Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Peaks of Roussillon

April 2011. The Roussillon wine region in the far south of France is a land of paradox. Its people are more Calatan than French (the region was once ruled from Majorca); many names are Spanish; it has France’s sunniest climate yet its highest mountains are capped with snow even in summer; and it produces some remarkable reds made wholly or partly from the generally mediocre Carignan grape (though only when the vines are very old and the winemaker extremely talented).

Writing in the 1970s, Alexis Lichine described the terroir as “hot, mountainous, meagre, and peppered with rocks”. He was dismissive of the reds and dry whites (with justice, in those days), declaring that only the sweet wines were of outstanding character. Visiting the region myself some thirty years ago, I was taken aback by the abysmal quality of almost everything I tasted. As we shall see, all this has changed dramatically over the intervening decades.

In the 1980s, the great oenologist Emile Peynaud told me wrily about how he’d been sent down to Languedoc-Roussillon years before with the task of transforming the quality of the wines. « Down here you have France’s best climate and yet you make France’s worst wines, « he told growers, « How do you explain that? » In fact, the whole region was largely planted with low-grade, high-yield vines mostly located in the worst possible places. To make matters worse, few had any idea how to vinify well.

Avid to see what the best producers are now up to, I recently made my way to the region to taste some of the wines, and to taste them in the presence of the growers who fashioned them. Here’s my account of that voyage of discovery.

Domaine Gauby lies close to the village of Calce, which gets its name from calcaire, or limestone. Therein lies a clue to the essential nature of the local terroir. We approach the village through rugged country of multi-coloured soils and outcrops of rock: orange, grey, cream, indian red, burnt umber, rust. Some clumps of rock rise from the ground like petrified geysers. These are interspersed with stretches of garrigue; miniature gullies filled with fragmented boulders; rows of abandoned vines engulfed in grass and weeds. The track gets narrower, bumpier, rich red rock pales to yellow, its face emphatically striated.

The Domaine, nestling in its very own valley, suddenly looms: an unprepossessing huddle of buildings surrounded by ochreous hills topped by outcrops of trees and shrubs. Half of the slopes are covered with vines.

Gérard Gauby materializes before us, so close to his terroir in every sense that he seems like a physical manifestation of it. Built like a wrestler, with the head of a philosopher, he has large features, warm brown eyes, and a powerful, emphatic voice – the voice of somebody judiciously putting into words the accumulated thoughts accrued from countless hours of solitary reflection.

Within seconds he gives voice to what is clearly one of his most passionately-held convictions: « Let nature, let the terroir and the grapes, express themselves as directly as possible. Let there be as little intervention as possible! ».

(Later as I taste the wines, I see that he has intervened as little as possible, as the wines are so strikingly natural, of unfeigned trueness; but it’s also crystal clear that each and every one of them carries the unmistakeable stamp of his winemaking style.)

Gérard Gauby shows fragments of the rock that leaves an indeliable imprint on his powerful, balanced wines. Behind, the vertically-striated rock-face of his underground cellars.

“We have fifty hectares of land, forty of them under vine. Here, we’re halfway between Corbières to the north and the Pyrénées to the south. The rocks here are of crucial importance. They have vertical strata, which creates a channel for the roots to probe deep into the subsoil. »

Gauby allows nothing to get between him and his vines. He does not carry a mobile phone and has nothing whatever to do with the commercial side of things. Even visits are arranged by his wife, who presumably knows what sort of visitors he wants to receive – and those he prefers to avoid.

« When I started off, I looked most of all for power in my wines. Then I transferred my attention to acidity. But that’s not the key. Finally I went for finesse. » It’s not surprising, then, that his favourite wine, of all is Burgundy, whose red wines, on balance, show more finesse than those of any other region. Like Churchill, he’s easily satisfied with the best. Domaine Leroy is the Burgundy producer that represents his ideal. As we talk we move through the winery, a gloomy space, like a mixture of artist’s studio and garage, that’s filled with plastic vats, barrels, machinery, and a whole range of utensils. As we descend to the lowest level, he shows us a stretch of living rock, a meld of marne, schist, and limestone flecked with crasse de fer – clumps of stone rich in iron.



Bright yellow-gold and a lovely nose that’s juicy and full, emitting gusts of grapefruit and orange blossom. The enticing flavour suggests peach and orange pulp, the aftertaste is soft but lingering.

« I used only one-sixth or seventh of the usual dose of sulphur in this. It’s the minerality that’s important, not the acidity! »

2009 SYRAH (30-year vines) ***
This nearly black wine has a vast, typical Syrah aroma, dense and vital, with a core of ripe fruit. The flavour is packed with lush fruit, with plenty of nuances, and there’s an attractive freshness with plenty of grip. Will improve for 15 years.

2009 GRENACHE (from small wooden vat) ***
Dark but limpid, this has a broad yet elegant aroma with lift, suggesting cherry and darnson jam. As with the Syrah, it’s very fresh on the palate, and the finish is long and satisfying – a lovely unforced expression of the Grenache (« the Pinot Noir of the South, » according to M. Gauby). The ripe tannins impart a faint graininess.

2009 GRENACHE (90-year vines on limestone soil with NW exposure) ***
A nuanced deep purple (the look of a top Côte de Nuits Burgundy), this has a noble, complex aroma, rich yet buoyant, of raspberry, plum, and damson, with a lurking hint of blackberry. Not as defined as one would like (it’s in transition) it nonetheless shows depth and mellowness.

Yet again, strikingly fresh on the palate, with a smooth. rolling texture and lovely fruitiness which licks at your palate the way a cat licks your hand. A subtle goût de terroir adds an extra dimension to the finish.

« The tannins aren’t metallic at all, » crows M. Gauby, adding:« Great wines are versatile, they go with everything. I love reds with fish! ».

2009 GRENACHE *** (from high altitude – 270 m)
Still darker, this has a scent more suggestive of Syrah force than Grenache flesh. The nose is pure black fruit {you can pick out black cherry and elderberry) and the swelling aftertaste is long and harmonious, with a slight, agreeable bitterness on the finish.

2009 CARIGNAN “MUNTADA” (vines from 1890)****
Many modern wines are opaque but this one’s blackness is remarkable for two reasons : its intensity and its nuanced look – a sign of complexity. The nose, a bit gamy, evokes all manner of black fruits and is of vertiginous depth. But there’s restraint too. The flavour and aftertaste are long and dense, but not heavy, and a slight residual gassiness (the wine isn’t yet “finished”) cannot obscure the wine’s distinction. Should be on a plateau of excellence 2022-30. (Only 1500 bottles produced).

« There’s no sulphur in any of my ’09s, » declares M. Gauby with emphasis.

Another blackish wine with a rich, voluminous aroma of ripe fig and a whole range of black fruits, black cherry to the fore. One is struck by its purity and freshness and much as by its ample energy. The flavour is velvety and refined, the finish protracted and with many nuances. Again, one is reminded of Côte de Nuits Burgundy.

Will still be young in 20 years.

The colour of a ripe black cherry, this has a balanced, very intense scent of sweet damson, black cherry with stone, blackcurrant, and smoke. A hint of truffle too. Like all previous wines, this is strikingly fresh, with underlying elegance despite the power, and the black fruit aftertaste, lush and concentrated, is long and expressive. Should peak around 2020-35.

A brilliant green-gold, this has a gorgeous, lushly fruity aroma of grapefruit, mirabelle, and orange blossom. There’s also a touch of apricot and l’m reminded of a young white Hermitage from Chave. It’s delectable in the mouth, too, as juicy as a pink grapefruit. A lovely wine to enjoy in 6-8 years’ time (« Not less than 10! » insists M. Gauby).

ln its mature phase the wine is notably different, exhaling mirabelle, cloudberry, and beeswax. You can detect a thread of acidity at the centre. The flavour is long, incisive, and slightly bitter, with noticeable acidity. Not wholly mature even now, it needs a further year or two to peak.

(The acidity seemed to me of the malic variety, suggesting that the malolactic fermentation has been stopped; but M. Gauby said this was not so – while agreeing that the acidity was, in fact, very noticeable).

2010 CARIGNAN (140-year vines on marnous soil, one plot facing Northwest, the other South) ****
As dark and opaque as crème de cassis, this has an almost unnervingly intense aroma of wild strawberry and raspberry liqueur, whooshing up from the glass like a tidal wave. Despite its exuberance, it shows restraint (a Gauby hallmark) and precision. The finish is exceedingly long. Awesome.

« Only 12.5°, » says M. Gauby with a satisfaction that is understandable, given that many properties in Bordeaux – with its milder climate – are producing wines dosing close on 15°.

Finally we taste a sweet wine from the barrel :

2004 “WINE FROM THE MIDDLE AGES” (95% Maccabeu and a little Grenache Blanc) ****
An orange-amber colour, this unusual wine smells of orange marmalade, tobacco, ginger, and saffron. The flavour is exquisite, a meld of orange, apricot, and candied grapefruit. Though sweet and rich, it’s not heavy, giving a tonic impact. The finish, which eventually turns a little bitter, stays on the palate a long time.
M. Gauby, as he saw us off, says that he feels the last wine is in the mould of those made hereabouts in the Middle Ages. « Kings used to drink the sweet wines of this region in those times…. I think of it as my Middle-Age wine. »

Tasting wine at full concentration is both stimulating and draining. If you do it properly, you give your entire attention to a whole series of wines, minutely analyzing every single aspect of their appearance and constitution: colour (depth, intensity, their lack or possession of nuances); aroma (intensity, purity or lack thereof, nature, recognizable traits and affinities, affinities with the aromas of all manner of flowers, fruits, minerals, etc.); flavour (character; strength, complexity, balance, tannin level, quality of tannins); aftertaste (length, overall harmony, finish). After the Gauby visit, then, it would be a real pleasure to eat a really good lunch.

This is precisely what we did, in a tiny village called Maury, in a smart little restaurant called Pascal Borrell. The starter was a tasty pork rissole in a fine sauce with lamb’s lettuce, the main dish calf’s liver with mashed potato. Every ingredient was fresh and had been cooked so as to conserve every scrap of flavour. The only disappointment was a dreary wine, one of only a few available in half-bottle! (a full bottle would have been too much, with more tastings to come).

You’re visually aware of Mas Amiel long before you reach the property, as its initials are incised into the slopes of the hill above it in letters 10 or more metres high. It makes an arresting impression, like some ancient hieratic symbol, a giant hieroglyph that draws the eye irrestistibly.

This is a big estate, with 155 hectares of vines, 55% of them planted with Grenache Noir, the variety that really come into its own in the south. It not only gives excellent reds (it’s the principal grape in Châteauneuf-du-Pape) but can also be used to make outstanding fortified wines, not dissimilar to port. Rich dessert wines are, in fact, Mas Amiel’s main speciality, accounting for some 60% of production.

The approach to Mas Amiel, the haunting sight of its giant initials, like a vast hieroglyph on the slopes of the hill.

Other varieties of grape include Carignan, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and (on the white side) two different Muscats, Grenache Blanc and Gris, and Roussanne. Yields are exceedingly low, a mere 23 hectolitres per hectare.

I tasted a number of dry whites and reds, all of them correct but none exciting (not to me, at least).

The interesting bit began with the first fortified wine:

This dark, distinctly porty wine smells and tastes like pears steeped in port, with a fugitive hint of almond on the finish. The acid, stony soils give a grainy texture, a kind of palimpsest of sub-flavours, to the finish, which is medium long at present. This needs time to shed its puppy-fat.

Dark but limpid, this has a drier, more complex aroma of damson, fig, and blackberry, with hints of smoky oak. The longish flavour is semi-sweet, the texture gritty in an agreeable way. Will improve over 12-15 years.

Blackish and noticeably viscous, this second ’06 has a full, slightly oxidative smell of elderberry, sloe, and blackcurrant. The flavour is more nuanced than the aroma, with notes of coffee, smoke, liquorice, and bay leaf (the last a trait often found in Grenache wines). Long. This should develop over 20 years or so.

We’ve now arrived at the sweet, frankly portlike dessert wines that, because of their depth of flavour, justify Mas Amiel’s reputation. There’s now an extra dimension of scent and savour, with an additional depth and intensity of colour. The nose, of great vitality, conjures up black cherry, kirsch, elderberry, dark chocolate, and damson. This carries through to the palate, with the addition of raisins and fig. The Roussillon terroir imparts an acidity and graininess that counterbalance the sweetness. At best around 2014-25 (and doubtless beyond).

MAURY ROUGE PRESTIGE (15 years) **(*)
Tawny in colour and like tawny port in character, this has a soft, round scent of dried fig, date, and marron glacé. The flavour, fig to the fore, is sweet and intense, with a pruny accent, and I find bay leaf on the very finish. (Mas Amiel recommend drinking this with chocolate – or a good cigar).

The colour of this 30-year-old is a faintly cloudy brown-purple and it smells enticingly of plum jam, cinnamon, and saffron. The flavour is sweet and bracing and leads into a long, delectable aftertaste of date and cinnamon. Fine acidity gives a crisp, precisely defined finish. Already of venerable age, it seems good for another 15-20 years. A wine of distinction.

The colour is similar to the above, while the aroma is more evolved, being fuller and waxier and just a hint drier. It smells like a meld of plum jam, fig, and raisins. The flavour, syrupy in texture, is enlivened by crisp acidity and I find a suggestion of clovey spice on the chocolaty finish. (« Best enjoyed as a liqueur, » says Mas Amiel).

The colour is a very evolved tawny-red. The nose, more reminscent of old sherry than port, evokes orange marmalade, dried apricot, and (very much in the background) redcurrant. What I now perceive to be the hallmark of these characterful sweet wines – crisp acidity – gives vitality and rigour to the sweet aftertaste. A splendid wine of its type – a stylistic meld of tawny port, oloroso sherry, and Madeira.

As I leave, I savour the aftertaste, reflecting that the last three wines would make a good match to English Christmas pudding.

My first encounter with the wines of Clot de l’Oum was at a restaurant in Normandy, far to the north, where an unusually bright sommelier recommended their 2002 Vieilles Vignes. It proved to be a fabulous wine – rich, profound, long on the palate. I resolved to visit at the first opportunity.

M. Monné senior outlines the wine-making philosophy of Clot de l'Oum to Frank Ward.

And that’s what brought me to the property, which I first glimpse through early morning mist. It’s a smallish estate, just 15 hectares of vines, and its owner, Eric Monné runs it on a part-time basis. This is partly because he has a full-time job in Holland, working for the EC.

We are received by his highly sympathetic father, dressed in a swish black leather jacket, who clearly steps in frequently as locum. Most of the vines are on slopes, he tells me, and the terroir is a mix of granite, schist, and gneiss. They’ve been biodynamic since 2008. Eric, his father says, attaches the highest importance to the “mastery of alcohol” – keeping levels down in so hot a region is crucial if you value subtlety – so they tend to pick early, to avoid the build-up of too much sugar.

2009 COTES DU ROUSSILLON CINE PANETONNE * (Grenache Blanc & gris, Carignan Blanc, Muscat, Maccabeu)

Like a champagne without the bubbles, this is crisp, fresh, and aromatic. It smells of peach and hazelnut and the medium-full flavour has a longish, tart finish. Very clean with plenty of zing but not much depth. (Had they picked later and vinified longer they would probably have had a more traditional, but inescapably heavier, wine).

The reds show more character.

2008 COTES DU ROUSSILLON VILLAGES SAINT BART VIEILLES VIGNES *** (One-third each Carigan, Grenache, and Syrah).
Rich in colour and highly aromatic, this has a sumptuous nose of bilberry, smoke, and violet, with a faintly rubbery element. The flavour is smooth and vinous, with a promise of elegance as the wine matures. There’s a plethora of black fruits on the finish, with excellent acidity giving freshness. Good for a dozen years at least. I’m impressed to learn that this weighty wine doses only 12.5° alcohol.

The colour of crème de cassis, this wine has a full, assertive scent of real complexity, different strands of aroma twirling around each other like plaited hair. Damson, cinnamon, and kirsch can be picked out. The flavour of black fruits and bay leaf is full of substance with tannins giving a nice grain to the finish. This needs another 4 years to open up and will drink well for another 8-10.

Similar in appearance, this 6-year-old has a vast, broad aroma of damson and blackberry jams, underbrush, and sloe, which carries us, a river of aroma in full spate, into a burly, masterful flavour that’s spicy and full of matière. There’s an agreeable bitterness on the finish which shows real depth. A peremptory wine, very southern in character, that will live a good 14-15 years.

2009 NUMERO UNO ** (Pure Syrah)
This black, peppery wine has a big, Syrah aroma that suggests red pepper, and black fruits. Though extremely young it already shows good balance and the finish is smooth and protracted. The Syrah vines, though only 10 years old, are clearly of top quality.

2008 NUMERO UNO **(*), from 39-year Syrah vines on granite.
This huge black wine is a rollercoaster of smell and taste, exhaling gusts of chocolate, red pepper, and leather. The flavour fills the mouth with fruit and, though forceful, shows good freshness and lift. Though closed on the finish you can sense an underlying length, which will be more apparent as it ages. Drink around 2013-20. Here again the alcohol level is modest: 12.5°.

2007 NUMERO UNO ***
The style is different, with a more roasted, “southern” approach: broad, leathery, spicy, in an almost Châteauneuf manner. The flavour, as expected, shows the same traits: rich, roasted, packed with fruit (black and red fruits, chocolate, cloves, and underbrush). A really big-bodied wine that needs plenty of time.

2006 NUMERO UNO ***
We descend into blackness once more, with another roasted aroma rushing up to meet us, conveying hints of black cherry, blackberry, kirsch, and autumn berries. Violets show, too – always a good sign. The flavour is long and nuanced and while very much a wine of the south it’s reallyfresh on the finish. Tannins, and the granitic soil, give a gritty finale. Should be at its best around 2014-25.

2007 CARIGNAN *** (60-year vines on granite)
A dusky wine with a round, weighty aroma of underbrush, liquorice black fruits, and violet. The excellent flavour, crammed with fruit, is velvety and shows real depth and length. The finish is strikingly complex. A lovely wine (I simply had to buy some bottles of this!) Will last well.

Domaine de Casenove is located near the village of Trouillas and is run by the sympathetic Etienne Montès, a tallish man of athletic build with tousled hair and the bookish, reflective look of a serious novelist (he used, in fact, to be a press photographer). « It was my generation that really started to reflect on the question of vinification. We took up travelling, seeing how things were done elsewhere. We’re far from everywhere here. There’s a tradition of vins doux naturels but things fell into desuetude after the phylloxera… ».

Etienne Montès, proprietor of Domaine de Casenove, reminiscences about earlier harvests and the many factors that determine the character and longevity of wines.

« We have 45 hectare here, and rent another 25 at Saint Luc. I only make one dry white – sometimes! We have clay soil here, no limestone, and some plots of gravel. Our soil is cold. »

Prior to the tasting we take a stroll around his large, flagstoned mansion. “lt’s not from any particular era, it’s just been added to and modified over three centuries! »

The tasting which follows is impressive but also difficult. Why?
All the wines have huge reserves of flavour but, as all bottles are opened immediately prior to tasting, they’re all relatively closed up. Re-tasting them, as we did later at lunch en famille, was a revelation: every single bottle had been transformed by its contact with the air (all must have been magnificent around dinnertime that evening!); all would repay further keeping.

2007 BLANC * (40% each Grenache Blanc & Roussanne, 20% Torbat)
The colour is a limpid yellow-gold and the nose, soft and pure, evokes mirabelle and yellow rose. The flavour is dry and stony (flinty, to be exact) and medium long. For mid-term drinking.

2006 LA COLUMINA* (Carignan, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre)
The aroma is soft and harmonious, suggesting damson, elderberry, and date, while the flavour, of medium length, ends slightly dry. To drink over the next year or two.

2005 COTES CATALANES LA GARRIGUE ** (One-third each Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan – the latter planted in 1934)
A deep black-purple, this has a rich, vital aroma of blackcurrant, black cherry, and violet. One is struck by the wine’s harmony and precision. The flavour is dense, close-knit, and the schistous soil stipples the finish with minerality. Despite a high alcohol level (14.5°) the wine is not very fat. Still young, it should be at best around 2016-26.

2004 COTES CATALANES TORRESPEYRAS *** (Syrah & Carignan)
The colour is a lovely deep black-purple, the nose  weighty and very ripe, carrying scents of black cherry, ripe fig, chocolate, and black olives. There’s even a hint of morel mushroom. The flavour is long and nuanced, with good freshness, with the finish turning towards bay leaf, smoke, sweet prunes, and underbrush. Classic reserve lurks behind the power. Should improve for 16-18 years.

This has a powerful, focused aroma of pronounced Syrah character, suggestive of elderberry, liquorice, and graphite. The flavour is packed with energy and of optimal concentration. Damson and underbrush can be picked out on the long, as yet undeveloped, aftertaste, which has a very firm finish. Should be splendid with game around 2018-30.

The colour is deep, the nose still closed at 12 years – and a bit oxidative. Distinctly gamy, it smells like a meld of vieille prune liqueur, chocolate, and iron. On the palate, plum jam, morel, chocolate, and cinnamon. « 98 was a very dry year, I only made one wine, with Syrah dominating. »

This dark wine, dosing 14.5°, has a noble, claret-like aroma that’s broad and powerful and suggests damson jam, graphite, and smoke (one could mistake it for a Saint Estèphe, tasting blind). The flavour is rich and complex with plenty of substance, with a finish edging towards black fruits, graphite, smoke and liquorice-wood. Plenty of minerality. Even at 16 years it still needs 6 or so more to open fully.

2000 COTES DU ROUSSILLON PLA DEL REI ***(*) (90% Syrah + Carignan and Grenache)
This opaque wine has a dense, weighty nose of black cherry, damson jam, and graphite. There’s a feeling of roundness, and I soon catch a whiff of ripe black fig. The excellent flavour also incorporates a hint of elderberry and bitter chocolate and develops the whole time, each shake of the glass coaxing forth extra nuances of smell and taste. The tannins are of the highest quality and the wine will live long.

« This comes from a 2-hectare plot of very porous, clayey soil at a yield of 25 hectolitres per hectare.  »

2009 RIVESALTES *** (100% Grenache Noir)

This sweet red has a blackish colour and a big, malty nose of black cherry, fig, bay leaf, and chocolate. The syrupy flavour evokes brown sugar and gingerbread and there’s an enlivening twist of acidity on the finish. A mere infant, it will evolve well for decades.

2001 RIVESALTES AMBRE 15/10 ***(*), Grenache Blanc & Maccabeu)
A rich amber, this has a big globular scent of orange marmalade, orange blossom, and saffron, with a hint of marigold. This enticing aroma leads into an unctuous, faintly scorched flavour of orange peel and dried apricot. The aftertaste, flecked with minerals, is very long. Superb. (M. Montès says tarte tatin is an ideal accompaniment).

2005 S’ARENA ***(*)
This is a capricious, potentially outstanding, dessert wine, with a deep orange-amber colour and thick viscous tears. The scent is delectable: cloudberry, candied orange peel, dried apricot, and honeycomb. The succulent flavour is intense, with a penetrating thread of citric acidity running through it. It’s also slightly gassy (M. Montès says that it refermented in bottle!). When it finally settles down it could well be exceptional.

© Frank Ward 2011

Photos : John Statham

2 Responses to “Peaks of Roussillon”

  1. Dear Mr Ward,

    I discovered with a great pleasure your report on Roussillon wines . I have to adress you my warmest thanks for your indulgent comments of our wines . The most important point for me is that you mention the ability of theses wines to age . It is for me a big support in a world where ready made wines dominate .

    With my best regards and thanks

    Etienne Montès

  2. A Timeless Piece of Art A Timeless Piece of Art said

    I was looking at some of your posts on this website and I think this internet site is really instructive! Continue putting up.

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