Nestled in the south of France next to Spain, Roussillon produces a rich diversity of high-quality wines at incredible value. Known for its old vines, the region offers a diverse range of dry wines in all colors and fortified sweet wines known as vins doux naturels, a longstanding regional specialty. Bringing together a small community of winemaker families, the sunniest region of France is ideal for organic vine growing. Unveil the secrets of Roussillon’s incredible wines on its new Instagram page @drinkroussillon.
On this episode of “Next Round,” hosts Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe chat with Master Sommelier Tim Geiser and sommelier Caleb Ganzer about all things Roussillon wines. Roussillon, the southernmost wine region in France, is an exciting, diverse region of dry wines. Not only is this region known for its organic and biodynamic wine-growing, its wines are also becoming recognized for their incredible value.
Historically, Roussillon has made predominantly sweet wines, but consumers will now see dry wines from the Roussillon region entering the U.S. market. Blends made from varieties such as Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Carignan are what consumers will see from this up-and-coming region. In addition, listeners will also learn which foods pair well with Roussillon wines.
Tune in to become an expert on Roussillon wines.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” All right. What’s going on, Zach?
Z: Doing well. Moved in, feeling pretty comfortable in the new house. My son has already forgotten what the old house looks like, so that’s good. I was worried it was gonna be a lot more traumatic for him to move, but he’s just young enough. At least right now, it’s a big adventure. How about you, man?
A: I’m pretty pumped for spring. Today is a colder day, but it is definitely spring in New York, which is awesome. There’s an energy that you can feel, which is cool. People are making plans and talking about potentially going places this summer. A lot of people I know either had both their vaccines or they’ve got one, or they’ve got their appointments set up. It really feels like things are moving forward, which is awesome.
Z: Do you have travel plans?
A: Not yet. I’m trying to figure that out, actually. I want to go somewhere, just how everybody does, but I don’t really know where. This summer, I am still not 100 percent on traveling to Europe. I believe their rollout has been slower. I don’t want to go to a place where there are still potential lockdowns. I’ve been talking a bunch with Naomi about some places that we enjoyed in the past. I’ve only ever been to Maine once. That seems to be the hot place people are going. I don’t know if that happens in Seattle, but all of a sudden, New Yorkers get this one destination and they all go there. Last summer, everyone went to Maine. I’m seeing that again and VinePair writes a little bit about travel but all the travel journalists I know, that’s all they’re writing about. It’s all about Maine. Everyone’s going to be there, so I might not go. I also enjoy Providence. I enjoy the Finger Lakes a lot. Actually, one of our guests also had a really cool pop-up in the Finger Lakes last summer. I wasn’t traveling anywhere last summer, but I wonder if he’ll tell us if they’re doing that again this summer. Anyways, I love that region. Also, I like to go to Virginia because it’s close enough that I can rent a car and drive pretty quickly. They have an up-and-coming wine region as well. Why am I talking about my travel plans that oddly has something to do with alcohol?
Z: Because this is the “VinePair Podcast.”
A: If I could do it, I would get on a plane and go to the West Coast. I just don’t know how long I want to sit on a plane with a mask on. Obviously, I have no problem wearing a mask. I’m just talking about it for my own comfort. Have you thought about any travel plans?
Z: Yeah, it’s funny. That feeling of things changing, I think, for me and my wife, it was unclear when we would be able to get vaccinated. Then all of a sudden, all these things came together where we were eligible to get vaccinated, we bought the house, and now we’re moving into the house. Now, we can actually turn our attention to something like travel. Obviously, I haven’t been anywhere in the last year, either. There are certainly lots here in Washington that I’d like to do. I don’t know when it’s going to be possible, but I would love to go up to British Columbia. I don’t know when the border is going to open again. That might be later in the year or 2022. California has been calling to me. There’s so much there. For me, I’ve just realized that one of the weak points in my wine knowledge, sadly, is a lot of the California wine country that’s not north of the Bay. Everything from Monterey to Santa Barbara, etc. I’ve tried some of the wines, but I’ve never really visited wineries or spent much time there from a wine perspective. It’s definitely on my list to consider. If you all have suggestions, you know how to get hold of us, I’m sure Adam and I would be happy to consider something off the beaten path. Possibly take a trip to Texas wine country.
A: Yes, please contact [email protected]m. I also might want to go somewhere and not do anything. I just want to know that there’s really great food and drink. It’s amazing how hard that is to figure out, to be honest. When you start doing searches online, you just want to find a place that’s nice, comfortable and I know has great food and beverage because I care about that. Those things are hard to find. I’m not that all-inclusive person. I don’t want to go to the Caribbean and go to a buffet. That’s just not my thing, but I wouldn’t mind going to a really great boutique hotel or something in an area that has great restaurants and not really move much. For me, when I go traveling, especially when there is anything to do with alcohol, I will never get behind the wheel of a car even if I had one drink. I like to find places where I can walk or I know that there is transportation because I lived in New York for 15 years, and I don’t have a car. That also is even crazier for me. Anyway, let’s kick off the show. Zach, would you like to introduce our guests?
Z: I would be thrilled to. We have a distinct pleasure of having two really esteemed guests, master sommelier Tim Geiser, who in his extensive career has done everything in the world of wine. Then, Caleb Ganzer, who is sommelier, wine director at Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in Manhattan. Tim and Caleb, thank you so much for joining us.
Tim Geiser: Thank you.
Caleb Ganzer: A pleasure to be here. Thanks for having us.
A: Thanks, guys. Obviously, we have you on to talk about a really great wine region, Roussillon. Before we jump into that, because we did mention some things, what’s going on for both of you professionally? Caleb, we’ll kick off with you because you were the person I was alluding to and I was talking about the project you did in the Finger Lakes. What else are you up to or have planned for the next few months?
C: Yeah. We had been going up to the Finger Lakes a fair bit, taken bus trips during normal times, and bringing folks up. Leave at 7 a.m., get there, spend a whole day on the ground and then bring a bunch of loaded people back to the city. It was cool to have that foundation. Then, once the pandemic struck and we couldn’t do anything in New York City, literally couldn’t even operate, I noticed that places outside of the city were open. I said, “Well, maybe we should just do something really stupid, like try to open up a pop-up in a month or two and run it up there.” And we did. It was great. This year, everything is so different. We’re focusing on rebuilding the city, getting our team back together here in New York City. We’re always looking around to see if there are some other good real estate opportunities, and maybe we’ll have another wine bar at the end of this, I have no idea. As far as the Finger Lakes is concerned, we won’t be back this year. Hopefully next year. It was amazing to have a wine bar in a wine region. That’s always been a dream of mine. It was just a tease, so hopefully more to come in the future.
A: Very cool. What about you, Tim?
T: Well, last year I was on a laptop because previous to that, 90 percent of what I do is get on a plane and go somewhere and do something. The good news is that I finished a draft for a tasting book, which I’ve been trying to do for about 10 years. I don’t have a name for it guys, you got to help me. Then, I’ve been working on a huge project for the Wine Institute and just doing a lot of writing. Here behind the Adobe curtain, there’s not too many people. The pandemic hasn’t been that bad. Fortunately, we’re in a nice house, and it’s been OK. I miss teaching people and seeing people for sure.
A: Very much so. Let’s get into the topic of Roussillon. I hope we could jump off with the basics. Some people may be very familiar with the region, others not. Can you explain what the region is? If you started from the beginning of the podcast, I’m sure you heard the ad at the top of the show, which has a little bit to do with descriptions of the region. However, can you give us a description of the region? Place us where we are and what we should be thinking about as we have this discussion?
T: Well, Roussillon is the southernmost wine region in France. It’s literally up against the Pyrenees and the Spanish border. Viticulture goes back to, I think, 6th century B.C.E. when the Greeks showed up. It’s about 46,000 acres in size. The stigma about the Roussillon is that people mention it with the Languedoc all the time, which is similar to mentioning Poughkeepsie and Brooklyn in the same breath. Only imagine if Poughkeepsie was the size of New York. Again, it’s a unique place because it’s bordered by the Mediterranean on one side and by mountain ranges on the other three sides. You’ve got a lot of vineyards planted at elevation and also the influence of the Mediterranean through seven different winds. That means there’s a lot of organic and biodynamic growing. There are really low yields. The wine quality is amazing for the value of what you pay for a bottle of wine. There is a lot of incredible potential for such an ancient place for wine in France.
Z: Very cool. Caleb, can you give us some perspective on some of the dominant varieties or styles of wine that we would find in Roussillon?
C: Yeah, absolutely. It’s hard to start talking about Roussillon without delving into, I think, its most famous exports and creation, and frankly, its addition to wine culture at large was the process of mutage. Well before people understood why it was working, they understood that if you added some distilled booze into a fermenting vessel, it killed whatever turned the thing into booze and you kept some of the sweetness. Then, of course, the Portuguese later became more famous for that style of wine, which is creating essentially fortified sweet wines. They’ve been doing it there for hundreds of years. The market for sweet wine dried up, all puns intended, in the ‘60s. Now, it’s almost impossible to sell sweet wine, which there is still a little bit of a market for it. You have those tasting menus, also cocktails. There’s a lot of different ways. Some people like to drink it and there’s obviously nothing wrong with it. However, when taste changes, the market has to change with it. They’ve pivoted a lot to more dry styles. You see a lot of Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Carignan in the region. You do see some Syrah, Mourvèdre, sometimes some Vermentino, the Mediterranean blend, if you will. The vast majority is Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Carignan, a lot of the grapes that they would use for the vins doux naturels. I think what’s really cool is the people that are making the sweet wines still very much hone the tradition. However, what is going to pay the bills is going to be the drier styles of wine. Echoing what Tim was mentioning, you do have tons of low yields. You have tons of old-vine material, too, which is, like people, the older you get, the less work you do, but the quality is great. There’s sometimes only a bunch or two on each vine. Those are such coddled grapes, and the purity is insane. Even at all price points, I love going to the Roussillon with $10, $15, $20 a bottle. It goes a long way there for dry whites and reds.
A: For these wines, obviously, we’re consuming them here in the U.S. Are they also widely consumed across France? Are they mostly consumed in the region?
C: The best part about most producing regions is that they do drink a lot of their stuff, and I think they make their way around Spain oddly enough. When you’re in the Roussillon, technically you’re in France, but culturally you’re in Catalonia. They fly the yellow and red flag of Catalonia everywhere. If you’re there, you are Catalonian first before you are French, before you are Spanish, or whatever. They drink a lot in Barcelona. It’s very hip to be drinking Roussillon wines because it’s their distant cousin.
C: Also, you do see a lot of export. I spend a little bit of time in Australia. You see a lot of Roussillon wines there. The flavors are great. You get the ripeness that a lot of people ask for in full-bodied reds, so it’s a really well-balanced wine. We have a Cab right now that we’re pouring. It’s a Cab-Merlot blend. It’s from the Roussillon. It’s hyper-delicious. It smells almost like a Château Margaux and Bordeaux. Then, you dive in and it has this fresh acidity, which is the best of both worlds
A: Is that just due to how much sun they get during the day, but then it gets super cool at night?
C: That’s very much part of it. Also, there’s the terroir element of sort of what the earth is doing and what the sun is doing. There’s also the terroir element in what the people do. They like well-balanced wines that are fresh and zippy. In a lot of the meals there you’re eating meat and fish so you do need some of those red fruit flavors, but you also still need it to be light on its feet.
Z: Tim, you mentioned before that one of the things with the region is that it gets lumped in with the Languedoc. I think sometimes it gets painted with this brush of the region that isn’t dedicated to “quality production” because there aren’t a bunch of AOC’s and there’s not a lot of famous appellations. I wonder, especially as Caleb was mentioning, the change in the industry that’s happened since those sweet wines became less popular, is it unfair to say there isn’t a long history of great still wine there because we’ve only recently started focusing on it? It seems to me that argument is hollow because sure, they may not have a lot of tradition, but we talk all the time about regions all over the world that are newer than that and talk about them as great wine regions. I think sometimes that argument is a little reductive, I suppose. I’m just wondering where you see the quality level, and is it comparable to other French wine regions?
T: Yes, yes, and yes. The region gets a bad rap because let’s face it, dry table wines have been made for a long, long time there. Historically, they were vin de pays or they were table wines. It’s really only within the last 30 years that you have the Côtes de Roussillon Villages and this move to quality. It’s in the shadow of its history and its neighbor’s history. I think more than anything, people are quickly discovering that newer generations of winemakers have incredible plant material to work with. They certainly have the technology. In many cases, they have the money. They’re producing really distinctive wines that are of incredible value. It’s funny, in Germany, which I pay attention to a lot, Roussillon as a place in France for red wine and rosé is a really popular thing. One thing that really strikes me about the Roussillon and is that for the next 10 or 20 years and beyond, it’s going to be one of the places that are going to continue to surprise us where you’ll get these small producers that are making incredible wines.
Z: Very cool. This is always hard to say, but is that what we’re looking at in the region is a lot of smaller producers, or are we talking about large-scale production? How does that shake out in the Roussillon?
T: Well, I think it’s a mix of all of those things. The co-ops are an important factor. I think if you consider that the average landholding for a family is less than three acres, many people don’t have the wherewithal or the equipment to actually produce wine. Co-ops have been an important factor there for decades. At the same time, some of those co-ops now are owned by the growers and they’re making really good wines. The model’s been turned on its head, and again, newer generations of winemakers have incredible plant material to work with. I expect great things.
A: Obviously, one of the things that have become more important to a lot of wine consumers is the idea of, and we talked about this a bunch in the past few weeks here at VinePair, sustainability, organics, etc. In a region where there is so much sunshine, do you know how many of the producers are practicing organics? Is that something that is a priority in this region?
T: Well, I don’t have an exact number for that. I think, per all the wine regions in France, it has the highest percentage by far overall for people that are certified organic. If you think about it for a second, that makes perfect sense. If you’ve got a really dry climate because of wind, there’s less disease and fungicide-type pest pressure. It just makes farming organically much easier.
A: Very cool. In terms of the quality of the wines we talked about, Caleb, you mentioned this bright, zippy style. Can we talk a little bit about the sweet wines? I know they’re very prized. If someone was to try to get into those wines, what would they be looking for, and what price point are they looking at? Also, what would you eat with those wines?
T: There are three or four major appellations for them. I think Caleb pointed out that there are more of these fortified wines produced by the Roussillon than anywhere else in France. Banyuls is certainly the most well-known one. You have fantastic wines that can be made very fresh and vintage dated. They’re called rimage. Those usually retail anywhere from, $15 to $25. The Banyuls grand crus would see much more aging, which would up the price to $30 or $35. Also, those wines age incredibly well. You also have wines from the communes of Rasiguères and Maury. Those are made in four different styles, some of them very fresh, especially Muscat. The result reminds me of Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. Very fresh and light, and again the low $20s for suggested retail. Then, some of the wines are aged in solera systems like Sherry. As a matter of fact, in the past couple of years, I’ve had amore from the ’83 vintage and that was just spectacular and the suggested retail on that is less than $50. Even though a sommelier — and Caleb would be the first to agree with this — it’s like Sisyphus pushing this huge bottle of dessert wine up an impossible hill. The fact of the matter is the delicious factor and the pairing possibilities. I think these wines are the best possible wines for the cheese course, and there’s really no better value for dessert wines on the planet.
A: Well, now I have a question for Caleb about that. How do you, through the Compagnie, try to explain these wines to consumers? I know the Compagnie has a millennial consumer base, but I’m sure you serve everybody. You’re in SoHo. How do you go about explaining these wines, especially the dessert wines, the Banyuls, to consumers, and try to get them excited about the bottles?
C: Absolutely. It’s definitely a struggle. It’s so funny because people would say, “Oh, no, I don’t want anything sweet. I want something dry.” They just don’t want to pay for anything sweet. If they are finishing the meal and you say, “Hey, I have this on me,” they will gulp that down in two seconds and want more.
C: How do you talk about it? Honestly, we just push the dry wines. It’s so much easier. That being said, I think there’s a place for the sweet wines, especially for the cheese course. It’s lovely to have it open. And the value is insane. You can get an old wine for cheap. A lot of people are liking that these days. People come in and they want to drink the oldest wine we have. Sometimes it’s Bordeaux, sometimes it’s a sweet port. They just want old so that’s definitely a cool thing to check out. You can find, as Tim was mentioning, our ’80s wines on the market for well under $100. You can even find early 1900s stuff on the market for even sometimes less than $300. There’s so much history and flavor evolution in those bottles. They start to take on a Madeira-esque quality for a fraction of the price. I think just talking about the dry wines, we love this region because almost always there are so many producers that are being brought into New York. Almost always they’re organic or biodynamic or just going to the next level. Oftentimes, it’s just so easy. There are fewer pressures that these winemakers have to deal with in this area. No one wants to use pesticides if they don’t have to. No one wants to use fungicides if they don’t have to. They don’t, and the wines are just very fresh, delicious in all different price points. One other thing I want to talk about is all the different soil types. It’s Alsace and Roussillon that are the two most complex regions in all of France with soil types. It makes sense. They’re right on the mountain range. You have millions of years of geological history splayed out all across the region. It’s not the predominant soil type here, but there’s a lot of limestone, which makes even fresher wines. It’s a little geeky to talk about, but there is a village in the region called Calce, which alludes to the calcium root of the word for limestone. It’s literally a village of 220 people and fading. Yet, there are six producers in this region, in this village alone. They are putting out some of the most world-class wines at all price points. The most famous is Domaine Gauby, and he is the godfather in the region. A lot of young people are moving to the area because they can get land for cheap, so they can produce good wines. They also go work with him for a little bit. He shows them the ways. He’s biodynamic and doing all the right things. Then, these young people go on and grow. It’s a region that’s also attracting people, especially younger people right now, and they’re putting out some awesome, awesome stuff. That’s what we love to talk about.
A: That’s very cool.
Z: I have an additional question about the evolution of the region, as you mentioned, that is attracting younger potential winemakers who see the opportunity in Roussillon that might not be in more established wine regions. Is it also the case that you’re seeing more experimentation? I think what’s exciting about these regions is that they don’t have crazy-high price points. People can try stuff, and it’s not the same risk. Is that your read on it as well?
C: In terms of experimentation, you definitely see people vinifying grapes that are already there. I think what I love about the new generation in Spain, too, is these young people making wines out of grapes that normally wouldn’t really be “marketable or sellable.” No one’s seeking out these grapes. They are putting out a very unique wine. It’s their job, as they deem it, to interpret what Mother Earth is giving them and to make it as delicious as possible. In terms of experimentation, I think people are taking the risks with what’s already there, which is of big value-add. Usually, long-term organic farm vineyards have tons of old-vine material that are beautifully ripened and then it’s like, “Don’t mess it up in the cellar.” A lot of them are doing that. I think that’s what I see as experimentation. They’re just having fun with how they’re marketing it. Sometimes they talk about the grape, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they get a colorful label, sometimes they don’t. What I love is that they’re having fun making wines because they can. That’s very attractive to me.
A: Yes, that’s awesome. Obviously, you talked a lot about how delicious these wines are. And this is a Catalonia region, so they eat a lot of fish and meat. For people who are listening at home, what types of dishes specifically do you think go well with these wines? I am curious to give people an idea of some classic dishes or things that they could think about when they have these wines with the food they might eat.
C: Yeah, and I’ll kick it off. I’m mostly into reds and whites initially. Obviously, they make rosé. They make a little bit of sparkling, but mostly it’s reds and whites in terms of the dry styles. The reds have ripe fruit flavors, and you can pair it with roast lamb, meat, steak, burgers on the grill. Any meat. It’s literally like having a pantry fully stocked is the wine region of Roussillon. I can pair almost any dish with a wine from this region. If you were to tell me to choose one region on earth and to pair it with a 25-course tasting menu, Roussillon is a done deal. That doesn’t help to have a succinct answer. Now, the minerality always comes through in this area. I don’t know what it is, but even in red wines, but especially in the whites. I love really mineral whites with seared scallops. A Grenache Gris or a Carignan Blanc with seared scallops? Give it to me all day. I’ll leave it there, because I could go on forever.
T: Caleb, you made a lot of great points. These wines are really the best of both worlds for people who drink wines. The place has to matter, and these wines nail it. I think several of us have mentioned that the red wines especially are comfort food wines, but they’re chameleons as well. In terms of comfort food, I think a Vitamin P pork in every possible form, because the richness and density of the red wines, the blends, really matches the intensity of practically any way you can prepare pork, even things like a pulled pork sandwich. The acidity, to me, really makes these wines versatile. The white wines, especially the ones done in the modern style, use stainless-steel, slow, cold fermentation, be they cultured or natural. And really vibrant acidity and very pure, pristine fruit. But again, mineral-driven. They’ll keep people like us happy. And I think for someone who just wants a glass of really delicious white wine, they really score there too.
Z: Very cool. I’m wondering if each of you could offer two or three producers. I know, Caleb, you mentioned Domaine Gauby, but there are others that might have some availability? It doesn’t have to be every last corner of the U.S., but we’d love to give our listeners who are excited and interested in trying these wines a few names to look out for. Do you guys have a few suggestions?
T: Yeah, sure. Michel Chapoutier bought a property, I think, in 1999 in one of the villages, Latour-de-France, called Domaine de Bila-Haut, making really good red wines. Also, Domaine de la Rectorie and Mas Amiel. I think all three of those are pretty widely available here in the U.S.
Z: Caleb, did you have any others you would recommend?
C: I would definitely say Domaine de I’Horizon. It’s still a small producer, but the good news is he’s gotten picked up by Rosenthal, which I know has good distribution across the U.S. Tim, unfortunately, took my other suggestions. When I’m traveling, whether it’s going to Texas or whatever, I see really good value on Roussillon wines almost everywhere, which is a very encouraging sign.
A: Very cool. Well, Tim and Caleb, thank you so much for coming on and chatting with us more about Roussillon and giving us a little bit of a not masterclass, but a toe-dip into the region. For those who were familiar with it, but also unfamiliar with it, we really appreciate it. This was a really fun conversation about a wine region that there is a lot to be excited about. Thank you both so much.
C: Thank you.
T: Thanks for having us.
A: Of course. And Zach, see you here next week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City, and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.