Ten Fun Facts About Roussillon Wine

(Originally published in Winebusiness.com )

For most wine lovers the region of Roussillon brings to mind fortified sweet wines. Located in the far south of France, snuggled next to the Spanish border, Roussillon is often referred to as the “Other French Rivera,” and has a similar sunny Mediterranean climate as Provence. This allows the more than 420 wineries and 29 cooperatives that operate in the region to produce a wide variety of wines. However, over the last decade they have begun to focus more on dry wines with a fresh fruit-forward style, while still maintaining the heritage of the ancient fortified sweet wines that were lauded by generations of kings.

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White Sandy Beaches of Roussillon, France

Map of Roussillon

Wine Appellations of Roussillon

As Roussillon emerges as an independent wine region of its own, slowly attempting to disassociate itself with the larger Languedoc wine region to the northeast, surprising facts about its grapes, climate, history and terroir are coming to light. Here are ten facts about Roussillon wine that may surprise you:

  1. 80% Dry Wines – even though Roussillon is known around the world for its famous fortified sweet wines called Vin Doux Naturel (VDN), it is now producing a higher percentage of dry wines to cater to current global preferences for less sugar in wine.
  2. Grenache of Three Colors – Roussillon claims to be the oldest home of Grenache in France, and indeed 38% of their production is Grenache. What is fascinating, however, is they specialize in three colors of Grenache: Noir, Blanc, and Gris. From this they produce delicious dry white, red, and rosé wines, as well as their legendary sweet wines.
  3. Highest Percentage of Organic Wines – due to its unique climate with 316 days of sun, 22 inches of rainfall and beneficial winds, Roussillon has the highest percentage of organic and biodynamic vineyards in France by hectare, according to the Vins Du Roussillon Wine Council.
  4. White Beaches and Snow-capped Mountains – part of what makes Roussillon unique is its typography. Shaped like an amphitheater the region has 60 kilometers (37 miles) of coastline, including long white sandy beaches and steep hillsides covered with vines descending to the sea. In the background tower the snow-capped Pyrenees and the Corbieres Mountains with vineyards dotting the lower hillsides. All of this combines to create a dramatic and spectacularly beautiful wine region.
  5. Three Rivers and Eight Winds – Flowing down from the high mountains are three rivers that rush to the sea. Along the way they feed the vineyards and many vegetable farms and fruit orchards, as well as create a perfect climate for wine growing. This is supported by winds that come from eight different directions that help to keep the climate more dry and reduce mildew pressure, allowing for more successful organic farming.
  6. 28 Centuries of Winegrowing – the Phoenicians brought wine grapes to the shores of Roussillon in 624 BC, heralding 28 centuries of winegrowing “know how” in the region.
  7. VDN Wine of Kings – in the year 1285 at the court of the King of Majorca, a doctor names Arnau de Vilanova developed a process to add spirits to wine to stop the fermentation. This resulted in sweet wines that could age for decades and travel the world. Roussillon became famous for its sweet VDN wines made from Grenache and Muscat. They were highly coveted by the kings of Aragon, Majorca, and France.
  8. Ruscino and Red Soil – the name “Roussillon” is derived from two sources. The first is the prehistoric houses that were found on the site of its capital city, Perpignan. These small structures were called “Ruscinos.” The second source is the red soil that is found in many of the vineyards, including red clay, schist, and limestone. The term “Rousse” is a shade of red in French and “sillon” means furrow.
  9. 24 Grape Varieties – though Roussillon is most famous for its three colors of Grenache grapes, it grows 24 grape varieties of which 17 are dedicated for AOP (top appellation) wines. From these, they specialize in red blends made from Red Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Syrah, as well as white blends primarily produced from Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Macabeo.
  10. Award Winning Wines – Roussillon has received numerous top ratings and awards for both its sweet and dry wines from Decanter, Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate and many other wine critics. In 2019 its capital city of Perpignan was named European City of Wine.
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A Vineyard in Roussillon, France

Roussillon – Also a Popular Tourist Destination for Beaches, Cuisine & Art

In addition to these ten interesting facts, Roussillon continues to be a popular tourist destination with thousands of visitors arriving every year to enjoy the sunny beaches, hike in the mountains, and explore historic castles. Charming towns such as Banyuls, Collioure, and Ceret, which attracted famous artists such as Picasso, Matisse, and Dali, delight visitors with their museums, cafes, and shops. And of course, the cuisine of Roussillon, with a focus on fresh seafood, vegetables, and fruit, often prepared with a Catalon influence, pair beautifully with the chilled dry white and rose wines, the structured and earthy red blends, followed by a delicious sweet VDN for cheese and dessert.

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Charming Seaside Town of Collioure in Roussillon, France

 

Happy Dining in Roussillon, France

 

Five Famous Wineries to Visit in Roussillon

In May of 2019, I was fortunate enough to tour the Roussillon wine region for five days and taste more than 100 different wine brands. Though Roussillon is most famous for its Grenache grapes (see below), it is also well-known for Muscat, Syrah, Carignan, and produces at least 20 other varietals. Altogether Roussillon has over 420 wineries and 29 cooperatives.

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Beautiful Hillside Vineyards by the Sea in Roussillon

The Four Colors of Roussillon Grenache

It is worth taking a minute to describe the four different colors/flavors of Grenache in Roussillon, because this is their signature grape. These descriptions were provided by Eric Aracil, Deputy Director of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon, who explained this while we were standing in a vineyard examining the various types of Grenache:

  • Grenache Blanc brings floral, pear, sometimes peach, and a touch of green dill to the wine.
  • Grenache Gris provides a twist of citrus, gunpowder, and structure.
  • Grenache Noir is known for its fresh, fruity raspberry, cherry, and plum notes.
  • Blue Grenache (also known as hairy Grenache because the leaves are hairy underneath) has blue red grapes and provides structure, fig, guava and a touch of iron or blood notes.
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Exploring Old Vine Grenache Vineyards in Roussillon

Five Famous Roussillon Wineries

Domaine Gauby – Located in the tiny town of Calce, Domaine Gauby is a truly authentic expression of Roussillon soil.  Using biodynamic principles of farming and winemaking, Gerard Gauby is passionate about the land and expressing the true terroir and vintage variations. He took us on a walk through the old vineyards, of which he owns 40 hectares, including some 90 year old Grenache vines. It was a beautiful spring morning, with many wildflowers between the vines and wild birds overhead. Afterwards we tasted numerous wines and had a delicious lunch in the modest cellars. I was especially impressed with the vibrancy of his white wines, with a zesty energy and pure mineral streak running through the wines. Two of my favorites were: 2018 Jasse Orange Wine – a dry Muscat, with apricot, lemon, and minerality – absolutely delicious! 2018 Calcinaires Blanc – fresh, zesty, textured, made from a blend of Vermentino, Chardonnay, and Grenache Blanc.

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Tasting in the Cellars of Domaine Gauby

Mas Amiel Winery – this is one winery that no wine lover should miss. Located in the Maury wine region of Roussillon, I was blown away by the field of VND wines aging in demi-johns (called bon bons) in the bright sun. They leave them there for one year, before moving back into the 130 old cellars to age in giant wooden foudres for anywhere from 10 to 40 years in an oxidative fashion. Truly amazing! We were told that the VDN’s (Vin Doux Natural) are made from 70% Grenache as the flesh, with some Carignan as the Skeleton and Syrah as the Muscles – an intriguing analogy. The winery itself has a modern tasting room and design, with older outbuildings. Altogether they have 145 hectares of vines, produce 35,000 cases annually and are certified organic, moving towards biodynamic. We tasted 12 wines here (both dry and sweet), and the highlights for me were: 2016 MA Sec Legende Maury made from 80% Grenache Noir and 20% Carignan with the grapes coming from a 1949 vineyard; and notes of fresh raspberry jam with a textured palate. The MA Maury 40 Year Fortified – made from 100% Grenache and fortified to 16%, this wine started with a floral lifted nose, then enticed with dried orange peel, spice, caramel, and a long elegant finish.

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Magnificent Field of Sweet VDN Wine Aging in the Sun

Lafage Winery – Started by Jean-Marc Lafage, who grew up in the region, but traveled around the world to work in other wineries until he realized that Roussillon was the ideal place to establish a winery. Therefore, he returned to build a world class winery and implement his theme of “restless innovation” to create a line of fascinating wine brands.  The winery is located very close to the ocean outside the town of Perpignan, so it is easy to find. Altogether they have 200 hectares of vineyards, are certified sustainable, produce over 2 million bottles per year, and export 75% of their production to 30 countries. Considered to be one of the major wine players in Roussillon, this is an important winery to visit, and we enjoyed the tour of the modern cellars and tasting room. We tasted 10 wines here, and two favorites for me were: Centenaire 2018 White Sec – very aromatic, textured, medium-bodied white blend with juicy lemon and white peach, long and lovely. Domaine Lafage Miraille 2016 – made with Grenache and Mourvèdre, this wine had a lifted violet nose, mixed black fruit, velvety tannins, good concentration, a hint of anise and earth; rich, long and warm to the finish.

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Modern Cellars of Lafage Winery in Roussillon

Domaine Cazes – established in 1895, I was delighted by the Mediterranean design of this winery with stucco walls, tiles, flowers, fountains and palm trees. Located near the ocean in the town of Rivesaltes, it boasts a small charming tasting room as well as restaurant, and they have won prizes for wine tourism. Altogether, they have 185 hectares of organic and biodynamic vines, and focus production on 25% sweet wines. Their icon brand is Le Credo – a massive red blend designed to age for years and inspired by the wines of Priorat. The wine actually has its own “throne room” at the winery. The family also owns two other wineries in Roussillon. We tasted seven wines here and highlights for me were: Cap Bear 2018 Grenache Gris – great acidy, zippy, mineral citrus, fresh and lovely; and Aime Cazes 1978 AOP Rivesaltes – a 22 year old sweet tawny with apricot, gingerbread, and lemon peel – yum! Le Credo 2012 – made from old vines circa 1900, this wine was filled with savory notes, black fruit, peppery, earth and anise; massive tannins, textured, long, and concentrated.

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Inner Courtyard of Domaine Cazas Winery

Chateau Valmy – this winery looks like a fairy-tale castle with its big beautiful chateau set high on a hill overlooking the ocean. Located a few miles outside the charming seaside village of Collioure, Chateau Valmy was originally built in 1900, but fell into disrepair and “slept until 1995” when it was resurrected by the new owners. Today they have 25 hectares of vineyards, produce 120,000 bottles and sell 60% direct to consumer. This is because they are a very popular wine tourism location, known for not only their delicious wines and great ocean views, but also for the summer concerts that have been known to attract more than 10,000 people to hear the music of bands such as Santana.  We tasted 8 wines here, and two of my favorites were: Première Rose de Valmy 2017 – fresh strawberries, light and elegant; made from 100% Grenache, Subtils Privilèges de Valmy – a sparkling wine made of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, 9 months aging in bottle, with floral top note and textured pear with lemon finish.

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The Splendid Chateau Valmy Winery in Roussillon. Photo Credit: Xaviateur

Seven Small Family Wineries to Visit in the Umpqua Valley of Oregon

The small family winery is alive and well in the fairytale Umpqua Valley. Often overlooked with the mad rush to the Willamette Valley just one hour north, or the warmer Rogue and Applegate Valleys of Southern Oregon, the Umpqua wine region is located in the center of Oregon where two rivers converge into one of the most picturesque mountain valleys in the West. The word “Umpqua” is based on the Native Americans who lived in the area, and is thought to mean “thundering waters.”

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The Umpqua Valley of Oregon – View from Cooper’s Ridge Winery

The main town is Roseburg, with a population of 22,000, and is a great place to stay for a few nights while checking out the local wineries. Roseburg has a charming old downtown district complete with hometown shops and restaurants. Two of the great restaurants we visited were True Kitchen where some of the food is served in a skillet, including one of the best ice cream desserts I ever had, as well as Parrot House, located on the outskirts of Roseburg in a beautiful old Victorian House.

About Umpqua Valley Wine Region

With a winegrowing history from the 1880’s when Germans first brought vines to the region, today there are over 30 wineries and 1500 acres of vineyards in the Umpqua Valley. Most of the wineries are small friendly family-run wineries focusing on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Tempranillo and Riesling, but also experimenting with many other grape varietals. I had a chance to visit for three days during the Greatest of the Grape Celebration, and was pleased to stop by and taste at the following seven wineries — all located within a short 20 to 30 minute drive of Roseburg. A map of the wine trails can be found HERE.

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Location of Umpqua Valley in Oregon. Photo Credit: OregonWine

Seven Umpqua Valley Wineries to Visit (Listed in Alphabetical Order)

Abacela – probably one of the largest and most famous wineries of the Umpqua Valley, Abacela produces around 10,000 cases and owns 77 acres of vines with 17 varieties planted. Owners Earl and Hilda Jones, great fans of Rioja, had a vision to establish a winery that could produce world-class tempranillo, along with other Spanish varieties such as Albarino.  They found the perfect location a few miles outside the town of Roseburg. Today their tasting room is large and filled with wine lovers who are attracted to their many award winning wines. This was my second visit to Abacela, and once again I was impressed by the wines, as well as the beautiful vineyard and picnic grounds just outside the door. Two of my favorites this time were the 2018 Albarino with refreshing lemon-lime notes, minerality and crisp acidity, as well as the 2008 Ten-Year Colheita Port made from the five classic port grapes in a tawny style with caramel, fig and a faint touch of cherries – truly mesmerizing and delicious.

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Hilda & Earl Jones of Abacela Winery. Photo Credit: Abacela.com

Bradley Vineyards – with vineyards first planted in 1983, the Bradley family were one of the first to plant grape vines in this upper region of the Umpqua Valley, and still sell grapes to many of the local wineries. Located in Elkton, their small winery is north of the central town of Roseburg. Producing only 1000 cases, the young winemaker, Tyler Bradley, enjoys experimenting with natural winemaking. From this he crafts a delicious 2018 Pet Nat Riesling, with a fresh floral nose, juicy white peach, nectarine, lemon and tiny bubbles. Another great wine was his 2017 Aligote with a bone dry palate of lemon, mineral and juicy acidity on a long and complex finish.

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Tyler Bradley of Bradley Vineyards

Brandborg Vineyards – one of the larger and more well-known wineries of the Umpqua, Brandborg was established by the very friendly and fun husband/wife team of Terry and Sue Brandborg. They specialize in award-winning single vineyard Pinot Noir, producing around 8500 cases annually, of which they sell 30% direct to consumer in their charming tasting room located in the little town of Elkton. A great place to stop by and taste wine, and then have lunch across the street at Tomaselli’s. Two of my favorites here were the 2014 Pinot Noir Ferris Wheel Estate with a seductive floral nose with a core of sweet raspberry, cola and earth on the palate. The 2015 Riesling was also extremely delicious with classic diesel, juicy peach, star fruit, and refreshing acidity. Yum!

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Terry & Sue Brandborg of Brandborg Vineyards

Cooper’s Ridge – Nestled in a beautiful valley with a great deck overlooking a magnificent view, Cooper’s Ridge is just a short drive out of Roseburg. Owned by Robin and Lesa Ray, the winery is named after their son, Cooper. They produce 2500 cases from 12 acres of vineyards, with seven different varietals. What makes this winery unique is the fact that they have become a community center for people to gather after work, have a glass of wine and appetizer, and enjoy the lovely view on the deck. This is because they stay open until 7pm.  Two of my favorites here were the 2016 Gruner Vetliner with ripe pear, clover and a hint of marmalade on the semi-sweet finish, as well as the 2015 Reserve Merlot with classic cassis, fruitcake, spicy oak and good concentration.

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Robin & Lisa Rey of Cooper’s Ridge Winery

Delfino Vineyards – with a last name that means “dolphin,” Terri and Jim Delfino adopted this symbol as the logo for their darling winery situated a few miles outside the town of Roseberg. Also sporting small guest cottages and a beautiful pond near the vineyards, this small winery is a relaxing place to visit and enjoy a glass of wine on the lawn. With 18 acres of vines, the Delfinos sell some of their grapes, but maintain enough to produce 1000 cases. My favorites here were the 2016 Tempranillo with a floral nose, notes of black cherry and tea followed by velvety tannins with very long finish; and the 2015 Forza – a dessert wine similar to a port made from Tempranillo with dark fruit, black chocolate and a rich long satisfying finish.

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Jim & Terri Delfino of Delfino Vineyards

Marsh Anne Landing – “Grenache sings here,” states Greg Cramer the owner of Marsh Anne Winery. Named by combining his middle name of “Marsh” and his wife’s middle name of “Anne,” this charming little family winery employs a “Space and Martian” theme, using images from the Hubble telescope on many of their labels. “The photos are actually in the public domain,” explains Greg. Producing only 700 cases per year, they sell all of their wine direct to consumers from the winery. With 17 acres of vineyards in back of the winery, it is a relaxing place to stop to taste wine or attend their summer jazz wine concerts and view their art collection. Two of my favorites here were the 2015 GSM with 70% bright and cheerful red Grenache bursting with cherries and berries, as well as an elegant 2015 Cabernet Franc with a perfumed violet nose and earthy black fruit.

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Greg Cramer of Marsh Anne Landing

Melrose Vineyards – this winery was managed by some of the friendliest people I’ve met in a long time. Situated in an old barn overlooking the vineyards, owner Wayne Parker rode up on his tractor to greet us. With over 200 acres of vineyards, Wayne primarily sells most of his crop to other wineries, but keeps enough back to produce 5000 cases per year. Two of my favorite wines here were the 2012 Parker’s Pinot Noir which was a big bold pinot brimming with red cherry, root beer, and cinnamon, and the 2015 Baco Noir with ripe jammy marion-berry, juicy acidity, and a long delicious finish.

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Wayne Parker of Melrose Vineyards with Sister-in-Law Janelle Parker

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Beautiful Old Oregon Barn – Tasting Room of Melrose Vineyards

Which Famous Global Wine Region Prohibits Swearing in the Vineyard?

(June 2019) Though vineyards can be very beautiful with their lush green foliage and jewel-like clusters of grapes, anyone who has worked amongst the vines knows that it can be back-breaking work with long hours of suckering, thinning, and sculpturing the vines.  Obviously on certain occasions, this could result in some exhausted workers letting loose a few swear words. However, there is one famous wine region of the world where the vineyards were considered to be so sacred and a gift from God that anyone caught cussing could be fined.

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Sacred Vineyards of Tokaj, Hungary

“The fine was actually doubled if you were a noble man,” explained Dr. Peter Molnar, General Manager of Patricius Winery and President of the Council of Tokaj.  Yes, the region was Tokaj, Hungary, and the timing was probably between 1631, when the sweet noble wine of Tokaj was said to be discovered, through the mid 1700’s, when the Church held so much dominance over the region.

“Our special Tokaj Aszu and Eszencia wines were coveted by kings, queens, and priests,” stated Peter. “From the beginning, these wines were so special that they were considered to be the wines of royalty.” Still called “liquid gold or liquid luxury today,” the rarest Eszencia’s are only produced in special years, each single berry picked individually by hand, and are so expensive that they are often served in a crystal spoon.

Tokaj Eszencia in Crystal Spoons

Tokaj Eszencia Served in Crystal Spoon

Given this background, it only makes sense that swearing in the vineyard was outlawed.  Indeed the “vineyard was like a church” and they had to be protected. This may be why Catherine II of Russia sent members of her royal army to guard the vineyards for more than 90 years. Yes, the history of the Tokaj region is rich, fascinating, and delicious.

Historical Tokaj Tasting at Buena Vista Winery

I heard all of these fascinating stories from Peter Molnar when I attended a historical winetasting at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, California on June 22, 2019. Peter, along with a delegation of Hungarian dignitaries, winery executives and guests, all enjoyed a tasting of four exquisite wines: a dry Furmint and 2008 Aszu under the Buena Vista label, but produced in partnership with the Patricius Winery in Hungary, and two rare Eszencias.

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Tokaj Wines Served at Historical Buena Vista Winery Tasting

Tokaj Eszencia is a special wine only made in certain years when the conditions are right to produce grapes of great sweetness in the small village of Tokaj in Hungary. Then it is aged in small demi-johns for years where it only ferments to about 5% alcohol, creating a drink of exquisite sweetness with notes of honey, apricot, marmalade and brown sugar. According Peter, it has excellent health properties with beneficial anti-oxidants. In the old days, it was used as medicine and served in a small spoon.

Buena Vista winery, owned by Jean-Charles Boisset, established this special partnership with Tokaj, Hungary to celebrate the history of Buena Vista, which is California’s oldest premium winery formed in 1863 by the Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy.

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A Photo with Dr. Peter Molnar, President of the Council of Tokaj