The Grapes of Roussillon

by Oz Clarke

The Grapes of Roussillon

Three Wine Men Oz Clarke on Roussillon’s hardcore vineyard of resilient local grapes, inspired conservatism and Catalan heritage.

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.

Don’t miss Oz Clarke and Tom Surgey’s special Roussillon InstaLive on Tuesday 10th October at 7pm!

Oz Clarke’s full article is available on the Three Wine Men website.