Wine 101: French Wine Regions: Roussillon

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by The Language of Yes, a love letter to Southern France sent from California. Pioneering winemaker Randall Grahm’s vision leads this Old World, New World winemaking tribute with traditional winemaking methods, like passerillage, post-harvest grape drying. This practice imparts notes of crushed lavender, rosemary, and sage to the Syrah and hints of strawberry rhubarb in the Grenache. These wines scored high with critics. To try Language of Yes Grenache and Syrah, visit

On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers heads south to the foothills of the Pyrenees to dive into the wines of Roussillon. Often attached to the Languedoc region, this wine zone is known for being the sunniest place in all of France. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. We just found out that the speed of a computer mouse is measured in Mickeys. Mickeys, get it? You’re welcome.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From The VinePair Podcasting Network, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers, and I am the tastings director of VinePair. Yes, I am.
OK, today we’re going to a little place called Roussillon. It’s right next to Languedoc. It’s sometimes put together, but they’re very separate. We’re going to talk about it itself so you can get into these awesome wines.

When I did the Languedoc episode, I did it knowing that not a lot of wine lovers know this particular wine region. I hope you do now, of course. It’s one of the largest wine regions in France. I also mentioned that it’s often hyphenated with its neighboring wine region to the west, Roussillon, but because of how big Languedoc is, I had to dedicate just one episode to it.

Last episode, we talked about Jura, and we talked about leaving the yellow wine, this oxidative stuff. I think because of that, now that that’s in your mind, I think we need to talk about Roussillon because this is a place that you probably have never heard of. If you have, awesome, that’s great, because these wines are great, but if you haven’t heard of it, the Roussillon wine region was traditionally focused primarily on sweet wines. It thrived at a time, and we talked about this all the time in the wine world and the history of wine. It thrived at a time when sweet wines were popular because they were the wines that could travel and not die, and just flab out on a ship running to another market.

I mean, it’s thought that this is the region where the idea of adding spirit to grape must to stop fermentation was invented/discovered. It’s called mutage. This happens in port. It happens in Madeira, which we’re going to get into, but they don’t often use that term. They use the term fortification.

As far as tradition goes, this is a very different wine situation that was happening to the east in Languedoc. Also, the people here are very closely tied to northeast Spain, a place called Catalonia. Literally, it’s just over the Pyrenees. What happens is in Southern France, it looks like a little bit of an amphitheater, as we talked about in the Languedoc episode. Languedoc takes up primarily the eastern part of that amphitheater.

To the west of that, there’s a town called Narbonne. Just west of Narbonne, this is what we’re getting into the Roussillon territory. As we keep heading west, we’re heading towards Spain. We get to a town called Perpignan. This town — I’ve been here, it’s amazing. This is kind of the big city town that represents Roussillon. This is on the coast. We keep going, and we hit the Pyrenees. The Pyrenees are a mountain range that borders Spain and France. It’s so high that you can see snow-capped mountains all through summer, and it’s extremely, extremely windy. I have a story I’ll tell in a second, but from Perpignan going inland, we start to get into the very hilly area, and this is where a lot of Roussillon wine is made.

There’s also wine being made on the coasts, which we’ll talk about in a second, but this is Roussillon. Just like Languedoc, where Languedoc has a coastal wine area, and then as you go inland, it gets a little bit hilly. Well, here, it doesn’t get hilly, it gets mountainous.

There’s a reason why the department of France that this Roussillon is in is called the Pyrénées-Orientales. Did I say that right? Although there is fertile land towards the coast, which there always is, the majority of this area has poor soil, so the two crops that really thrive here are olive and grapes. Whereas last episode, we were talking about Jura, how it’s the coldest wine region in France. Here, in Roussillon, it is the sunniest wine region in France with 325 days of sun, but because of it being in this very mountainous foothill region, like I said, it’s a very windy place. It’s very insane.

I have a story. I was in the Pyrenees, visiting this wine region. It’s an amazing wine region. My colleague and I were up in some part of the mountain, and we needed to go to this old hermit house, and you could only get to the hermit house with a rope. You had to use a rope to climb along this wall to get to a stairway to get to a house. It’s on top of a mountaintop hill thing. The thing is, you had to use the rope because the winds were so bad, you could fly off the mountain. I’ll never forget it. It was terrifying, but it was awesome.

Even though it’s the sunniest, that wind regulates the vineyards. It also does a lot of work for a certain kind of wine. We’re going to talk about it in a little bit. This is the thing. Roussillon is, like I said, was known from the 14th century through to the 19th century — in the early 20th century — as a sweet wine-producing region.

It’s only in modern times that it’s starting to be somewhat recognized for their dry whites, dry reds, and rosés. One of the reasons why we may not know about Roussillon on our market is number one: it’s not as plentiful, but they’re out there, and you should go look for them. Also, because it’s known for sweet wines, the thing is sweet wines aren’t as popular now with humans that drink wine than it was back in the day. Because back in the day, these were the only wines that could travel, therefore, we were into them. As we evolved, and we’re into more of a modern time, these sweet wines are more of a curiosity. They’re great, but they’re more of a curiosity, because we’re more into dry reds, whites, and rosés now.

Roussillon is beginning to, in the past 10 or so years, trying to focus a little bit more on their dry red wines and some white wines and rosés, and just having the legacy of these sweet wines there. The legacy of those sweet wines are in three appellations.

Also, something that has to be noted is that in the Languedoc episode, I mentioned how independent these winemakers are, and how they are averse to change. They don’t like rules. They don’t like guidelines. Not all of them, but there’s enough of them that they just want to do whatever they want to do, and do what they’ve been doing for a long time. These rules come around. They’re like, “What are these rules doing here? We’re already doing this stuff. I’m going to do whatever I want to do, that kind of stuff.” That may as well have — I don’t know — hindered the distribution of wines from this place, but it shouldn’t. We should be getting into Roussillon no matter how it’s made, because this is a wonderful wine place. Let’s get into it.

Similar to Languedoc, the red wine grapes that are being used here in Roussillon are Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault. That is what we see from Provence all the way over to the Pyrenees, with the region still having a love-hate relationship with Carignan. More Carignan is being made. People are saying, “You know what? This is part of our legacy. It’s part of who we are. It’s part of our history. Let’s try to make this thing awesome.” I’ve tasted some great Carignan from Southern France. Something that’s unique to this area is a grape called, and I don’t know if I want to say this right, La Londe Pilou, which is a relative of Grenache Noir, Blanc, Gris, all of them.

For the white wine grapes, Muscat Blanc is used. Also, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. These are grapes that are used mostly for these sweet wines I’m going to talk about, but because, again, the sweet wines aren’t as popular anymore, more of these areas are making dry white wines from the Muscat grape, which happened to be really awesome, like perfumed aromatic but dry on the palate — like just a really wild, awesome white wine thing.

Roussillon is not known as a white wine-producing region, but it’s known as rare. That’s not going to be the future. The future of Roussillon is they’re going to have more and more white wine being made. The white wine grapes they work with that are not the Muscat grapes are Grenache Blanc, a grape called Macabeo, which is used in Spain for Cava, and a grape brought from Spain to Sardinia, and then from Sardinia to Roussillon. I don’t know which came first, but it’s a grape called Torbato or Tourbat.

The one thing about white wines coming from Roussillon, and one of the reasons why I think we should have more of them on the American market is just like the Marsanne and Roussanne varieties from the Rhône, these are kind of low-ish-acid white wines. They have depth to them. It’s kind of awesome. In Roussillon, just like in Languedoc, they are planting Chardonnay. These wines that are native grapes to the area really have enough depth themselves. There’s no need for Chardonnay in this area, but it’s there because Chardonnay is everywhere.

OK, so the appellations in this area — I’m going to explain the appellations, and it’s going to be very similar to what you’ve heard, just like the village thing and all that. The thing is, because this area is not very familiar to a lot of people, I think what I would hope you take away from this episode is just to go out there and find wines from Roussillon to try, because they’re really great. Whatever’s on the label is on the label. I want to explain all this in a second, but if you see one, grab it, and try it. Then maybe come back to this episode and see what you got.

Covering the entire region is the Côtes du Roussillon Appellation. This is you can make red, you can make white, you can make rosés, you can make sweet wine. You can even make sparkling wine. For the reds, the only thing is you have to use at least three of Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah. Then from there, like in other wine regions in France, you have the Côtes du Roussillon Village.

Just further inland from Perpignan, we get into the very hilly area of the region. Here, there are five communes that can append their commune or village name to Côtes du Roussillon. Join me as I butcher these names: Caramany, Latour-de-France, Lesquerde, Tautavel, and Les Aspres. Just like anywhere else in France, the reason they can be appended is because of their specific areas. Sometimes it’s soil, like there is in Caramany, gneiss-dominant soil. We’ll talk about it in the soil episode.

In Latour-de-France, there is brown schist. These soils do well for certain wines. In Lesquerde, it has to be primarily Carignan and Syrah and Mourvèdre. There’s not a lot of soil going on there. Every little commune has their own rules to separate themselves from the larger Côtes du Roussillon.

That pretty much covers the dry wine situation in Roussillon. You just got to go out there, find them, enjoy them. You can even tag me in there, @VinePairKeith. I want to see them, because I love this place, and I love seeing wines in the United States from Roussillon.

Now we have to talk about the history here. The legendary sweet wines of this area that were once celebrated on the level of all the other sweet wines you had out there during the time before modern winemaking — this is the thing — we’re not going to see a lot of these wines around. You have to seek them out, but there is an appellation called Maury, M-A-U-R-Y. It’s sort of in the northern part of the region. Then, you have a region called Banyuls, B-A-N-Y-U-L-S, and then a commune, or appellation, called Rivesaltes, R-I-V-E-S-A-L-T-E-S. The latter two are more towards the south.

What these places are known for is a wine called Vins doux naturel, which means “naturally sweet wine,” but it’s not really naturally sweet. This is where the mutage word comes in, which the port region calls fortification, in that a spirit is added to the grape must to stop fermentation, to retain what sugar is left in the wine. It’s basically called maderizing, which is a word that comes from Madeira, which again, we’re going to talk about this season. What you’re doing is you’re allowing the wine to be exposed to oxygen. There’s a couple of words for this. One of the words they use in Roussillon is called — well, they have Vins Doux Naturel. They also call it Rancio, R-A-N-C-I-O.

What they do is they take the wine, they put it in a barrel in a drafty room, or they put it in like carboys. I’ve seen white wine made this way put into carboys, and just tossed outside of a winery to let it just be under the elements, and to take in the sun and to oxidize a little bit, turning into what we talk about with vin jaune from the Jura, that yellow wine. The same thing is going on here. They’re very deep and dark and nutty.

Depending on whether you’re in Banyul, Maury, or Rivesaltes, they use different proportions of the different kinds of grapes within that list that we’ve talked about. Like in Rivesaltes, you can’t release a wine for 16 months. It’s not hard to find, but I must tell you that — especially Rivesaltes — you see those more often than you see Maury or Banyul, but they’re wonderful. They’re dark. They’re nutty. They have all these cool, tertiary aromas that you would usually get from aging.

The even cooler thing is that outside of these three places, if you make Rivesaltes, and it’s not made the way the rules state, like if you want to do whatever you want — because it’s Roussillon, they don’t like rules — they put a rule in place for that. They call it Grand Roussillon. If you’re making one of these Rancio or Vins Doux Naturel wines, and you’re not adhering to the rules within those three communes, you just call it Grand Roussillon. It’s kind of a cool, overreaching, overarching, whatever, umbrella rule that is pretty acceptable for people who don’t like rules.

You see how it got a little confusing there for a second? Just go out and find Roussillon wine, because I promise you, you’re going to love them. They are food-friendly. They can be deep and dark and full-bodied and intense. They can be medium-bodied and sweet. Again, just like in Jura, there’s a wide range of styles from a small place.

All right. This is the last French episode of the season. Next week, we’re going over the Pyrenees. Get ready for Spain.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazingly wide spectrum of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. (Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast.) Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. Visit today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.