French wine is famously complicated. It’s tempting to see these complications in cultural terms, as just one consequence among many of allowing a highly groomed intellectual elite, immured in the ivory towers of public service, excessive legislative freedom. The truth is different. France’s highly diverse wine regions are the reflection of the country’s geological youth and its position on the cusp of the northern hemisphere’s temperate latitudes. Its wines cannot but be complex. Nowhere is this more evident than in Roussillon, which happens to be (with Alsace) one of France’s two most geologically intricate wine regions.
The tangle of Pyrenean rocks that constitute French Catalonia form a giant amphitheatre surrounding Perpignan and its rich agricultural plain. In general, the hills are set back from the Mediterranean and its coastal lagoons. As the Spanish border approaches, though, the rocky Albères march down to the ocean, then tumble in. This is the Côte Vermeille, or “ruby coast”, so called because of the reflected colour of its dark, schistous rocks in the water. Little more than a century ago, it was smugglers’ territory, its creeks and hamlets accessible only by boat. Since then, dynamite has brought the rail line which now links Montpellier with Barcelona, and a copious summer influx of tourists.
“People don’t come here for wine but for the sea,” lamented the entrepreneurial Romuald Peronne of Domaine St Sébastien in Banyuls, on a breezy, rainy day in March. However, a buoyant local market also accounts for why Collioure, the appellation covering the highly distinctive table wines of this rocky hinge between France and Spain, is less well-known than it might otherwise be in London, New York or Singapore.
A second reason for Collioure’s relative obscurity is the fact that the region has traditionally specialised in fortified wines sold under the Banyuls and Banyuls Grand Cru AOC. Often remarkable but now unfashionable, these sweet, burnished wine antiques are increasingly surrendering vineyard space to dry, unfortified wine production. When the Parcé brothers, who now run Domaine de la Rectorie in Banyuls, took over their family vineyard between 1976 and 1981, fortified wines accounted for two-thirds of production; today, it’s just one quarter.
What fascinates me about the dry wines of the ruby coast is that they are so different from those produced in other parts of Roussillon, and especially in the Agly Valley to the north. Agly is a dry, sunny, wind-scoured area that produces powerful, stone-drenched, tannin-laden reds and herbal whites: outstanding examples come from Mas Amiel, Calvet-Thunevin, Clos des Fées, Fontanel, Gardiés and Gauby. The mineral ferocity of the best Agly wines sometimes makes them a challenge to drink, but their force and authority is never less than remarkable.
Collioure, despite its physical proximity, is utterly different. The white wines seem to breathe sea air: they are soft and saline. The reds, too, have a suppleness, grace and charm which almost comes as a shock after the bone-jarring, crushed-rock power of their northern neighbours. There’s something about Collioure Rouge that evokes the smooth intricacies and aromatic respiration of many Côte d’Or reds, despite their very different flavour spectrum.
Intriguingly, the father of the appellation, Dr André Parcé of Mas Blanc (the two Parcé families are distant cousins), was a devout Burgundy-lover who fashioned the AOC rules, as far as he was able, to allow wines of that inspiration to be made here. In particular, growers can use up to 90 per cent of a single grape variety (Grenache, Syrah or Mourvèdre) for red wines; a rare instance of varietal purity in the generally blend-dominated south.
André Parcé was a Banyuls village physician as well as master of his own domaine of Mas Blanc; he also served as mayor and became one of French wine’s national administrators. Rules alone, though, can’t account for wine personality: that stealthy softness must also come from the schist soils and the humid sea air (a stark contrast to the dry interior of Roussillon).
Both Mas Blanc and Domaine de la Rectorie are long-established leaders in Collioure, and Mas Blanc has a diverse range based on different single-parcel sites and grape variety combinations. The graceful, midweight Cosprons Levants (Syrah with 30 per cent Mourvèdre and 10 per cent Grenache) is, for me, the best of these. La Rectorie’s L’Argile white, made from the pink-skinned Grenache Gris plus a dash of white Grenache Blanc, is a salt-edged wine with flavours of fennel and lemon. The reds are contrastive: Côté Mer is softer fruited and round-contoured, while Côté Montagne (from higher-sited, thinner-soiled vineyards) is a stonier, more thoughtful wine with bittersweet fruits.
Romuald Peronne at St Sébastien is the coming young star of Collioure. His Inspiration Marine is an almost pure Mourvèdre (it includes 10 per cent Grenache) grown next to the sea, yet from this rugged variety he has produced a refined wine with a smooth, perfumed palate. It’s a huge contrast to Jean Gardiés’ La Torre, for example – the reference Mourvèdre of the Agly zone.
Another rising domaine is Coume del Mas, worked by viticultural consultant Philippe Gard, with help from Englishman Andy Cook. The vines here are close to the boundary with the rest of Roussillon, and the red wines here do have something of the force, texture and aching minerality you find elsewhere in the region: look out for the plump, pure-Grenache Schistes and the powerful, provocative Abysses.
Collioure growers face many challenges. The vineyards are impossible to mechanise (the Parcés of La Rectorie own no tractor); the moist air means an incessant struggle with weeds; yet yields are always punishingly low. Will Collioure save the vineyards of the ruby coast, even if Banyuls passes from favour? If singularity can ensure survival, the answer is yes.
Jancis Robinson is away
● Domaine St Sébastien has no UK importer at present, but the wines are imported to the US by Quigley Fine Wines (quigleyfinewines.com).
2007 L’Argile, Domaine de la Rectorie
The Parcé brothers’ 2007 L’Argile is grown in a vineyard of deeply decomposed, clay-like schist facing the sea. Marine breezes play over the Grenache Gris and Grenache Blanc vines throughout the growing season, and in winter the soils are storm-drenched. £16, The Wine Society