Côtes du Roussillon
Côtes du Roussillon is to the Roussillon what Coteaux du Languedoc is to the Languedoc. While many now think of the Languedoc-Roussillon as one region, the two giant areas that compose it actually have significant differences. The Roussillon is warmer, closer to Spain, and has fewer appellations than the Languedoc. Carignan is more important there than in the Languedoc; GSM blends are still popular, however. The warm climate makes for warm, spicy wines that are less full and powerful than Languedoc examples.
At 13,800 acres, Côtes du Roussillon is about 60% the size of the more well-known Coteaux du Languedoc. Annual production seems to be around 2.5 million bottles, which is also a little more than half of Coteaux du Languedoc. Around 30% of the wines are rosé, which is high, but there are very few whites. The tart, austere rosés are some of the best in the region and some even consider them better than the reds.
Côtes du Roussillon remains the AOC that encompasses most of the Roussillon's production, and to most buyers is more important than the specific AOCs of the region. The unique wines, which straddle French and Spanish styles, offer some of the best values in a country where most wines are derided as overpriced.
Along with its sub-appellation, Côtes du Roussillon-Villages, Côtes du Roussillon AOC was formed in 1977. It was part of a 70s and 80s attempt by French wine authorities to give the Languedoc and Roussillon more of an identity--up until then, producers not located in the top villages had to use the vin de pays for the entire region. When it first was started Côtes du Roussillon was not highly regarded, but in recent years it has come to be thought of as a place for good values.
Climate and Viticulture
Most of the French winemaking climate is cool and hilly, with an average amount of sun, lots of rain, and sometimes even snow in the winter. The cool style makes for wines of great character and depth, but there are warmer, sunnier parts of France that make for "warm" wines. Spicy and light, the wines of the Roussillon are derived from a climate more similar to Rioja and Ribera than to Burgundy or the Loire Valley.
Hills and valleys are where the Roussillon's best styles are produced; Côtes du Roussillon translates to "hills of Roussillon", so the wines generally come from hilly areas. Clay is more common than limestone here, though some of the more serious wines are sourced from vineyards atop limestone hills.
White grapes make up a tiny fraction of production here--less than 5% by most counts--and rules pertaining to their production are fairly lax. However, there are some strict rules relating to reds. First of all, they must consist of at least three grapes, and two of them may total no more than 90% in order to create a "fair" balance. Carignan may not make up more than 60% of the blend. Grenache and Cinsaut are present in most of the wines. Syrah and Mourvèdre are just starting to become commonly used here.
Good Roussillons with spicy, medium-bodied character and a nice fruity tang are not too hard to find. In fact, this is a great area for good values. We list three producers who make wines that transcend the appellation on a regular basis.
- Cellier Agly: The Agly brothers are prominent in Côtes du Roussillon, with Cellier Agly's Reserve wines among the best in the region. Côtes du Roussillon-Villages "Château de Pena C" is dark and spicy, with Syrah-like black fruit and pepper. "Château de Pena S" is more exotic and smoky, with cooked, Rioja-like fruit and smooth tannins. They may be made in France, but these wines are as Spanish-style as any.
- Domaine Sarda Malet: With good red fruit and surprising complexity, even the basic Côtes du Roussillon here is a competitive style. The Reserve is more spicy and strong in tannin. The most impressive wine is the Terroir Mailloles, which has smoky, meaty complexity and high alcohol content. All the wines can age for a while.
- Mas Amiel: Mas Amiel is a top producer in the whole Languedoc-Roussillon, and the Côtes du Roussillon is undoubtedly one of their strong spots. The basic Côtes du Roussillon-Villages is ripe and has great red fruit and earthy scents, but is more rich and heavy than most of the wines of the appellation. The true masterpiece is the Le Plaisir rosé, which is dry and austere like most wines of the appellation but has amazingly pure, three-dimensional scents of strawberry fruit and flowers.
The Côtes du Roussillon-Villages appellation is for red wines only, and is considered a subappellation of the Côtes du Roussillon. There are a few minor differences in allowed grapes, and only the best of the Roussillon's hills are allowed into consideration. For the above list of best producers, Côtes du Roussillon-Villages wines are considered as well as the regular styles.