Clohars-Carnoët or Collioure? That’s the decision the French television channel TF1 has to make over the next month or so, according to a recent article in Le Parisien. These two coastal villages, one in Brittany, the other in the Roussillon, are competing to become the French equivalent of “Port Wenn” — the fictional home of Martin Clunes’s Doc Martin, when the hit show is adapted for French viewers.
I’ve never been to Clohars-Carnoët, but I hope that Collioure gets the nod. Why the favouritism? Well, the place is very beautiful — a painterly, if somewhat touristy fishing port with artistic links and a reputation for great anchovies, but advocates say that its northern rival is just as picturesque. The main reason I want Le Docteur Martin to be filmed in Collioure is wine-related — it might focus people’s attention on what is happening in the vineyards and cellars of this uniquely Catalan corner of France.
I’ve been visiting the area to taste its wines for more than 20 years, but even I’ve been surprised by the improvements of late. Historically, the Roussillon was known for its fiery fortifieds — red Maury and Banyuls, white Rivesaltes and Muscat de Rivesaltes — but it’s the region’s dry, unfortified wines that are driving the revolution. Using old blocks of the three Grenaches (Noir, Gris and Blanc), Carignan, Macabeu and Malvoisie, and newer plantings of Syrah, Marsanne, Vermentino and Roussanne, the Roussillon is fast becoming the most exciting wine-producing area in France.
Why isn’t it better known? Search me. Even in France, consumers are largely unaware of what’s going on there. Just as they are here, punters on the other side of the Channel are so focused on Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône and, at a pinch, Alsace, that they ignore the tremendous wines being made in so-called lesser areas, such as the Languedoc, Madiran, Jura, Jurançon, the Loire and the Roussillon.
Of these, the place with the greatest potential to make world-class wines is arguably the Roussillon, a passionately independent region that was part of Spain until 1659. Shoe-horned between the Pyrenees to the south and the hills of the Corbières to the north, it has some stunning landscapes and a huge diversity of soil types, aspects and altitudes. That’s why a region that specialises in sun-baked, Port-style wines can also produce whites and reds with such elegance and finesse.
It’s the whites in particular that deserve to sell by the container-load. Imagine something with the richness and texture of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (albeit at lower alcohol levels), the minerality and freshness of Puligny-Montrachet and the perfume and staying power of Hermitage. At their best, Roussillon’s whites combine elements of all three, with a hint of Mediterranean herbs for good measure.
For wines of such quality, the prices are ludicrously cheap. Four wines that have impressed me in recent weeks are the barrel-fermented, oatmeal and aniseed-like 2007 Marks & Spencer Collioure, Cave de l’Abbé Rous (£9.99, 14%, Marks & Spencer), the focused, herbal, minerally 2007 Préceptoire de Centernach, Coume Marie, Côtes du Roussillon Blanc (£10.95, 13.5%, The Wine Society, www.thewinesociety.com), the mealy, pear and honeysuckle-scented 2008 Domaine Lafage Cuvée Centenaire, Côtes du Roussillon Blanc (£11.61, 13.5%, Bibendum, 020 7449 4120), made from 100-year-old vines and, best of all, the rich, fennel, vanilla, hazelnut and honey-like 2008 Coume del Mas Folio Collioure (£17.30, 14%, Clark Foyster Wines, 020 8567 3731, www.clarkfoysterwines.co.uk), a wine with palate-blowing depth, clarity and complexity. All four are a much better bet than most of the 2008 white Burgundies.
Will Collioure be picked as France’s answer to Port Wenn? I certainly relish the idea of a Gallic Doc Martin recommending a glass of the local white to a patient with spleen, or high blood pressure. But even if it doesn’t get the nod, you can appreciate the wines right now. They taste wonderful beside the Med, but they’re equally delicious here, too.
Originally published in The Observer