In Search of France’s Great Southern Wine

How Roussillon became one of France's most radical and interesting places to produce wine.

At the far eastern cap of the Pyrenées, Banyuls-sur-Mer is about as far south as you get in France before it becomes Catalan Spain, just shy of the mountain crossing where, in 1939, some 500,000 republicans fled Franco’s regime. It has given its name to one of France’s most famous sweet wines, Banyuls, but as with most towns appended by “sur mer,” what you notice first is the breakwater and the quiet cafés, the marks of a snoozy beachside spot.

Everything about Banyuls feels old at first glance. The Pyrenées foothills rise sharply from the water, with contorted layers of schist and quartzite nearly 500 million years old. These soils, which are among the oldest in France, host the sort of terraced, steep vineyards you don’t see planted anymore, many in a state of slight disrepair.

As such, nothing about Banyuls has tipped me off to what awaits when I stop into the town’s former wine co-op on a clear April morning, down a side street filled with bougainvillea blossoms and the overpowering scent of jasmine. Four years ago, its cellars were converted into a project called Les 9 Caves, an urban winery that comprises nine small “studios,” each housing a winemaker’s work—the sort of collaborative effort usually found in Oakland or Seattle. The building also houses several gîtes (holiday homes for rent), a thoughtfully curated wine shop and an airy sandwich café that would feel at home on Venice’s Abbot-Kinney. It’s the most Californian place I’ve seen in France.

For the past 20 years, a handful of vintners have been dragging Banyuls away from its sweet-wine past, beginning with the pioneering vintner Alain Castex, who set up his Les Casot des Mailloles in a nearby auto garage in 1998. (He handed off his winery to an apprentice, Jordi Perez, three years ago.) Actually, this sort of change is happening all over the Roussillon, this very southern and slightly standoffish region of France, which in short order has become one of the most radical and interesting places in the country to produce wine.

Today the old Banyuls co-op is populated by newcomers, like José Carvalho Moreira, a.k.a. Zé Tafé, an itinerant Portuguese musician who, in 2014, started making wine under the Cave des Nomades label. They, like several similarly minded vignerons just north of town, are determined to make brightly flavored, dry wines that share nothing in common with the Banyuls of the past, except for some of the same vineyards.

If this disregard for tradition doesn’t seem particularly French, the inhabitants of the Roussillon don’t feel particularly French. In fact, many see themselves as primarily Catalan. I find the best evidence of this arm’s-length relationship one night well past midnight in the departmental capital of Perpignan, a town characterized by a proud scruffiness—impeccably preserved gothic architecture juxtaposed with countless pawn shops. At an hour when most French cities have fallen silent, I walk into a wine bar and discover a packed crowd still eating and drinking on a Barcelona schedule.

Soon after, early one Sunday morning, Tafé shows me the studios and orders me a coffee—easily the best espresso for miles around—before he hops in his van to deliver wine to Paris, more than 500 miles away. I can’t stop staring at his haircut, buzz cut up top and dreadlocks down the back. But I’m also taken by the calm, clear flavors in wines like his Vagamonde, a red that exudes the pleasant rootiness of carignan and an energetic minerality.

This sort of change is happening all over Roussillon, which in short order has become one of the most radical and interesting places in the country to produce wine.

A lot of places aspire to make France’s great southern wines—bottles that can stand proudly next to the best Burgundies. But if it’s going to happen anywhere, I’d wager it’s likely to be in the Roussillon. In fact, I’d argue it’s happening already, driven by young and increasingly natural-minded producers like Tafé, who took over old family properties or who came to the Roussillon to take advantage of cheap vineyard land (as low as as €8,000 per hectare), a dry, organics-friendly climate and a bounty of old vines.

Until recently, this was exactly how everyone talked about the Languedoc, Roussillon’s much larger neighbor to the north. (Until 2016, the two were forcibly conjoined twins in an administrative hot mess called Languedoc-Roussillon. They’re still linked, but now called “Occitanie.”) In the previous tale of the New France, the one that’s been told for about two decades now, the Languedoc was to be France’s “New World”—an uncorrupted alternative to Provence, and a source not only for the oceans of cheap stuff for which it was known but also impressive red wines that would ascend the world stage.

One small problem: The Languedoc launched that quest for fame at a time when more was rewarded for being more, when the smart money was on bigger, oakier and more obvious tastes. And tastes have changed.

At first I was surprised to discover how different things are in the Roussillon. But it quickly made sense. The Languedoc is far more tied to the rest of France, in both culture and geography, while the Roussillon feels that pull south. You can’t miss the cultural split, from the moment you summit the limestone hills that form a border with the Aude to the north, a poor and slightly paranoid corner of France, and descend into what many locals prefer to call “Catalogne Nord.”

While these may be difficult times to claim one’s Catalan identity, what with Spain beating back dreams of secession, the Roussillonnais might do well to put as much distance as possible between them and the Languedoc. For one thing, the pursuit of a great southern wine requires raw material, preferably some with local history. While many in the Languedoc decided to have flings with grapes like syrah and cabernet, to dream of Bordeaux or the Rhône, the Roussillon took a different path—especially with its whites. Their mouthwatering acidity comes from local varieties like carignan gris, grenache gris and macabeu, the last better known in Spain than France.

“It used to be that they’d tell us the best varieties were northern varieties,” Gerard Gauby, effectively the father of modern Roussillon wine, tells me. “Now we know that the best varieties can be southern ones, certainly if you’re in the south.”

If the dream of the Languedoc was to create a French New World, the Roussillon is more about going back to the future. This becomes clear when I drive into the center of Espira-de-l’Agly, a sedate village at the mouth of the Agly Valley just north of Perpignan, to locate the cellar of Sébastien and Benoît Danjou of Danjou-Banessy. It’s down the street from a building, now a Spar mini-market, whose cornice still holds a sign denoting an old production cellar for Byrrh, the aromatized wine that was one of the Roussillon’s top exports when people drank more of such things. Espira was known primarily for Byrrh, as well as similar fortified wines and rancio, another regional specialty, which are what the Danjou family was making until about a decade ago. Then the brothers reclaimed their grandfather’s property and pivoted, opting to make bright, mineral-packed dry wines, like their Clos des Escounils white, which tastes of white peach and tahini. These aren’t exactly the wines I expected to find in France’s deep south—nearly the same latitude as Rome.

Sébastien Danjou drives me up into the hills above Espira to visit his grandfather’s old parcels. The woods are hot and dry (a bit too reminiscent of California wildfire country) but the vineyard itself is improbably tucked into tall pines that cast long shadows across the valley. “The trick,” he explains, “is to have as much shade as possible.”

For years, people have been saying similar things to me in California, and places like Australia’s Barossa Valley. This is the first time I’ve heard it in France. But it doesn’t take long to see why: Roussillon simply has too much to offer for its wines to be overpowered by that more-is-more approach to ripeness and flavor. Almost nowhere else in France, for instance, demonstrates such dramatic variations in soil. The north side of the Agly Valley is composed of limestone and other marine soils, remnants of France’s ancient seas, while to the south the soils are the inverse: volcanic and wildly transformed, remnants of the Pyrenées’ creation and uplift. Local soil maps do a solid impression of a Lee Krasner painting.

Trying to make sense of such crazy soils, much less to make great wine, takes a particularly fine-tuned approach to farming. The following day, I drive into the hills above Perpignan, road cuts following those Krasner-esque contours, to the hilltop village of Calce, where I find Gauby, who launched the Roussillon’s transformation in the 1980s. Long before the Americans were scouting Maury, another nearby village with a historic reputation for thick, sweet wines, Gauby took charge of his family’s property and pulled it out of the local co-ops that dominated much of the Roussillon’s 20th-century wine history. He restored old parcels of bush-like vines (including one that was already mature when his great-grandfather farmed in 1890) and refined his own interpretation of biodynamic farming—one quite different from the system advocated by Rudolf Steiner. Among other things, he and his neighbors, most of whom farm similarly, are less reliant on homeopathic sprays, which the Tramontane, a Pyreneean version of the mistral, literally blows away. (“If Steiner was Catalan,” Gauby says, “he would have done it like me.”)

Gauby’s wines, like the single-vineyard red Muntada—planted on “calcareous schistous marl,” effectively three types of dirt in one, to my point about soil complexity—demonstrated early on that Calce, with its 217 residents, might just be able to make that great southern wine. Not surprisingly, his work attracted others, including Tom Lubbe of Matassa and Thomas Teibert of Domaine de l’Horizon. (Lubbe married Gauby’s sister, Nathalie.) Calce soon became a tiny stronghold of alternative thinking, the place you went if you didn’t want to mimic the Languedoc.

With a frame like a retired rugby player and a tendency to whip his dusty four-wheel-drive around sharp mountain curves, Gauby might well have been at home in the wartime resistance, smuggling escapees over the Pyrénees. But the moment he talks about farming, again I feel like I’m back in California, with that new set of winemakers for whom freshness and subtlety are essential. Sun and heat are worthy foes. For two decades, he has been planting 5,000 trees across his 90 hectares—almonds, peaches and citrus, not just as a break against the vicious wind but also to provide shade for the vines. And he tries to replant on east- and north-facing slopes, to escape afternoon sun. “Certainly the opposite of what you’d do in the north,” he tells me.

I keep hearing variations on these ideas over more than a week traveling around the Roussillon—from Cyril Fhal of Clos du Rouge Gorge, near the ancient border town of Latour-de-France, whose floral grenache-based red is grown in mica and biotite. And from Leia Monné at Clot de l’Oum in nearby Montner, whose Cine-Panettone from carignan gris and grenache gris is definitely a contender for that great southern white. “You have to have freshness,” she keeps saying, a key component to achieving greatness, at least these days.

A couple days later, I return to Banyuls and locate a winding, single-lane road into the hills above. Planted on precipitous slopes, the Banyuls vineyards are difficult to access, but Perez, of Les Casot des Mailloles, had given me directions to one of Alain Castex’s original parcels, and I want to see it for myself. I park my car along the roadside, march up a trail past some hikers and round the bend. Suddenly the deep sapphire water of the Mediterranean fills my view. Planted on a hillside that drops almost to the water, the vineyard is little more than low stone walls, vines tied to wooden stakes and a vivid cover crop—a green oasis amid a barren patchwork of schist. All around are old vineyards still used to make that sweet Banyuls. I sit for a while, and enjoy the sea breeze.

Here, atop some of the oldest rocks in France, I decide to leave in the past the story we’ve often been told—about Banyuls, about Roussillon, about the south generally. Today’s truth is so much more refreshing.

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