Le Fenouillèdes

Article from 14-12-2006

Finding Fenouillèdes country

Whichever map angle you approach the Fenouillèdes region from, you’ll quickly be invaded by the primal beauty of the unforgiving terrain that cradles its vineyards.

Draped across a dramatically wild, elevated valley landscape bridging Corbières and French Catalonia, you can kick off a wine route on its eastern side coming from Perpignan airport, around the villages of Calce, Estagel and Tautavel; or from the west between Caudiès de Fenouillèdes and St-Paul de Fenouillet. The latter choice is recommended, if you’re travelling down from Carcassonne via Limoux and Couiza then winding your way through the scary Gorges de Galamus. Between St-Paul and Estagel, dotted along and south of the D117 valley road, the villages and wines of Lesquerde, Maury, Caramany, Rasiguères and Latour de France all grab your attention.

Fennel or hay?

You might assume the word Fenouillèdes came from the French (or Occitan: historically most of this region wasn’t part of Catalonia) for fennel. But according to the handy site histoireduroussillon.free.fr, the Romans called the area Pagus Fenioletensis meaning ‘hay country’ , although there is a connection between the two words.

Either way, it’s the grapes that excel in this corner of the Roussillon; and winegrowers at a number of up-and-coming (and firmly established), high quality estates are keen to spread the word.

In the past, the area was known mainly as a producer of thick fortified red ‘Vins Doux Naturels’ based on Grenache. Many still make these unique wines, some of which are superb such as the Maury AOC crafted by Mas Karolina, Domaine Jorel (both in St-Paul), or, in Maury itself, traditional super-aged styles from la Coume du Roy, who still have a little of their incredibly treacly 1880 vintage!

But there’s a limited market nowadays for this kind of strong, tannic and sweet wine. Hence why a fresh generation of newcomers, sons/daughters who’ve gone back into family vineyards and former co-operative growers who’ve established their own domaines, are producing exciting reds (and unusual whites and rosés) in line with today’s wine drinking tastes.

Serious Grenache

In fact, Richard Case of Domaine Pertuisane (Maury) cites Grenache as the pull of the area: “Unparalleled anywhere in France... the best three places to grow it are Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Priorat and Maury.” One hectare of old vine Grenache or Carignan is also relatively cheap here at around 10-15,000 euros. Compare that to at least €300,000 in CNDP.

Quite a bit of Syrah has been planted, which seems to give very good results if matched to the right sites and soils, such as around Rasiguères, Bélesta and Vingrau.

Many growers cherish their old Carignan above all: Gérard Gauby called it “one of the great varieties of the future.”

And let’s not forget majestic Mourvèdre, the mainstay of a rich complex blend, championed by some and abandoned by others.

You must get out into the vineyards to fully appreciate how difficult it is to work these vines and why grape yields are generally very low. For example, when you tread uneasily on the dry schist and stone ‘soils’ at Domaine des Soulanes between Tautavel and Maury; hard to believe anything grows here at all. Owner Daniel Laffite said he wears out two pairs of boots a year!

Worth visiting and tasting

In addition to those mentioned above, other names to keep an eye out for as you tour around the region include the following, listed by village.

Calce – pretty little lost village, home to the biodynamic Gauby family (their 2003 Muntada red is particularly impressive) and Domaine Matassa (try the intense whites from Viognier-Muscat and Grenache Gris-Macabeu).

Vingrau – spectacularly set vineyards circled by limestone cliffs and hills. Domaine de l’Edre: Jacques Castany, long time grower, and Pascal Dieunidou vinified their first vintage in 2002. Look out for the 2004 Dom de l’Edre red and 2005 white. Talking of whites, about half of Domaine des Chênes’ production is white: try their atypical oak-aged 2003 les Sorbiers CdR from old vine Grenache Blanc and Macabeu.

Tautavel (where you’ll also find the Centre européen de Préhistoire, kind of history of mankind museum) – Domaine des Soulanes: 2004 Sarrat del Mas Côtes du Roussillon Villages; Domaine Fontanel: 1997 Rivesaltes Ambré.

Estagel – Domaine Hylari: Côtes du Roussillon Villages 2004 and Rivesaltes Tuilé VDN; Domaine des Schistes: 2003 La Coumeille CdRV; Domaine les Tourdelles: 2004 Cuvée Pierre Damien CdRV.

Latour de France – the old castle tower was a border outpost until ‘northern Catalonia’ became part of France in 1659. Domaine de la Balmière: 2005 Latour de France CdRV, Muscat sec and rosé; Domaine Rivaton: 2005 Latour de France CdRV.

Rasiguères – Domaine Jouret et Fils: 2004 Cuvée les 3 Soeurs CdRV; also home of Trémoine, one of the Roussillon’s most serious rosés.

Bélesta - Clos de l’Oum: 2004 Numéro Uno CdRV. The local co-op also makes some decent wines.

Vignerons de Caramany: 2004 CdRV.

Maury – Clos de l’Origine set up by former Bandol grower/winemaker Marc Barriot, who’s aiming for super-organic status: 2004 Vin de Pays rouge with 40% Mourvèdre and no sulphur dioxide. Domaine Serrelongue: young enthusiastic Julien Fournier’s 2004 Saveur de Vigne CdRV among others; Domaine Terre Rousse: 2005 CdRV looks very promising; Domaine Duran: 2005 Dom du Vieux Cépage; Mas de Lavail (with on site gîte/chambres d’hôte): 2003 la Désirade CdRV; Domaine Semper: old family estate making a full range of styles; Château Saint Roch: 2003 Kerbuccio CdRV; Domaine Pouderoux: 2003 Terre Brune CdRV; and Dom la Pertuisane’s 2004 VdP from 90% Grenache and Carignan, both very low yielding.

St-Paul de Fenouillet – Domaine de la Fou: 2004 Ricochet CdRV. Interesting to note that the Grier family of South Africa’s Villiera estate has recently purchased 22 ha of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan nearby.

Caudiès – Domaine de Majas: 2003 les Hauts de Majas CdR and good Cabernet Sauvignon vin de pays.

Mad Cathare fortresses

Facing the Pyrenees to the south and dangerously perched up on the Corbières foothills, you just have to drive (or hike) up to Château de Peyrepertuse and/or Château de Quéribus. The former is found to the northeast of St-Paul and the latter by taking the D19 road from Maury. Best to visit them when the sometimes ferocious wind isn’t blowing its heart out…

Restaurants and what’s on

The area isn’t exactly awash with places to eat and stay.

Jean Pla – who’s involved in promotional activities carried out by the producers’ association, Fenouillèdes Selection – and his wife have opened a ‘resto-cave’ in Maury called Le Pichenouille. This compact establishment offers well-priced menus, winegrower dinner/tastings and you can pick your wine straight off the shelves from a wide choice of local bottles. They’re also setting up a company offering guided tours etc. 33 avenue Jean Jaurès, 66460 Maury. Tel: +33 (0)4 68 59 02 18 or mobile: 06 07 69 54 78.

The Auberge du Cellier (1 rue de Sainte Eugénie, 66720 Montner - Tel: 04 68 29 09 78 - Fax: 04 68 29 10 61) is fancier and describes its cooking as “neo-Catalan.” Tasty refined menus from 29 to 65 €uros, wines by the glass from 5 € and top Roussillon bottles priced from 15 to 300 €. They also offer six double rooms at 45 to 56 € and organise vineyard walks etc

Le Petit Gris just outside Tautavel has a large terrace outside with peaceful 360° views; fuel up with their hearty grillade catalane. Tel: 04 68 29 42 42.

Regular local events include the Fenouillèdes & Peyrepertuse wine fair at the end of May. More info including all the producers’ contact details can be found at www.fenouilledes-selection.com and www.vinsduroussillon.com

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