The winemakers in Roussillon (roo-see-yohn) are determined to rock you. If there's a region where ancient rock plays a leading role, it is this isolated area on the eastern side of the Pyrenees Mountains in southwest France. In Roussillon, growers don't speak about soil; they rock. Wine character is ascribed to differences in rocks; shapes, such as flat or angular, and hues, such as black or grey, are considered to determine wine flavour.
Though situated in France, Roussillon is just over the border from Spain and, by heritage, its people are Catalan rather than French. Between the 13th and 17th centuries, the province was governed by various Spanish monarchies and the Roussillon people continue to identify with Spanish Catalonia.
Roussillon has an extraordinary number of sunshine days each year. But, despite that, some of its mountains are so high - the striking Mount Canigou (2,785 metres) is almost six times the height of Victoria Peak - that they remain snow covered throughout the year.
More readily known for its stunning fortified port-style wines - Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes - the region's dry red wines have come into their own. This is not a terrain suited to making early, easy-drinking wines. Not only do Roussillon's vines contend with parched growing conditions, but warm winds as well. Winemakers commonly remove raisins from the grape clusters to keep their wines fresh. Whatever the conditions, some stunning wines are appearing in the region. Roussillon produces wines that are a tour de force: firm, deeply coloured and with high mineral expression.
Eric Aracil, export director of the CIVR (Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon), the generic body responsible for promoting the region's wines, says, 'We make wines that are shockingly different - and shockingly delicious.'
Centuries of natural selection has resulted in a blend of varieties suited for Roussillon's inhospitable growing conditions. Growers favour the grenache variant lladoner pelut - known as 'hairy grenache' due to the fine silvery hair on the underside of its leaf - because it is resistant to Roussillon's high winds and baking temperatures. Other grapes used include favourite Rhone Valley varieties carignan, syrah, mourvedre and cinsault. Regulations also permit a small addition of white maccabeu (better known in Spain as macabeo) to the blend, presumably to soften the wines, but it is rarely included these days.
Most grape growing in Roussillon is environmentally friendly. Given the steepness of its terrain, tractor-use is impossible - mules are the workhorse of choice - and so chemical applications are impractical.
'Organics are imperative in Roussillon,' according to Vladimir Algin, export director of wine producer Cave de l'Abbe Rous. 'Our hills are so steep that everything drains into the sea, which affects all of us.'
'It is sponsored winemaking,' pronounces Gabrielle Breitinger of Domaine Mas Amiel. 'Roussillon is a pot where you throw your money in.'
Tom Lubbe, winemaker at Domaine Matassa, agrees. 'This is not economical farming,' he says. 'Yields are less than 30 hectolitres per hectare.'
In many parts of France, low yields are practically a religion but with Roussillon's steep, arid, rock-clad vineyards it's the only choice and stunning wines are the result. To produce wine in an ancient region under such arduous conditions takes sturdy shoes and an act of faith that borders on insanity.