Hello folks! I’m back! I was travelling during September from Barcelona to Nice on a Picasso-themed journey.
Not only did we visit thrilling Picasso museums, historical sites, and architectural wonders like Antoni Gaudi’s spectacular “La Sagrada Familia” church in Barcelona, and the Dali museum in Figureres on our way out of Spain, we also were provided with a two- day respite from art and architecture in the sea-side village of Coulioure, just inside the French border with Spain. Coulioure is an Appellation d’Origin Contrȏllée (AOC) just across a little bay from Banyuls-sur-mer, itself established as an AOC in 1935, making it one of France’s oldest AOC’s (according to my French Wine Scholar manual). The center-piece of our two-night stopover in Coulioure was a visit to Domaine St. Sebastien—an independently-owned winery in Banyuls.
The morning after our arrival, we joined our tour guide at Coulioure’s port for a motor launch ride to Banyuls, where proprietor/winemaker, Romauld Peronne, was awaiting us at Domaine St. Sebastian. We were also to have lunch in the winery’s garden restaurant (Le jardin de St Sebastien).
We arrived in Banyuls just in time to see tubs of freshly picked Grenache being unloaded by cellar hands Bastien Ferannato and Clementine Marcon from the bed of a slightly battered pick-up truck in front of Domaine St. Sebastien. ]
While my travelling companions went inside the cellar (la cave) to hear Monsieur Peronne describe the winemaking process, I stayed outside to try for some photos of the unloading process. The mid-morning Mediterranean light was bewitching.
The equipment at the winery was traditional, and performed smoothly to the operation. I found the situation interesting, refreshing—and unexpected—as if I’d stepped back in time, when life was more peaceful and authentic.
The grapes from the truck now being unloaded, I stepped inside the cave just in time to hear a question about AOC, and “vigneron indépendent” Romauld Peronne’s response that, first of all, “AOC is not quality. It could be, but also might not be.” I was immediately attentive; never before had I heard such an incisive statement about AOC, that it is not a stamp of quality on a bottle of French wine. What it indicates is which “delineated zone of production . . .with unique qualities and characteristics stemming from its geography, climate, topography, and viticultural and winemaking practices” the grapes used to make the wine came from. AOC refers both to the region itself and the product that comes from that region. (Also from my French Wine Scholar Manual)
While AOC is the top rung on the French wine quality control pyramid, in that the delineated zone of production is smaller in acreage and has tighter restrictions on maximum tonnage/acre production, minimum alcohol percentage, and the varieties and percentages of varieties allowed in the wine of the AOC than has the next lower rung, Vin de Pays, AOC by itself does not indicate quality. Factors such as vintage, technology, and winemaking practices are equally important in determining quality. This is an important point.
[In a later posting, I will be discussing AOC further as well as the detailed ranking systems for vineyards used in some of France’s regions, together with an explanation of American Viticultural Areas (AVA) and Canada’s Vintner Quality Alliance (VQA—the only ranking among the three that actually contains the word “quality,” and is a quality designation: a VQA collar on a bottle of Canadian wine indicates that the wine has met VQA standards of quality].
Since Roussillon, the regional AOC to which Banyuls and Coulioure belong, was a part of Spanish Catalonia from the 1200s to the 1700s, the major varieties of this region–Grenache Noir, Carignan, Mouvedre, and Grenache Blanc—are Spanish and were originally planted by the Spanish during their 500-year occupancy. Spain’s traditional winemaking styles, which tended towards full-bodied spicy reds and slightly oxidized whites, also became mainstream and still influence winemaking in the region today. Roussillon, in fact, is considered French Catalogne.
At Domaine St. Sebastien, Peronne makes wines under both Banyuls and Coulioure Appelations.
Banyuls is the ancestral AOC and its vin doux naturel (VDN = sweet) wines are its ancestral wines.
Coulioure AOC, established in 1971, was the first in the region for dry red wines. Noted for their rustic, tannic, and spicy character, the wines were made from a combination of 60% minimum of Grenache Noir, Syrah, and Mouvèdre, the balance from other accepted regional varieties. Today, dry whites, rosés, and reds are all produced under the Coulioure AOC.
Domaine St. Sebastein’s series “Empreintes” (Footprints) under AOC Coulioure provides the best expressions of Grenache from the schiste hillside vineyards, believes Perrone, since it is the emblematic and dominant variety in all its dry table wine blendings: white, red, and rosé. A white and a rimage (reductive red) “Empreintes” wine are produced under Banyuls (VDN) AOC.
Little if any oak is used in the cellaring of Empreintes series wines.
Domaine St. Sebastien’s estate vineyards consist of 14 hectares of old growth vines on terraces that can be harvested only by hand. As its website proudly states, its goal is to produce wines in accordance with the traditions and knowledge of past generations while relying on techniques and current agronomic and oenological knowledge.
Chief among current winemaking techniques for Domaine St. Sebastien is the practice of ageing its red wines for the “Inspiration” series, its signature wines, in 100% new French (Alliers) oak for one year. (New oak barrels are still widely considered a luxury in the Roussillon region.) The wines in the series “Inspiration” are “wines with a strong personality whose specificities and particularities” are highlighted. For Domaine St. Sebastien’s owner/winemaker Peronne, the robust character of hillside Grenache in this series needs the influence of new oak to create the style of wine he feels best suited to fruit from his historic vineyards. Even his Coulioure “Inspiration Minerale” (a Grenache Blanc blend) sees about 9 months in new Alliers oak.
Of course, since AOC does not necessarily designate “quality,” the test of these wines would be how they paired up with the lunch that was awaiting us in Le Jardin de St. Sebastien. I was ready! Soon we were all assembled and seated in this lovely seaside garden restaurant, with bottles of both white and red wines from the Empreintes series on the table. Since our menu featured seafood, I opted for the Coulioure Blanc, vintage 2012.
At first sip, I thought I detected a trace of residual sugar. But once my first course of seafood on a bed of butter lettuce arrived, all hint of off-dryness disappeared, leaving only a fresh crisp wine with loads of citrus, green apple, and mango aromas and flavors. The wine was perfectly suited to the regional food. I was happy.
And from the rising level of conversation from our large party, I concluded that the others were equally happy. I also sampled the Coulioure rouge during the course of our lunch. It was an equally delightful wine, with young fruit, yet spicy and robust. Our dessert course came with a luscious glass of the ancestral Banyuls VDN. It couldn’t have been a better close to a delightful day.
During my French Wine Scholar summer course in 2010, the entire South and South-West regions were left to our last day, a morning session for the South-West, and the afternoon for Roussillon, Languedoc, and Provence. To say I left feeling both confused and overwhelmed was a great understatement. However, by studying the regions in terms of wines from these AOC’s that I occasionally bought, I had been gradually acquiring a clearer picture of the regions and their AOCS and the grapes that made up their production.
To have found myself just a few weeks ago actually in the region of Roussillon during our stopover at Coulioure and our one-day visit to Banyuls, and seeing the vineyards and mountainous topography from the windows our luxurious bus as we made our way out of Spanish Catalonia to French Catanlogne, and then to visit an independently-owned winery that produces hand-made wines from these two AOCs, provided me with much-needed visuals and tastes. It was astonishing, actually, and amazing to me to see wines in this region still largely made by hand at every stage, with emphasis on vineyards and grapes and the focus on producing them in a traditional yet cost-effective way. Even oak-aged wines of the region are available at just €22 (or about $30 US).
Discovering Domaine St. Sebastien was like discovering a little jewel of beauty and authenticity among the larger and more famous “chateaux” and “maisons” of the Roussillon/Languedoc regions. It also gave me new appreciation for the Grenache grape and the wines made from it—it was a visit and wines I shall long remember.
©Rhoda Stewart 2013 All rights reserved
Domaine St. Sebastein website: http://www.domaine-st-sebastein.com