Hannibal’s AWOL Army, Walden Pond Add Aura to Roussillon Wines

Terrassous Vineyards
The Paysages Terrassous vineyards in Roussillon, France. Soils differ greatly from clay to sand, granite and limestone. Source: SOPEXA via Bloomberg

When a tiny wine region in France produces nine different white varietals and six reds from 15 types of grape, it’s easy to see why it is little known or appreciated by most wine lovers.

Even to get to the vineyards of Roussillon, set in an arc on the Mediterranean below the Pyrenees mountains that divide France and Spain, you really have to ask directions. The region was battled over for centuries, with France finally getting the upper hand in 1659.

Grape vines here date back even earlier. Legend has it that in 217 B.C. deserters from Hannibal’s army stayed behind in the region to become farmers and vignerons.

By the late Middle Ages, Roussillon’s sweet Vin Doux Naturel liqueur was much admired.

As elsewhere in the French countryside, most of the wines of Roussillon, now in the department of Pyrenees-Orientales, rarely rose above the level of mediocrity and were often blended with bolder, higher alcohol North African wines.

Few vintners knew exactly what vines were growing in which vineyard after a millennium of cross-pollination. Until the 1930s, none of the wines of the region had any formal classification.

Adding to the difficulty of pinning down Roussillon’s wines are a wide range of soils of the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, with various locations rich in granite, limestone, iron, sand, salt and clay. The climate is dry in summer, rainy in autumn and spring.

Nice Body

Aside from the more esoteric varietals like macabeu, lladoner pelut, and tourbat, Roussillon produces wine from more widely propagated grapes like grenache, marsanne, muscat d’Alexandrie, cinsault, syrah, and mourvedre.

Sampling a range of Roussillon wines showed that they are at their most attractive with food, especially summer dishes from the grill.

You would not be criticized if you thought some of the reds were Spanish, for there is bright fruit and depth in the bottlings, and what they lack in complexity, they make up for in body.

A 2008 Domaine Cabirau Cotes du Roussillon Malgre les Fonctionnaires (which means “in spite of the civil servants”) was inky in color, and, at 14.5 percent alcohol, a very big red wine indeed. It is based on a blend of 70 percent grenache, 20 percent syrah, and 10 percent carignan.

Walden Cotes du Roussillon has won acclaim as one of the newcomers to the region, stressing the most modern winemaking techniques and committed to keeping its prices low. The 2007, at $15, is a real bargain, with a solidly knit combination of rich fruit and acid, and 14.5 percent alcohol.

This one really comes alive next to a slab of beef. The name Walden was inspired by Walden Pond in Massachusetts, where nature philosopher Henry David Thoreau lived and worked.

Cheap Dirt

Lower in alcohol at 13 percent, Chateau de Jau 2008 Cotes du Roussillon Villages ($12) was more velvety, deep and dark and with the full flavor of four varietals -- 45 percent syrah, 30 percent mourvedre, 15 percent carignan and the remainder grenache.

The estate dates to the 12th century, and since 1974 has been owned by the Daure family. There is a restaurant here, Le Grill, that is an ideal place to drink the family’s wines and recommends this bottle with a pot-au-feu or blanquette de veau.

I also enjoyed two whites in my sampling. A grenache blanc-based 2009 M. Chapoutier Bila-Haut Cotes du Roussillon ($11), had a very perfumed, floral nose and a grassiness similar to a sauvignon blanc.

Gerard Bertrand Muscat O 2010 ($11) shows why this varietal (actually two: muscat of Alexandria and muscat petit) has long been the most favored in the region.

Made with low grape yields, the juice stays on the lees for a while to develop body and intensity. At 10 percent alcohol, it is extremely easy to drink as an aperitif or with shellfish.

If you’ve ever dreamed of owning a wine estate in France, Roussillon may be a good bet.

According to the owners of Walden, land is “dirt cheap, one of the least expensive in the world” and has the “highest percentage of old vine stock than any wine region in France.” An invitation to desert your job if ever I heard one.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)