A recent visit to incredible Banyuls producer, Domaine Traginer

Banyuls – Domaine de Traginer

Recently I was on holiday in northern Catalonia.  We stayed in a specialist cycling hotel called Rocacorba Cycling, near Banyoles just north of the delightful cycling city of Girona.  Rococorba lies at the foot of a 10km climb of the same name which I tackled in 35 degree heat and almost died just to get to the top.  It is owned by current professional Ashley-Moolman Pasio and her husband Karl, both South Africans who fell in love with the property when they came across it on a training camp in the area.  The old, converted farmhouse has a beautiful walled courtyard and its slight elevation is enough to give breathtaking views of Banyoles below and the mountains to the north, particularly at dawn when the sun rising emits a magical light.  They have created luxurious rooms, a stunning infinity style swimming pool and equipped the whole place perfectly for the cyclist with a full-time mechanic, workshop and suite of Specialised bikes which you can hire.  Dinner is healthy, uncomplicated and delicious and served outside in the peaceful courtyard.  

None of this is wine related but I just loved the place so thought I would give them a little advertising……

From Banyoles, you can take the road north to Figueras and then veer off towards the coast through Llanca and head for the border.  This stunning drive takes you along the coast road which dips and weaves through the barren hillsides through Portbou, Cap Cerbere and eventually you drop down to the famous wine town of Banyuls.  These hills which hug the coast and create little hidden coves and beaches are in stark contrast with the clear blue of the Mediterranean.  The dry arid landscape is foreboding.  There are few trees and the grey schist soils and scrub look harsh and difficult terrain, battered by the winds and suffocating heat which covers the area throughout the summer making it feel like one massive sauna.  We stopped at a viewpoint as we drove through but quickly got back into the safety of the car’s air conditioning as the temperature gauge read 42 degrees. 

Nevertheless, the area is very beautiful and the towns that hug the coast are delightful places to visit.  I say this with a slight hesitation, however.  Like most beautiful places in the Mediterranean, tourism has gone too far and destroyed much of the authenticity and French identity.  The preponderance of Irish pubs, and English-speaking voices make it all feel more like an ex pat rather than a French community which is a real shame.

We stopped in Banyuls and stumbled on the tiny cellar of Geordie Perez who is the current owner of the mythical Casot de Mailloles vineyard made famous by Alain Castex.  The cellar is tucked down a side street just off the beach front and Geordie was there, cleaning up a bit, sipping an Ice cold Kronenbourg and chatting with a pal.  He was surprised to see this English guy who knew his name, but we had a quick chat about how the year had gone and he sadly informed me, he had no wine to sell.  ‘Il n’y a rien, c’est tout finit…’ That is often the case with Casot wines, they are always in demand.  But it is also getting more and more difficult for Geordie to produce wine.  Water has now become a scarce commodity in this part of the Mediterranean.  The last two years Geordie’s yields have been so low due to water stress that he has hardly made any wine at all.  This year, he got 8 hectolitres per hectare, less than half of a normal year.  With the drop in production, he doesn’t make any money and has rented in some vines in the Jurancon region to safeguard his future.  

I try to avoid the mobile phone on holiday so had missed the WhatsApp from Jean Francois Dieu from Domaine de Traginer inviting me and the family to dinner at his house in the hills above Banyuls.  ‘No worries’ he said, ‘come tomorrow’.  So, on our last night in the area, we set off to find him looking forward to some natural wine.

Domaine de Traginer produces some of the most profound, authentic and delicious, sweet Banyuls wine in the region.  Banyuls is ‘Vin Doux Naturel’, a French term for wines with naturally occurring sweetness.  It is made by lightly fortifying the wine with grape spirit during fermentation.  The introduction of spirit stops the fermentation, increasing the abv to around 15-18%, leaving unfermented sugars in the wine.  

Traginer is owned by Jean Francois Dieu, one of the truly genuine artisans in the area.  There are a few definitions for the word artisan, but I like this one from Wikipedia.

‘Artisans practice a craft and may through experience and aptitude reach the expressive levels of an artist.’

This is certainly the case with Jean Francois.  He is a true artist; thoughtful, creative, eccentric and a bit stubborn.  Although he came to wine making quite late after working in Paris for a few years, he has the region’s wine in his family history and in his blood.  He has the soft nature of a 'vigneron', a broad smile and a genuine love for his life and his craft. 

It was a gorgeous a drive through the vineyards up to his house and cellar located about 8 km outside the town on the way up to the ‘Col de Banyuls’ mountain pass.  The house is old and sprawling, rammed full of so much stuff, there is little room to move.  The day’s intense heat had finally given way to a storm, so it was heavy rain as we arrived, and Jean Francois wasn’t there.  He was mid harvest so was a little late!  We waited inside by the huge fireplace, and he soon arrived carrying shopping with his partner Isabelle and went to the kitchen to grab bottles.  First, we tasted his Banyuls Blanc 2021, made from Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Muscat.  It had a delicious waxy, texture with ripe stone fruits and honey on the palate.  Then we moved onto the classic Rimage 2021, a deep coloured red wine made from Grenache Noir.  This wine had rich dark fruits, notes of chocolate and herbs, but incredible freshness and acidity.  Next came the top Cuvee, the outstanding 2015 Grand Cru and finally the Ambre, a white Banyuls that has undergone long, oxidative ageing.  These elixirs raise sweet wine to another level, with a complexity and balance which makes it impossible to stop sipping them.  One doesn’t often think of high abv, sweet wines as something you would drink before food but served chilled, these wines were the perfect ‘apero’ on a hot summers evening. 

Before dinner Jean Francois gave us a tour of his cellar. What a mess!  Barrels and equipment were strewn everywhere in the centuries old building where he makes the wine.  The battered old ‘Cuve’ were full of the current vintage and the atmosphere was heavy with the aroma of wild yeasts, ‘marc’ and fermenting wine.  He leads us to a smaller cellar lined with old barriques, where Banyuls almost as old as me continued to lay in homeostasis, waiting for their moment of glory when they are finally bottled.  'When will you bottle these Jean Francois, I ask?'  ‘I am not sure, when they are ready and someone wants to buy them’.  'How long have you been waiting for?'  ‘Well this one is 40 years old, but I don’t think it is quite ready’….

We ate inside as it was still raining, a gratin of roasted vegetables with local sausage and ‘boudin noir’ (black pudding) and drank a selection of Jean Francois’s red and white Collioure table wines which were also superb, full bodied and gastronomic.  The highlight for me was the new 2021 Caracterre, a red wine with plenty of power but also immensely easy drinking.

Jean Francois also talked about the current challenges facing the region with intense heat and lack of rain.  He said, they hadn’t had any significant rainfall in 18 months and that many of his vines were simply dying, even the old vines where the roots go deep.  Irrigation is of course illegal but also, he pointed out, there is no water to irrigate with.  Yields at Traginer were also very low in 2023 so less wine will be made with an inevitable increase in price.  When asked if he was worried for the future, Jean Francois shrugged, ‘What can I do, I can’t control the weather or climate change.’  It must be worrying for areas like the Roussillon where summers are now so hot and dry that lack of water and also forest fires are such genuine threats that wine production might become impossible in the not-too-distant future.  Jean Francois told us of two towns in northern Catalonia where sea water was now coming out of the taps instead of fresh water because the reservoirs which served the towns had completely dried up.  This is incredible and depressing. It serves as a stark reminder that climate change is real, and is having an effect here and now, despite the cool, wet summer that we have experienced in the UK.

We left Jean Francois and Isabelle after a lovely evening and some delicious wine.  Visting wine makers like him is a real inspiration and makes us more and more determined to represent them and try and sell their lovely wines.  We hope more of you will try them and be inspired too.