When anyone thought about the southern French region of Roussillon, it was as the latter half of the awkward geographic mashup “Languedoc-Roussillon,” which was mostly known for stylish, ripe wines. A few informed souls might have known about the region’s once-famous sweet wines, like Banyuls and Rivesaltes, which mostly have fallen into shadow. Neither revealed what’s happening in Roussillon today, which is a revolutionary shift toward fresh, mineral dry wines, some of France’s best.
It’s not that Roussillon’s once famous sweet wines aren’t worth trying. The sweet, fortified grenache-based wines of Banyuls can be a pleasure, like port that’s not trying so hard. They age beautifully, which is why some of the few remaining quality producers, like Domaine du Mas Blanc, have deep stores in their cellars that date back decades. Same with the muscat-based wines of Rivesaltes, just to the north, and the largely archaic rancio sec: fully oxidized, dry wines native to the region that come across like France’s response to sherry.
But the real interest is in the fully dry, intensely mineral red and white wines being made there today. In terms of official appellations, you’ll find scant guidance; the Côtes du Roussillon appellation (sometimes appended Villages to denote theoretically higher quality) is broad and all encompassing. The Côtes Catalanes designation is more colorful but, again, not precise.
But really, the key confounding factor is that Roussillon’s best dry wines are often lumped in with the Languedoc to the north, which is a disservice to both places. Roussillon’s focus is pretty clear: acid-driven wines that are undoubtedly southern but also subtle, finding a way to modulate the sun. There are a few who are chasing a different route—the one followed a decade or two ago by a lot of people in the Languedoc, including the Californian winemaker Dave Phinney. But the path most often emulated is the one followed in the 1980s and 1990s by Gérard Gauby in the village of Calce: impeccable (and often organic) farming to make wines whose complexity rivals top Burgundies.
Roussillon’s affordable land also made it a magnet for a lot of natural-wine pioneers, like Les Foulards Rouges outside Banyuls, as well as a second generation that’s newly arriving. This includes naturalist icons like Edouard Laffitte of Le Bout du Monde, whose work making easygoing wines in a shared space with several like-minded vignerons prompted their village of Lansac to be dubbed Jajakistan (an in-joke derived from French slang for gluggable wine).
In addition to these producers, also look for wines from Matassa (Calce), Olivier Pithon (Calce), Domaine Padié (Calce), Domaine des Enfants (Maury), Le Casot des Mailloles (Banyuls), Bruno Duchêne (Banyuls), Clos Massotte (Trouillas), Domaine du Matin Calme (Bélesta), Rié et Hirofumi Shoji (Banyuls), Domaine des Schistes (Estagel), Domaine les Arabesques (Montner), Le Roc des Anges (Latour de France), Domaine Les Enfants Sauvages (Fitou), Vignoble Réveille (Cassagnes), Riberach (Bélesta) and Domaine Yoyo (Banyuls).
Brothers Benoît and Sébastien Danjou took over what had been their grandfather’s domaine in Espira-de-l’Agly, and about a decade ago began transforming it to make fully dry wines instead of the sweet, fortified local fare. They focus on single-vineyard wines on varying soils, from clay and limestone to schist, for wines like their white La Truffière and Clos des Escounils, and red Les Myrs.
Clos du Rouge Gorge
Paris-born Cyril Fhal worked in Bordeaux and the Loire before settling in the southern town of Latour de France near the ancient border with Catalonia. He is doing remarkable work with old vines in an area where most are ripped up or go to cheap co-op wine. His Vieilles Vignes, predominantly from carignan, shows a flinty, quietly perfumed side to that grape, while his Jeunes Vignes is a perfectly tangy expression of grenache. His rare Côtes Catalanes White, mostly from maccabeu, is dense and profound, a Roussillon answer to white Hermitage.
Clot de l’Oum
Leia and Eric Monné planted their property in Bélesta, a little-traveled, but geologically well known (for its granite) slice of the hills west of Eric’s hometown of Perpignan. They eventually stopped selling to the local co-op, instead opting to “detoxify” the soil, in Leia’s words, and implement biodynamic methods. Their wines are some of the most acid- and mineral-driven in Roussillon, including the grenache-carignan La Compagnie des Papillons, with its scent of wild herbs, and Saint-Bart, which adds syrah to that mix. Their white Cine-Panettone is intense, savory and exotic—one of those contenders for a southern great white.
Gérard Gauby started making wine in 1982, and today he still reigns as the most influential, and one of the best, of Roussillon’s winemakers. His estate atop the hills of Calce includes vines that encompass most of the region’s varieties, including carignan and a whole hillside of the little-known grenache gris, as well as thousands of shade trees, cover crop and more, all intended to harness the southern sun without sacrificing freshness. These remain benchmark wines, including the red Muntada and both red and white Vieilles Vignes, which earn their name with vines that have more than a century of family legacy. Gérard’s son Lionel has been poised to take on the family property, but has also been experimenting with his own wines, like the skin-fermented La Jasse muscat.
La Cave des Nomades
After wandering Europe, the musician Zé Tafé settled in Banyuls to make wine at the newly formed collective Les 9 Caves. His wines, all vin de France, show that remarkable transformation of Banyuls terroir into a place for dry wines. Vagamonde combines carignan, mourvèdre and grenache for an interplay of dark mineral and bright fruit, while his Vieux Saltimbanque derives a savory austerity from an unusual mix of chardonnay, grenache gris and vermentino.
La Petite Baigneuse
Philippe Weis is a long way from his native Alsace, farming old carignan and grenache gris vines in barren wilderness of the Fenouillèdes foothills. Most of his neighbors near Maury have pursued a richer approach, but Weis prefers both more verve in his wines and a distinctly minimal view of winemaking. His Juste Ciel, from co-planted maccabeu and grenache gris, has a mentholated freshness, while Trinquette shows off grenache’s savory side.
Domaine de l’Horizon
One of Gauby’s protegés in Calce, German-born Thomas Teibert, makes wines that fall a bit further on the ripeness scale but with a nearly operatic sense of flavor. (He’s also one of the area’s biodynamic pioneers and works for the Austrian cooperage Stockinger.) His red and white Côtes Catalanes manage to be both stoic and luscious, meant for aging, while his more approachable L’Esprit de l’Horizon wines and Mar i Muntanya are a bit lighter and fresher, meant to drink young.
Stéphane Morin is one of the masters of the former no-man’s-land between Perpignan and the seaside town of Collioure. His plantings in Saint-André des Albères include everything from maccabeu to head-staked syrah, and he has a common-sense approach to naturalist winemaking. It’s evident in his skin-macerated ¿Que Pasa?, which reveals a careful approach to the tannic side of orange wine, and his iodine-edged red Chuck Barrick from syrah and grenache farmed near his house.