Boar Wars

10 December, 2013

Hamish Smith visits Roussillon in France, a region on the up despite myriad challenges – including the hogs that are driving winemakers crazy

HAVING HARVESTED A THIRD MEAGRE VINTAGE in what is already one of the lowest-yielding wine regions in the world, Roussillon winemakers might well be thinking there are easier ways to make a living. 

As the 2013 vintage settles in tanks and barrels, expectations are of a 29hl/ha yield, which is well below average for the French Catalonia region. To offer a little context, Roussillon commonly produces 50% fewer grapes per hectare than across the Corbieres Mountains in Languedoc and a third of what is reaped in Champagne.

Under-yielding vines are one thing but compounded by underwhelming market prices you have a challenging combination.

This year, springtime deluges were a problem, on top of the usual high-winds which threaten the region’s vines, bar the well-adapted Grenache. In some areas, such as Vallée de l’Agly, unruly wild boar were responsible for taking a large bite out of the region’s harvest. Valérie Balmigere of co-operative Château de Calce said she “bought a gun” a few weeks before the harvest.  

Winemaker Laurent Dal Zovo of Mas Janeil at Tautavel, agreed that, while Muscat is the preferred snack, this year the hogs weren’t fussy. “Right now they love everything – what a life they have. They are much more numerous than us, they are everywhere – and there are wild goats too.” Grenache, though, mainly fell foul of the rain this year, struggling to transform from flower to fruit. Dal Zovo said “we only harvested 20% of the Grenache yield we achieve normally” but added the ferocity of this year’s rain “was a one-in-10-years event”. 

But despite their troubles – or perhaps to spite them – winemakers persevere. And it’s easy to see why – Roussillon has an awful lot going for it. This is an area imbued with winemaking – centuries of it, in fact. There are microterroirs to get any winemaker excited, a helpful diurnal swing and 300 days of sunshine to coax its grapes though to ripeness.

Eric Aracil, who is responsible for exports at the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon, explains: “We have low yields but quality wine. The three rivers, three reliefs and several soils and sub-soils – including four types of schist – make for many microterroirs. Roussillon is a paradise for geologists.”

Of the region’s many appellations, three are key: Collioure, Côtes du Roussillon Villages and Côtes du Roussillon, and there are a number of IGPs, the most notable of which is Côtes Catalanes. But the local tradition is Vins Doux Naturels – a sweet wine that covers the gamut of white, red and rancio styles and is made in the appellation of Rivesaltes, Maury, Banyuls, Banyuls Grand Cru and Muscat de Riversaltes. But since the global decline in interest in sugary-sweet wines, the region has mainly given way to big, ripe reds with bludgeoning abvs.  

Reds with more lightness and finesse and whites with striking minerality and genuine acidity are starting to change things, but reputations are not built nor dismantled easily. To many, the label that clings to the bottle of Roussillon reads of overripe, boozy specimens that grow old ungracefully.

The CIVR’s Aracil says things have changed: “It’s true that the grapes were once overripe but growers now have much more knowledge about the time to pick and alcoholic fermentation. People are really trying to push quality and have been since the late 90s – we just need to sell the idea of this quality. We now produce much lighter wines with great acidity and balance.” 

At co-operative Château de Calce, Maximilien Balmigere summarises the region’s difficulties: “We make good products in Roussillon but we do not know how to sell them. It’s because we were late to build our reputation – we always made sweet wine which sold well in the 1980s without making any effort. But then the French market fell down so we started making red and white wines.”

Over at Domaine Madeloc a Banyuls, Elise Gaillard reports her yield this year was 15-17hl/ha. “It is a big disadvantage for economic reasons. Our vines are old and our vineyards steep so we can only hand-pick grapes. The way to make money is to go for high quality and high price.  “I work towards improving Roussillon’s reputation and I hope it will be up there one day with the likes of Burgundy – at the moment we are on a level with Beaujolais. The Rhône Valley took the lead so we now have to follow.” 

Indeed, it is clear that Roussillon has the product, both in quality and diversity. So what’s left is marketing – which cannot be treated as an afterthought, but a pre-thought. Tradition is one thing but a balance must be found between producing the best wines the terroir allows and delivering wines the markets want. 

In Roussillon, a year producing fully ripened grapes with an abv of around 13% is referred to as “a winemaker’s vintage”. To succeed in many wine markets of the world, where lower abv is increasingly the consumption trend, producers will want it to be their year a little more often.

Low yields are the unavoidable curse of Roussillon. But as the region’s winemakers continue to deliver quality over quantity and invest more in communicating the message, this natural disadvantage can be turned to its advantage. Just think, for the likes of the Grand Crus Classe of Bordeaux, old vines, hand-picking and low-yields are a selling point.

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