Greek seafarers from Corinth, settling in the welcoming inlets of the Côte Vermeille, were the first to take advantage of the Roussillon's unique geographical features (with vines taking root in 7th century B.C.). Up through the Middle Ages, home vineyards commonly produced raisined wines (over-matured or honey added versions), adding special herbal and spice mixtures elevating them to the status of ‘nectar’, the mythical drink of the gods notably celebrated by Catalan troubadours. These early influences can still be tasted in today's sweet wines, like Rivesaltes Ambre varietals.
Wine making became more refined in the 1300s thanks to Arnau de Vilanova — Majorca's famous doctor and scholar — who pioneered a whole new flavor territory by mixing grape liqueur with its eau-de-vie. It wasn't until the 1700s that some more sophisticated wineries began producing what would eventually become top 20th century vintages. Some difficult decades intervened along the way, starting in 1852 with phylloxera destroying countless vineyards. Restoration was not only financially risky but dangerous due to the ravages of war and social unrest. Forming cooperatives to survive, winemakers persevered by ultimately winning a string of AOC (Appellation d’Origine) designations, first in 1936 with Rivesaltes, Banyuls, and Maury, all the way to the Côtes du Roussillon Villages in 1977. To this day, more than 300 winemaking cooperatives represent 2,400 Roussillon's vineyards, most of which are family owned and no larger than 25 acres.
Here are tasting notes from some of their resulting standouts:
2008 Château de Jau Côtes du Roussillon Villages: Rich and buttery on the bouquet; strong minerality expands throughout the mouth. This wine fires up spicy Thai and Mexican dishes in interesting directions, seeming to neutralize salty snacks after just one sip. A sophisticated interplay of just the right tannins and fruits make the overall flavor profile tightly knit.
Francois Lurton Mas Janeil 2009: Nothing berry about this one. Fresh ripe melon juice with light and distinct flavoring carrying through as an entirely different flavor dimension from sip to swallow. I can see this fine Côtes du Roussillon-Villages from Francois Lurton being an elegant picnic wine. This is a clear instance of a dark red wine being utterly refreshing, more like a Pinot Grigio, and so light that your wine glass exudes the potency of fresh spring breezes. No weighty pondering here, just perfectly balanced drinking.
2008 Pierre Gaillard Collioure Domaine Madeloc Cuvee Serral: This completely balanced red table wine gives a peppery patina mouthfeel, with nectar on the palate. A sophisticated balance of bold peppery Pinot Noir tempered by a lighter more playful side...grenache meets rose springiness.
Cotes Du Roussillon Villages Hugo Domaine Thunevin Calvet 2008: Slight spicy jam on the bouquet with a definitive Beaujolais-like burst on the mouth at the sip, maturing into a deep, dark, fruity effervescence.
Singla Heritage du Temps 2003 Rivesaltes Ambre: This wine flows with walnut mead hints across the palate, long lingering making it perfect for classic desserts like pecan or pumpkin pie. Rich and deep bodied with a sweet finish, it gives a slightly syrupy mouth feel but never cloys readying your taste buds for the next bite or sip.
La Coume Du Roy Maury 1998 – 100% Grenache: Similar to a lively playful port yet unencumbered by darker berry, spicy, chocolate undertones. Not that these flavors are undesirable, of course, but this 100 percent Grenache dessert wine instead exudes a fiery flourish.