Considering the level of traffic in Washington DC on November 13, I should have just flown to France and driven through the Southern countryside. There surely would have been less horn-honking. While avoiding license plates from Alabama, New Mexico, and Florida earlier this week, I headed to the Capital Wine School to taste a number of wines from the Roussillon.
“Oh, right, the Languedoc,” you say. Well, yes and no. Yes, winemakers in the Roussillon may label their wines as Languedoc AOP. But the traditional wines of Roussillon are worlds apart.
The tasting, led by Master Sommelier Kathy Morgan & Master of Wine Jay Youmans, began with a more modern tradition — still whites and reds. The Domaine Gauby Côtes Catalens IGP “VV” 2009 showed a balance between bruised apples, orange, and praline. Distinctive, in a good way. The nuttiness was welcomed, particularly considering the blend of easily-oxidized varietals (Macabeu, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, etc.). The reds were typically Southern French; blends of three or more grapes, juicy and herbal. The Domaine Puig-Parahÿ “Georges” Côtes du Roussillon 2010, a Carignan-weighted blend that spent one year in concrete, flaunted an up-front floral and pine-like herbaceousness to compliment tons of ripe red fruits.
The Roussillon, France’s last south and westward stretch of Mediterranean coastline on the way to Catalan Spain, sheltered by the Pyrennes Mountains, is responsible for 90% of France’s Vins doux Naturals. These wines are generally fortified to 15-17% alcohol and can spend many years aging in glass or wood in the scorching sun. Port, by comparison, is a stronger 19-22% alcohol. These wines, with common appellation names as Maury, Rivesalts and Banyuls, can come in a variety of oxidative and non-oxidative styles.
The first of these wines we tried was a Croix Milhas Rivesalts rosé. This watermelon and bitter orange peel driven wine is apparently the apéritif of choice in this part of the world. Even with its elevated alcohol, I’d like to try this wine with something spicy — as it’s required to have at least 100 g/l of residual sugar. A modern-style showed through in the 100% Grenache Domaine des Schistes “La Cerisaie” Maury 2007, whereas the Domaine Besombes Singla “L’Amédée” Rivesalts 1979 added a decidedly complex wheel of dried fruit, hay, and earth.
It was mentioned over sampling of many of these wine styles that some type of pork belly dish — or anything else needing sweetness and strength — would be a great pairing.
As we finished, I concluded that these ancient and distinctive wines can certainly find their place into the middle of a tasting menu, or after dinner and paired with a fireplace. These wines certainly bridge the gap between a sickly-sweet dessert wine and the overtly aggressive styles of Madeira and Port. They may take a bit more work to find, but can certainly surprise and delight.