Wines of Roussillon – a perfect match for spicy food

A tutored tasting presented by Eric Aracil, Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon & Warren Edwardes, Wine for Spice.

Food supplied by Café Spice Namaste

17th May 2005

 Before Eric Aracil began his presentation, it was remarkable to see the array of beautiful colours in the glasses before me – all very reminiscent of the Roussillon sun.

Roussillon lies at the foothills of the Pyrenees facing the Mediterranean.  In viticultural terms the region is characterised by the great variety its landscape, soils and microclimates: Rousillon is more of a collection of wine areas, rather than a single area.

From at least medieval times (wines have been made in the region since the 7th century BC.), Roussillon has been known for its sweet wines, the Vins Doux Naturels of Banyuls, Rivesaltes, Maury.  When the French appellation controlée system was set up, these became their own appellations.  The vins doux naturels are made in a similar way to port, by fortifying the fermenting grape juice with spirit, a process invented by Arnau de Vilanova in the 13th Century, as we know from a patent letter from King Jaume II of Majorca, written on 17th November 1299 in Perpignan. Today, some 350,000 hl of vins doux are produced in Roussillon - around 90% of France's vins doux naturels.

During the 20th century, more effort was put into producing other types of wine: new grape varieties were planted, new cellars were built (the vins doux naturel don't need the coolest of cellars) and this effort was rewarded by the granting of further appellation controlée status: Côtes du Roussillon; Côtes du Roussillon  Les Aspres, Côtes du Roussillon Villages and my favourite Roussillon appellation, Collioure.  In addition, the Rousillon is home to three vins de pays designations: the vins de pays des Côtes Catalanes, the vins de pays des Pyrénées-Orientales and the hugely productive vins de pays d'Oc. 

There are now some 38,000 hectares of vines (two thirds of which are in the appellations controlées), producing around 1.5 million hectolitres of wine annually: 350,000 hl of vins doux; 400,000 hl from the appellations controlées and 750,000 hl of vins de pays and vins de table.

The vins doux naturels are produced using a process called “mutage” which involves adding a neutral spirit to the fermenting must (the same process is used to produce port and other fortified wines).  In Roussillon, eaux de vie are not permitted as the spirit (as in starting to happen with smaller port producers in Portugal's Douro valley) and so they have to use a 96% neutral ethyl alcohol derived from grapes (the “wine lake”).  Around 5-10% of the volume of fermenting must is added as spirit, and the spirit stops fermentation by killing the yeasts, allowing the wine to retain much of its natural grape sugars, which is what makes fortified wines sweet.  The key for the winemakers is determining the point at which to carry out the mutage and how much spirit to add: these variables determine the level of sweetness of the final wine.

There are four varieties of vin doux naturel made in the Roussillon: red and white; and amber and tuilé.  The latter two are, respectively, whites with oxidation and reds with oxidation.  Much of the vin doux production is produced in the oxidised ambré and tuilé styles by maturing the wine in large casks or even sometimes in glass demijohns placed outside in the open air and the sun for three or four seasons.

To go with the wines, and to show off their ability to go with spicy foods, Warren Edwardes, from Wine for Spice, had worked with chef Cyrus Todiwala from the Café Spice Namaste.  The food was largely Goan based and really put the wines through their paces.  I didn't have a list of the wines or the food we were tasting, so the notes below are semi-blind, as I was tasting slightly ahead of the Eric and Warren presenting the wines and food.

1. 2004 Côtes du Roussillon Rosé ‘Rosé des Vents', Château de Caladroy
A mid brassy pink.  Quite a slight nose.  Fine structure with a good depth of flavour.  Good.      5

Served with a smoked duck tikka in a light minted mango chutney (breast of barbary duck marinated and part smoked, part grilled, diced and blended with a mango chutney made with a hint of mint and ginger.  Served as a tartlet in shortcrust pastry) The wine worked reasonably well with the duck and mango chutney.

2. 2003 Collioure Rouge Colline Matisse, SCV Le Dominicain
A rather murky very dark garnet – it doesn't look especially young.  Remarkably floral nose with red fruits, especially strawberries and cherries.  Initially fresh, but it fills quickly; plenty of tannins and plenty of peppery spice.  It seems a rather light colour for a Collioure.                                                     5

Served with Venison Aflatoon: venison haunch marinated with extract of star anise and ground spices with yoghurt; chargrilled and served as a samosa.

3. 2004 Côtes du Roussillon Rosé Arnaud de Villeneuve, Les Vignobles de Rivesaltais
Very, very, very pale ruby pink colour.  Nice fruity nose – very crisp and clean.  Lovely crisp ripe fruit.  Nice balance with good depth of flavour too.  This is a rather good wine.  Apparently, it's Syrah dominated.          7

Served with Balchao de Camarao: diced prawns tossed in a pickled masala flavoured with crumbled dried shrimps and served in a small pastry tartlet.

This wine was the best of the first three in terms of the food matching, not just with the prawn balchao, but also with the venison pasty and the duck tikka.

4. 2004 Muscat de Rivesaltes Arnaud de Villeneuve, Les Vignobles de Rivesaltais
A white vin doux naturel.  Pale lemon straw appearance.  Floral muscatty, nutty nose with hints of Flash floor cleaner.  Quite sweet, yet very elegant.  I'd guess this is a Muscat de Rivesaltes.           7

Served with Frango no Espeto Peri-Peri, a chicken tikka (specially marinated to be milder than normal) in the Goan style made in a red masala enriched with the addition of palm vinegar and some extremely ferocious kashmiri red chillies. 

This was very powerful, very chilli-hot food and a challenge for any wine, but this and the next vin doux both worked well with it.  I could have just done with a bit more nice cold vin doux to calm down my mouth after the heat of the piri-piri chicken!

5. 1995 Rivesaltes Ambré, Château Les Pins, Les Vignerons de Baixas
A vin doux ambré.
An oxidised mid gold colour.  The nose is oxidised and nutty – really quite complex and interesting.  On the palate, it's just off-sweet.  A very complex and hugely interesting wine.          8+

Served with Bebinca – a rich dessert of layers of Goan style coconut pancake, baked together.  A delicate flavoured, softly sweet sweetmeat.

A good wine and food match, though this wine seemed the best of all six to serve as a match for the full range of food, and so probably more generally with the widest range of spicy foods.

6. 1959 Maury, Caves de la Côte Radieuse
This is clearly an oxidised style, so a VDN tuilé.  Mahogany colour.  The nose has molasses and cedar.  Rich and dry on the palate, with old flavours: quite sugary, quite dry.  I'd guess this is Maury, and fairly old.  A touch dusty and tired.  Mid ‘60s – mid ‘70s?

Well, a bit wrong on the age.  This is 100% grenache noir, late harvested, aged outdoors in glass demijohns, then inside in large foudres before being bottled in spring 2003.  It feels a little tired on its own, but really comes to life with the halwa.

Served with Haapshi Halwa – a toffee-like fudge made be gently reducing milk with puréed wheat.

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Last updated: 15 December 2005