Since I first came across the wines of the Roussillon in the early 1990s, the south-west corner of France has become a favourite wine region of mine. On my first visit, for an annual wine-tasting competition charged with finding the best wines of the region, my luggage travelled no further than Paris, but it would have taken more than that to deter me from enjoying the fête de St Bacchus.
I discovered wines so far from the French mainstream they might have been from another country. The distinctive fortified vins doux naturels of Banyuls and Maury and the headily perfumed, exotic muscats of Rivesaltes were unique. And not surprisingly. This is a region whose heart beats to a defiantly Catalonian rhythm with a history, culture and language of its own.
On subsequent visits I have appreciated it even more. Not just for the Pyrenean foothills and the vertiginous sweep of their vineyards, nor the jolly Mediterranean fishing ports of Collioure and Port-Vendres and the sharp mountain goats' and sheep's cheeses, but for the much-improved wines from vineyards that make the Pyrénées-Orientales one of France's most varied and spectacularly beautiful spots.
Yet the Roussillon has often been regarded as little more than a suffix tacked on to the Languedoc like a side dish to the main meal.
Ironically, the relative snail's pace of Roussillon's progress has allowed it to avoid the overhasty grubbing up of workhorse vines like carignan, grenache, malvoisie and macabeu and the planting of "improving" varieties that has robbed some Languedoc regions of their birthright. Realising the potential of its patchwork of old vines, great producers like Gérard Gauby, Jean Gardiés, Domaine du Mas Blanc and La Rectorie have worked to preserve this unique heritage and build on it. According to Jean Gardiés, "If you're looking for wines with genuine Roussillon character, you need old vines to capture its identity."
This is the reasoning behind the widespread preservation of what most would regard as workhorse vines. Taste the wines of Gauby and the growers he's inspired and you'll see that they are harnessing the soils of the old vineyards, often layered like millefeuilles with slatey schist, granite and sand, to the new technology at their disposal. In doing so, not only is the wine quality of a different order, but respect for the old vines and vineyards brings an expression of genuine regional character. Today's white wines especially are infinitely superior to the drab whites of yesteryear, thanks to the judicious blending of small quantities of roussanne, marsanne, vermentino and sauvignon.
As good a starting point as any is the 2005 Cornet Blanc (£9.99, Marks & Spencer), from Abbé Rous in Collioure, a modern blend of grenache blanc and gris with roussanne, marsanne and vermentino that displays a toasty touch of oak with full-flavoured fruit richness. Try also the 2004 Le Ciste Côtes du Roussillon Blanc from Domaine Laguerre (£9.99, Booths), an organic blend of similar varieties that's zesty and rich but with a tangy dry finish.
Or taste Jean Gardiés' 2004 Domaine Jean Gardiés Vieilles Vignes, Côtes du Roussillon Blanc (£12.95, Jeroboams, London), fermented in oak in burgundian style for texture and richness of flavour or his minerally 2004 Les Glaciaires (£14.95, Jeroboams). Among the most fascinating of all are the Gérard Gauby's brilliant biodynamic whites including the superbly crafted 2003 Le Soula Blanc, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes (£19.60-£20.99, A & B Vintners, 01892 724977; Raeburn Fine Wines, 0131 343 1159; the Wine Society, 01438 740222). This is a wine, a producer, and a region, to watch.