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Wine on the Rocks

By Debra Meiburg MW

The winemakers in Roussillon (Roo-see-yohn) are determined to rock you. If there’s a region where ancient rock plays a leading role, it is in this isolated wine region clinging to the eastern side of the Pyrenees Mountains in southwest France. In Roussillon growers don’t speak about soil; they rock. Wine character is ascribed to differences in rocks: shapes, such as flat or angular, and hues, such as black or grey are considered to determine wine flavour.

Though situated in France, Roussillon is just over the border from Spain and its people are Catalan by heritage rather than French. Between the 13th and 17th centuries, Roussillon was governed by various Spanish monarchies and the Roussillon people continue to identify with Spanish Catalonia. Roussillon has an extraordinary number of sunny days each year. That may be so, but some of its mountains are so high – the striking Mount Canigou (2800 metres) is seven times the height of Victoria Peak – that they remain snow-covered throughout the year.

More readily known for its stunning fortified Port-style wines, Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes, the region’s dry red wines have come into their own. This is not a terrain suited to making early, easy-drinking wines. Not only do Roussillon’s vines contend with parched growing conditions, but warm winds as well. Winemakers commonly remove raisins from the grape clusters to keep their wines fresh. Whatever the conditions, some stunning wines are appearing in the region. Roussillon produces wines that are a tour-de-force: firm, deeply coloured and with high mineral expression. Eric Aracil, Export Director of the CIVR, the generic body responsible for promoting the wines of Roussillon, says, “We make wines that are shockingly different – and shockingly delicious.”
Centuries of natural selection resulted in a blend of varieties suited for Roussillon’s inhospitable growing conditions. Growers favour the Grenache variant Lladoner Pelut – known as ‘’hairy grenache’’ due to the fine silvery hairs on the underside of its leaf – because it is resistant to Roussillon’s high winds and baking temperatures. Other grapes used include the favourite Rhone Valley varieties, Carignan, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. Regulations also permit a small addition of white Maccabeu (more famously known as Macabeo in Spain) to the blend, presumably to soften the wines, but Maccabeu is rarely included these days.
Most grape growing in Roussillon is environmentally friendly. Given the steepness of its terrain, tractor-use is impossible – mules are the workhorse of choice – and so potential chemical applications are impractical. “Organics are imperative in Roussillon” according to Vladimir Algin, an American formerly making wine at Cave de l’Abbé Rous, “our hills are so steep that everything drains into the sea, which affects all of us.”
“It is sponsored winemaking” said Gabrielle Breitinger formerly of Domaine Mas Ameil. “Roussillon is a pot where you throw your money in.” Tom Lubbe, winemaker at Domain Matassa agrees. “This is not economical farming. Yields are less than 30 hectolitres per hectare.” In many parts of France, low yields are practically a religion, but with Roussillon’s steep, arid, rock-clad vineyards it’s the only choice and stunning wines are the result. To produce wine in an ancient region under such arduous conditions takes an act of faith worthy of the Bohemians in “We will Rock You.”

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