older, large, oak barrels and is a big leap up in seriousness – again a big mouthful of red and black fruit, smooth but with great depth of flavour, satisfying.
More of a surprise was the white with its good fresh nose, herbs and slightly nutty. Made from Grenache blanc and gris (ie the white and pink version of the red grape), and grown on the schist rather than limestone/ clay, it was refreshing, with good fruit and plenty of structure to stand up to food. And with a couple of angelic grape pickers on the label!
Traditional sweet reds
Roussillon’s fame in the past has been for its sweet reds. Banyuls and Maury are the big names. These wines are made by adding high strength spirit to a part fermented wine. This stops the fermentation while there is still a ‘natural’ sweetness about the resulting wine, hence the designation, vin doux naturel. The tasting included three such wines, the first an innovation, being white! This was the product of the large company, Mas Amiel, perhaps aimed at those who will be surprised by the idea of sweet reds. The wine was fruity and herby, not too sweet, far too quaffable …
But the stars of the show were the pair of sweet reds, one a recent bottling, the other, like a grande dame, keeping her age a proper secret. These are the traditional wines of the area and it’s great that they are still being produced, alongside the new trend for big, dry red wines. Both come from the Domaine des Soulanes in Maury with the 2008 showing a delicious fruity nose and a great combination of red fruit, refreshing acidity and balance in the mouth. The trick is the relatively simple process: make wine, add alcohol, store in stainless steel for three months, bottle, sell after one year … The kick for the unwary is the 16.5? of alcohol and all for €11 for a full 75cl bottle.
By contrast, the Hors d’Age was something really special. By law, it must be five years old but this old hand was, in fact, the 1992 vintage. Once it was poured you could see the effect of long term ageing. The pictures don’t quite capture the amber to brown colour, quite a shock after the vivid purple/reds of young grenache. In the glass, there was a symphony of sensations – beautiful oxidized notes of nuts, caramel or toffee, figs, and then underneath all that you could still taste red fruit. And the flavours went on and on. Here’s to the sunshine of Roussillon.
Postscript: Paul Gumn gave us a bottle of ‘Three Trees’ to taste. ‘Eating, drinking, dancing’ says the label; or more conventionally, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Catalanes, Domaines de Majas. A powerful and fresh wine made from Grenache Noir and Carignan, with a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon for backbone. Great drinking, ‘only’ 13.5% alcohol, great with food, easy to drink, didn’t attempt the dancing.
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