Adventures in Roussillon white wines #Winophiles

Today I am joining the French Winophiles, a group of wine bloggers from around the world who love fermented French grapes, in their monthly virtual meet-up. Saturday morning’s discussion over on Twitter will focus on white wines from Roussillon, France’s southernmost winemaking region. Read to the end for more details.

A personal connection – or not

Being a Canadian/French dual citizen, I often consider myself quite familiar with France and its geography. And when I first heard that this month’s Winophiles chat would be on Roussillon, I thought “Great! I know that region and I’ve been there quite a bit in the last few years.” Except that once I started doing some research, I realized that it might not be the case. I have spent lots of time between Montpellier and Carcassone  (in fact, I was born nearby), but that is technically Languedoc. Roussillon, whose main city is Perpignan, is even further south, nestled between the Mediterranean Sea, the Spanish border and the Pyrenees. It turns out I have never actually set foot in Roussillon itself and have only watched its beautiful scenery speeding past the window on the train between Spain and France.

Roussillon map

Map of Roussillon c/o winebusiness.com

Languedoc-Roussillon – when two become one

In terms of the wine region, originally, Languedoc and Roussillon were two very separate winemaking regions (some of the oldest in the world, in fact, with grape-growing origins dating back 2,800 years). They each had—and continue to have—very distinct cultural and winemaking traditions. Given that once upon a time, Roussillon was part of Spain, it is not surprising that it has many Catalan roots, reflected in all aspects of life, including its Catalan dialect.

vyd

Roussillon vineyard by the Med. Photo credit: Vins du Roussillon Facebook page

Its geography, geology and topography are also markedly different than the Languedoc’s (Lynn did an excellent breakdown of this in her introductory post if you want to learn more). The two winemaking regions were combined a few decades ago to form Languedoc-Roussillon, now the largest winemaking region (with a geographical identity) in the world by area. It produces the equivalent of 1.8 billion bottles of wine a year, with one in three French wines made there.

So I thought finding a white wine from Roussillon would be a snap.

I was wrong.

Hello? Is it Roussillon you’re looking for?

Finding wines from Languedoc is not a problem. The wine region is about ten times bigger than Roussillon in surface area, and produces about 26 times more wine.

Roussillon wines, on the other hand, aren’t as easy to come by. Plus, given the confusing French bureaucracy of wine region names, wine retailers don’t always know how to classify where a wine came from. Often, broader geographic names are used, like “the Southwest” or “Midi” (aka the South of France). One wine I purchased specifically for this Winophiles chat was supposedly from Roussillon according to the LCBO website, but was actually produced near Carcassonne, in the Languedoc region.

After that Roussillon fail, I wondered why it was so hard to find wines from Roussillon. After all, Canada is one of the top five importers of Roussillon wines, importing more dry wines from the region than even the US! However, one must keep in mind that production is relatively small. Only 2% of French wine is made in Roussillon. That’s 471,278 hL per year, to be exact. Of that, only 42% are AOC dry wines (i.e. protected designation of origin), with whites accounting for only 7% of those. Plus, only 21% of those AOC wines are exported, so all of a sudden my difficulty finding a Roussillon white wine makes more sense.

[Sidenote: I made the distinction about dry wines because Roussillon is traditionally best known for its sweet wines, or vins doux naturels, like Banyuls and Rivesaltes.]

All this to say that in the end, I finally found a white Côtes du Roussillon. Without further ado, let’s get wining!

Château Saint Roch Vielles Vignes Côtes du Roussillon Blanc 2018

Bottle of Saint Roch against wood panelling

Saint Roch Vieilles Vignes Côtes du Roussillon 2018

Grape variety: 80% grenache blanc, 20% roussanne

Soil type: Black schiste and rocky granite soil

Black rocks

Black schiste typical of Maury region. Photo credit: CIVR

Vine age: 45 years (average of 70-year-old grenache blanc and 20-year-old roussanne vines)

Vineyard altitude: 420–470 m (1,378–1,542 ft)

Vineyard location: In the Vallée de l’Agly near Maury (see map above), 20 km from the Mediterranean at the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Background info

Château Saint Roch (pronounced “rock“) is owned by Jean‑Marc and Eliane Lafage, the Roussillon husband-and-wife winemaking team behind Domaine Lafage. You may know this name from their very popular Lafage Miraflors rosé with the famous glass enclosure. Winemaking is in Jean‑Marc’s blood. His family has been growing grapes in Roussillon since 1798 (whoa). His grape-growing tends to be organic in practice, though not on paper. This means that in years when the weather doesn’t co-operate, he can temporarily diverge from organic practices to save the vines.

Grape vines in Roussillon

Vines in rocky terrain. Photo credit: vinsduroussillon.com

This Château’s older vines (vielles vignes) generally have lower yields with more concentrated grapes. The yields are so low, in fact, that production essentially amounts to one bottle per vine. These vines are also dry grown as per AOC rules, meaning there is no irrigation whatsoever. The grape-grower relies entirely on the 500‑600 mm of annual rainfall to water the vines, and drought can sometimes be a threat. That said, in normal years, Roussillon has the ideal climate for grape-growing, with an average 316 days of sun a year and 13 different types of wind to keep the vines free of mould and humidity-induced disease. The price of this wine is astonishingly low considering these grapes are hand harvested and hand sorted.

grenache blanc grapes

Grenache blanc grapes. Photo credit: CIVR

Tasting Note

Very pale yellow colour, all citrus and whiteflower on the nose. On the palate, it’s quite a nervy wine (nerveux en français) meaning crazy acidity that immediately gets your mouth watering. This wine was cold soaked to extract more flavour from the skins. It is medium-bodied, and the flavours are delicate at first, becoming more complex as the wine warms up: at first lemon, then some orange blossom, a soupçon of apricot and loads of minerality reflecting the rocky terroir where it was grown. There is a slight salinity on the finish, with the Med so close you can taste it.

Food Pairings

  • Seafood. This wine is made for seafood, whether it’s fish or shellfish. It was amazing with salmon, with the acidity cutting right through the fish’s fatty texture.
  • Chicken. It also paired well with my baked lemon chicken thighs for the very same reason (acidity!).
  • Asparagus. This veg is often considered sommelier kryptonite because it is so difficult to pair with wine, but this grenache was a good match.
  • Stir-fry. This is a surprisingly great match for Asian fare, especially my mid-week shrimp stir-fry.
  • Sushi would also be a good option for this Roussillon white wine.
Wine bottle and salmon dinner plate

Totally uncurated dinner scene, with perfect pairings (Saint Roch Vieilles Vignes Blanc, salmon and asparagus)

Conclusion

It’s safe to say that while Roussillon wines can be hard to come by, they are well worth the hunt. At the LCBO, these wines only pop up periodically in the Vintages section, so when you see them, grab them. Going back through the Wining with Mel archives, I have reviewed very few offerings from Roussillon, but they’ve all been solid wines that I look for year after year. They are always excellent value, beautifully produced, food-friendly and delicious.

Happy wining!


This post is part of a monthly blogger “gathering” called the French Winophiles. These wine lovers get together on Twitter once a month to share their passion for France and its wines (not to mention delicious food pairings). Please join us on Saturday, July 18 at 11 a.m. (ET) to chat about white wines from Roussillon using the hashtag #winophiles. You can also read all the other contributions to this theme by clicking on the links below:

23 thoughts on “Adventures in Roussillon white wines #Winophiles

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  4. This wine sounds lovely! I am fascinated that you were born in near by Languedoc and have never step foot in Roussillon! Another indicator that the 2 regions truly are separate. It is definitely on my list of places to visit on a future trip.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a great summary. Also, it’s somehow comforting to know that the French bureaucracy makes things just as confusing for insiders, and that it’s not just us outsiders scratching our heads while trying to figure things out. It’s also pretty interesting how similar our tasting notes on this wine are! Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure I would consider myself an insider (I haven’t lived there since I was 4), but yes, the bureaucracy is absolutely archaic, and as a result, uber confusing.

      I love how you paired this wine with fancy ramen! Good thinking 🙂

      Like

  6. Pingback: Testimony to Potential: Chapoutier’s Bila-Haut Cotes du Roussillon Blanc Paired with Halibut #Winophiles | wine predator

  7. Nice to read the background info. Don’t know how many times I’ve read, or via talking to vignerons, they aren’t certified for the exact reason here. And when you tie in only one bottle per vine, vine health is essential. Really enjoyed your article Mel!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I had a wine from Maury and read about the black schist soils and didn’t visualize what that actually meant. Thank you for the photo.
    This wine sounds wonderful and I love hearing the backstory of the vineyard. Having read about the Domaine Lafage wines it was nice to hear about their other property Château Saint Roch.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interestingly, the back of the bottle had translated “schiste noir” to “black slate”. Word nerd that I am, I did a bit of research and found that schiste and slate are geologically quite different, so slate isn’t actually accurate.

      If you want to get more back story about the Château (and speak French), check out the website. There is a lovely family story about Jean-Marc’s father growing up in Maury and always wanting his own vines there. Jean-Marc bought the property essentially in his father’s honour. It’s quite touching.

      Liked by 1 person

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