I had a “Roussillon moment” that haunted me for more than six years.
In May 2014, I traveled from Napa to Philadelphia to take the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 3 blind tasting and theory exam in Philadelphia. There was an essay question about Roussillon’s vins doux naturels (VDN), the region’s notable fortified sweet wines.
Since I had taken the course independently as a remote student, I did not have a comprehensive classroom and tasting experience as my classmates attending the live classes. Not expecting such a question, I panicked. After shedding a few tears, I wrote furiously everything I could remember. I did not know until about 12 weeks later that I passed both sections of the exam with merit.
This is why I recently accepted an invitation to participate in a three-day virtual press trip to Roussillon with three other writers to create new and wonderful memories in lieu of this one.
Our daily tour guides from Wines of Roussillon included Eric Aracil, deputy director and export department manager, and Helene Losada, export market manager, who introduced us to the three regions of Roussillon and six notable producers.
Roussillon, located in the south of France in the Pyrénées-Orientales, offers visitors and wine lovers 28 centuries of history and viticulture to explore and taste. Its ideal Mediterranean climate with more than 320 days of sunlight annually, varied soil types, and distinct terroirs yield 24 white, gray and red grape varieties, which result in the production of dry and fortified sweet wines to please most palates.
“With so many varieties, there’s something for everyone, so reach for Roussillon,” said Aracil. “One of the most important grapes is Grenache, thanks to the numerous clones and their versatility. With Grenache you can do white, rosé, red wines, still or sparkling, sweet, or VDN.”
Séverine Bourrier, winemaker at Château de l’Ou added, “I’m in love with the landscape of Roussillon, the diversity of terroirs inspires me! Roussillon is like a diamond and we as winegrowers and winemakers shape it. The challenge is to make wine that is a testimony to its beauty and diversity. I’m incredibly lucky to be a winemaker in Roussillon.”
Day 1, Northern Roussillon
Laura Sicard, export manager at Dom Brial, and M. Nicolas Raffy, director and winemaker at Domaine Mas Amiel, hosted us the first day.
Dom Brial, with around 200 winegrowers showcasing five terroirs, is the largest cooperative in the Pyrénées-Orientales region. It is perhaps best known for Muscat, such as the Muscat IGP Côtes Catalanes (dry) and Muscat AOP de Rivesaltes (sweet).
Dom Brial also owns Château Les Pins, whose 2014 Château les Pins, AOP Côtes du Roussillon Villages, we tasted. This dry red, a blend of 40% Grenache noir, 20% Syrah, and 20% Mourvèdre, aged 12 months in one-third each of new, one-year-old, and two-year-old oak casks, shows a lovely balance of dark berry fruit, spice, and finely integrated tannins.
Mas Amiel, while also a producer of AOP Maury Sec wines, is the largest private producer of AOP Maury and its vintage vins doux naturels. It seemed befitting that after my WSET exam Roussillon moment, I had the opportunity to taste the 1969 Mas Amiel, AOP Maury.
Made from 90% Grenache noir, 5% Carignan, and 5% Macabeu aged one year outdoors in glass demijohns and 38 years in oak casks, this wine reveals a duality of lively acidity and mouthcoating density, along with honeyed berry fruit and butterscotch flavors, which surprised and delighted me.
At first sip, that 2014 exam question came to life in my glass. “Our vins doux naturels are complex and pair with food. What a treat to discover that they offer everything – balance, complexity, freshness, and sweetness,” added Aracil.
Day 2, Central Roussillon
Selma Regincos, marketing and communication manager at Vignerons Catalans, and Séverine Bourrier, co-owner and winemaker at Château de L’Ou, hosted us our second day.
Vignerons Catalans is Roussillon’s oldest winemaking cooperative offering the most wines from the region’s AOPs IGPs, and varied winemaking styles. Its 2018 Red Domus, AOP Côtes du Roussillon, whose 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache noir come from select older plots in Agly, is an outstanding value wine that presents an interplay of freshly picked blackberry fruit, peppery spice, and soft tannins from a mixed aging regime of vats and barrels.
“The beauty of Roussillon’s dry reds is that they are not overripe, overly extracted, or overly oaked,” said Aracil.
Château de l’Ou, which in Catalan means “Chateau of the Egg,” is a forerunner in organic farming. Bourrier and her husband, who manages the farming, purchased the estate – its 80 acres with four distinct terroir plots – in 1998.
Bourrier specializes in terroir-specific wines, including the 2017 Secret de Schistes, IGP Côtes Catalanes, a beautiful expression of dark, juicy, and spicy 100% Syrah sourced from three of the estate’s plots. “My first baby was Secret de Schistes red that I like to drink with a tender piece of meat,” said Bourrier. “The blend is perfect because the quality of Secret’s tannins combines perfectly with the smoothness of meat.”
Day 3, South/Coastal Roussillon
Emmanuel Cazes, wine ambassador at Domaine Cazes, and Jean-Marc Lafage, seventh-generation family member and manager at Domaine Lafage, hosted us on the third and final day.
The certified biodynamic and organic producer, Domaine Cazes, which dates to 1895, represented two brands, Les Clos de Paulilles, AOP Collioure, and Domaine Cazes.
A highlight of the three days, the 2017 Cazes AOP Banyuls Rimage, a vin doux naturel made from 100% Grenache noir, is bottled early to prevent oxidation and shows a delightful juxtaposition of fresh, tart red berry fruit, and figgy sweetness that earns my praise and will allow it to age slowly and gracefully.
“For the Banyuls Rimage, there are so many food pairings. This wine can stand anything from the aperitif (black olive tapenade) to the dessert (red fruit and chocolate ganache). My favorite recipe with this wine is grilled duck magret with roasted figs,” Cazes said.
Domaine Lafage, perhaps one of the most well-known and largest producer of Roussillon wines, strives to produce what Jean-Marc Lafage says is the “best blend possible” from a “rich range” of vineyard locations.
The 2019 Lafage Rosé Miraflors, IGP Côtes Catalanes, a blend of early picked, gently pressed 50% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache gris, and 20% Grenache noir, is aged only three months, then bottled and sealed with a glass topper to avoid oxidation and guard its vibrant, mouthwatering acidity. It has delicate and fresh aromas and flavors of strawberry and stone fruits accompanied by understated salinity.
“Roussillon’s dry whites and rosés are full of freshness, delicacy, and minerality,” confirmed Aracil. The Lafage Rosé Miraflors is an ideal accompaniment to a Catalan roasted vegetable dish called escalivada, for which Lafage’s mother, Marthe, provided the following recipe:
Marthe Lafage’s Escalivada
2 medium eggplants
2 red peppers
2 ripe tomatoes.
Olive oil, garlic, thyme, salt, pepper
Cut the eggplants into long strips. Cut the peppers into two, remove the seeds and cut them into strips.
Cut thin slices of onion and tomatoes.
In a large ovenproof dish, place a layer of eggplant first, cover with a layer of peppers and then onions. Season with salt, pepper, thyme and a crushed clove of garlic.
Put again a layer of each vegetable on top and finish with a layer of tomatoes.
Add a drizzle of olive oil and cook in the oven at 360°F.
Cook very slowly. Halfway through cooking, add a little water if it is too dry and lower the heat to 210°F. The vegetables must be candied and not burned.
Serve the escalivada warm as an accompaniment to a grill. It can also be served cold as a starter with anchovies from Collioure: drizzle with a vinaigrette with garlic and parsley.
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