Clive Platman enjoys a taste of the South of France, courtesy of Banyuls and Collioure.
High above the sleepy Mediterranean fishing-port of Banyuls, close to the Spanish border, is a dramatic natural amphitheatre, where, instead of seats, there are old vines and terraces.
Catching the heat of the sun, the land is parched and baked, only given colour by the verdant green of vine-leaves and the azure blue of the sea below.
The thin impoverished schistous soils are held in position by low-terraced walls, criss-crossed by drainage channels dug out to contain storm-water run off and prevent further erosion. Some of the vines are so inaccessible that they can only be worked by mules. Vineyard yields are unviably low.
It is here that the noble Mediterranean grape, grenache, in both its black and white forms, comes into its own, despite these harsh inhospitable conditions.
At one time, the harvest was almost exclusively used for the production of the once-popular sweet fortified wine of Banyuls, but nowadays for the still red and white table wine labelled as Collioure, which occupies the same territorial boundaries.
In spite of the terrain, the vines still thrive, thrusting their roots deep into the crumbly rock, to extract moisture and minerals. The elevation provides the essential day-to-night temperature differentials providing freshness, yet the grapes are still able to benefit from the moderating influence of the sea.
Classic Banyuls is a lightly fortified wine, traditionally aged, for a number of years in old barrels to achieve an oxidative-rancio style. It’s not to everybody’s taste and, these days, this style is seldom seen in the British market.
Although the Parcé family had been growing vines for a number of generations, Domaine de la Rectorie was not formed until 1984, when they left the local co-operative and began to bottle their own wines. Needing a quick turnover, they turned their back on traditional Banyuls and, instead, released their wine within a year or two of the harvest, concentrating on a fruit-focused style for their white and red wines, as well as their Banyuls, very much against the grain. The winery has thrived and they are now regarded as one of the leading producers in the region.
Their white wine, L’Argile, is from 90 per cent grenache gris and 10 per cent grenache blanc, fermented in barrel. Packing a punch, it’s warm, spicy and minerally, with flavours of peach and stone fruits.
The red Coté de Mer is mainly grenache noir, supplemented with syrah and carignan. It’s partly oak-aged, producing flavours of cherry and tobacco. It’s delicious, but more serious is their Coté de Montagne, with equal proportions of grenache, carignan and counoise. This had flavours of raspberry, cherry, tobacco and spice, underpinned with freshness and minerality.
Both these reds are on opening offer with the Wine Society.
An older cuvée still currently available is Le Seris, a 60/40 blend of grenache and carignan, aged for 12 months in old large vats. The wine has an almost silky Burgundian feel, and is currently available at Tanners for £18.70.
Domaine de la Rectorie still produces Banyuls, made by adding between 7% and 10% neutral alcohol to the grape must.
It’s similar to port, but lighter in alcohol, and also combines well with chocolate, a particularly difficult food to match.
Two cuvées tasted were the Cuvée Parcé Frères 2008, with pronounced cherry flavours, developing a rich chocolate finish, and the late-harvested Cuvée Leon Parcé 2008, a little more raisiny and sweeter, but still relatively fresh compared to the traditional style.
The wines are listed by both Tanners Wines (01743 234455) and the Wine Society (01438 741177).