Finally hitting the Roussillon

It’s been nearly 20 years since I became a wine merchant and in that time I’ve managed to stumble up and down France a dozen or so times. But there has always been one corner of that vine-ridden nation that had until recently eluded me. Like many of my peers the Roussillon was not high on my list of regions to investigate; its wines are outdated little known and rarely inquired about by customers. So why go? Curiosity I suppose and a lingering notion that the Roussillon like so many other obscure regions could possibly have something more to offer than meets the eye.

The Roussillon was incorporated into France from Spain in 1659 but the spirit today remains distinctly Catalan as you are often reminded by the images of bulls and burros plastered on the wall and the yellow and red graffiti — meant to resemble the Catalan flag — on nearly every road sign. Listen closely to the locals and you will here a dialect that is neither French nor Spanish but distinctly their own spoken proudly in honor of their past. You may be in France according to the map but the music food and culture all point to Spain.

The land itself could not be more beautiful or perfectly suited to the vine. Enormous mountains spring suddenly from endless secluded beaches offering breathtaking views of the Mediterranean from every vista. Yet much like the wines this land is largely ignored by European tourists and remains a distinctly local indulgence.

The wines of the Roussillon are predominately sweet known locally as Vins Doux Naturels or fortified sweet wines. These range from deep golden whites to rich dark reds reminiscent of fine vintage Port. The most famous are Banyuls Maury and Muscat de Rivesaltes. Sadly this style of wine has waned in worldwide popularity and is appreciated by too few today. While I do hold a soft spot for these styles of wine my search was geared towards the equally abstract dry wines. The two best-known dry wines come from the broad based Côtes-du-Roussillon region and more interestingly the vibrant village of Collioure.

Collioure is a tiny picture-perfect village on the Mediterranean that has found a place in artist hearts for centuries. It’s flanked by a large Templar castle and overlooked by carefully terraced vines that reach all the way down to the sea. Mourvèdre Grenache (red white and gris) and Carignan are the local grapes and they cling carefully to the slowly decaying schist soils that play a key role in maintaining the high quality. Fine examples of red white and rosé are all crafted here from these wind-driven salt licked vines.

After a day spent on the idyllic beach it’s hard to resist the call of the vines and wander up into the hills to explore the many family-run estates. The locals are warm and welcoming and burst with pride as they pour you glass after glass of their distinguished wines.

The whites here are floral and rich with perfumed scents of acacia and ripe peach. Rosé hits an unusually high quality here; the wines carry added depth and spice at once refreshing powerful and delicate providing perfect foil for the wonderful seafood on offer. While the reds can be brooding and tannic the best are immediately appealing with exotic spices and admirable structure.

If you’re as compelled as I was to discover these fascinating wines there are a few places in Calgary you can uncover them. No surprise that Metrovino has the best selection this French-centric wine shop on 11th Avenue S.W. is a well-trodden hunting ground for obscure French wines (even the sweet wines are available here).

Available at Specialty stores:

• 2008 Chateau Dona Baissas Cotes du Roussillon Villages — pipe tobacco plums dark cherries lingering spices warm personality.

• 2008 Domaine de la Chique Cotes du Roussillon — wild herbs black olives and ripe cherries linger on a soft unctuous palate

MetroVino only:

• 2011 Domaine Pouderoux “Latour de Grés” Côtes du Roussillon Villages — Ninety per cent Carignan from a vineyard that’s a few years away from its 100th birthday. All of the sweetness of the Maury manifests itself as richness and minerality here.

• 2008 Domaine du Traginer “Cuvée d’Octobre” Collioure — Classic resonating Mediterranean rage.

• 2011 Jean-Philippe Padie “Petit Taureau” Côtes du Roussillon — Quirky juicy aromatic Carignan.

• 2011 Domaine Pouderoux “Vendange” Maury — All black fruit and licorice.

• 2010 Domaine Traginer “Rimage” Banyuls — The thinking man’s vin doux naturel.

• n/v Domaine Madeloc “Robert Pages” Banyuls — Big juicy oxidized ripper.

• n/v Domaine Pouderoux “Hors d’Age” Maury — Nuanced and delicacte more meditative than festive.