Down in the very far South of France, a stone’s throw from the Spanish border, is a small region known as the Cote Vermeille. Sitting right on the edge of the Mediterranean at the foot of the Pyrenees there are some well known coastal towns down here – Port Vendres for fish, Collioure, former residents include Picasso and Matisse, and Banyuls Sur Mer which produces a fortified aperitif and dessert wine. In fact, wine is big news in the area with vineyards across the four communes of Port Vendres, Cerbere, Collioure and Banyuls but there is a good chance you have never heard of them.
This is not Bordeaux or Burgundy with its famous Chateaux and Appellations but Banyuls has been producing its unique sweet wine since the middle ages and exporting it, primarily to America, since the nineteenth century. Collioure is much more recent, having only gained recognition for its red wines in 1971 and white wines as late as 2003. The two towns as wine growing areas are now inextricably linked.
One of the factors that makes wines interesting from this particular area is the terrain, or more accurately in the French “Terroir”. In this corner of the south -eastern Pyrenees the mountains literally descend into the Mediterranean, so the vines are grown on steep slopes with fairly rocky, poor soil. To counteract the steepness you will see vines set on “terraces”, man-made flat areas to give extra room for the cultivation of the vines. Grape vines actually thrive in harsh conditions, whether it be the soil or the climate, and need to work hard in order to produce a decent crop.
There is also a unique climate in this region. Summers are traditionally dry and hot and winters are mild with limited rainfall. It is one of the warmest and driest wine regions of France. The majority of rainfall is in early spring and September. At the end of the summer as cooler air from the mountains collides with the warm Mediterranean air it causes some dramatic storms with torrential rainfall.
The Spanish have a saying for this weather condition along the Mediterranean coast – “La Gota Fria”. The other contributing weather factor is the wind. Known as “La Tramontane”, the wind which blows down from the mountains sometimes with speeds in excess of 100km/h, it keeps the vines and grapes free from mildew because they are in constant contact with the humid sea air. La Tramontane will blow for either 3,6 or 9 days at a time.
The Grapes and Wines
In Banyuls and Collioure the main grape varieties that you will see are black, grey and white grenache, muscat, macabeo and malvoisie. There are additional varieties grown here such as mourvedre, syrah and carignan which are blended to create a unique flavour.
Banyuls is a fortified wine so has had alcohol added by means of a neutral grape-based spirit in a process known as “Mutage”. It is similar to the production of Port but Banyuls has a lower alcohol content at only 16%. Banyuls is mainly produced as a red wine but is also available as a white. The wine is then aged either in oak barrels or, more traditionally, in glass demi-johns. The glass containers are placed outdoors so that the wine is exposed to the sun and the changes in temperatures for a period of 30 months, helping it to develop its characteristics.
Wine aged in barrels will have a different colour and taste depending on the age of the barrel and the time that the wine spends in it. Banyuls “Grand Cru” are aged in oak for at least two and half years. The flavour of Banyuls is often described as being “nutty” and certainly “raisiny” which is understandable as to create that sweetness the grapes are left on the vine until they are virtually shrivelled up like raisins. Try Banyuls with foie gras, duck, cherries or chocolate.
In Collioure although they are using the same grape varieties grown across the same vineyards an entirely different wine is produced. The wines tend to be dry and powerful with a strong fruity character. The white wines, which were permitted to be produced in 2003, are made almost exclusively from grenache blanc and grenache gris are full bodied and highly perfumed.
Red Collioure is also a powerful wine with plenty of fruit and spice flavours. It is made using the unwanted grapes from Banyuls (grenache) and blended with mourvedre and carignan. The quality of wines produced from Collioure has gradually improved with the implementation of better wine-making processes and the permitted introduction of grape varieties like mourvedre and syrah. Previously Banyuls had the prestige and the “pick” of the best grapes with the unwanted grapes being used to make Collioure.
This region in the extreme south-east of France with its proximity to the Spanish border is a popular tourist location. Soak-up the culture which is a blend of French, Spanish and,above all, Catalan and perhaps try some Sardane dancing. There are plenty of activities and places to explore as well as just touring along the coast road, admiring the views and sampling a “degustation” at a local winery.