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.
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!