Wine Book Review: Rescuing Roussillon’s Identity

Rosemary George MW, The Wines of Roussillon (The Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library, 2021)

It’s not easy to write a book about a complicated wine region like Roussillon — a place with such varied terroir and interesting history. It is especially hard when the approach is personal and intimate. But it must be nearly impossible to do this when the necessary fieldwork is interrupted by a global pandemic.

And yet Rosemary George MW has managed to do all of this and to do it really well in her newest book, which I highly recommend.

The heart of The Wines of Roussillon is a comprehensive analysis of “Who’s Who,” which takes us through Roussillon’s wine regions, visiting many of the most important producers. The winery profiles are very personal and I often had a sense that I was visiting the winemakers with George, which is a welcome feeling after months of relative isolation. Her deep knowledge of the regions and wines provides context and perspective on how things are changing and what has remained the same.

Roussillon’s Identity Dilemma

One of the continuing themes — the elephant in the room that is outlined very well in a chapter on wine business in Roussillon — is identity. What is Roussillon in the broader world of wine? For older wine enthusiasts, Roussillon is an appendage — the trailing part of Languedoc-Roussillon, the term sometimes used to identify the huge vineyard area of the French south. This geographical simplification is unfair to Roussillon, however, which has a distinct character, more Catalan than French (whatever that means, since France itself is so diverse).

Sue and I only dipped our toes into Roussillon wine, food, language, and culture during a media tour a few years ago, but it was impossible to miss (and to appreciate) the differences. Roussillon’s unique character is clear and deserves to stand on its own.

And what about the wines? Well, when we were planning our trip to the area I told some friends and one of them dismissed the enterprise, saying that he hoped that we liked cheap, sweet wines, because that’s what we’d find in Roussillon. The unfavorable reference was to the Vins Doux Naturel wines that the region is known for. The wines are like Port in that their sweetness comes from sugar that remains after neutral spirits are used to prematurely stop fermentation.  Sweet wines like these were highly prized before sugar was cheap and plentiful and sweetness a glut on the market.

The wines don’t have much in common with Port apart from the method of halting fermentation, which makes sense since the grapes are different and the terroir different, too. If you haven’t tasted a Vin Doux before (or you haven’t done so recently) you might make a point of doing so now. You’ll have to search for them a little, but they are there. See what you’ve been missing.

The Sweet and the Dry

One thing Port and Vins Doux share is the ability to age and we were fortunate to taste many quite old wines during our visit. They were stunningly delicious. A wine from 1949 was especially memorable. Amazing. But not all Roussillon’s sweet wine have been amazing and my friend’s comment about “cheap, sweet wines” come from the fact that there was once a robust market for such wines to serve as aperitives that the Vins Doux once filled alongside inexpensive Sherry and Port. It was a good market, I suppose, and a pleasant drink before dinner, but it isn’t the identity that Roussillon needed or deserved. But there you are.

And now, of course, sweet wine generally is hard to sell and so sweet wine with a questionable reputation is especially problematic.  Producers in the Douro have responded to the slump of the market for sweet fortified wines by shifting to non-fortified table wines and they’ve achieved some success, albeit with considerable effort.

Rousillon producers have responded in a similar way with vin sec, which has a larger potential market than the sweet wines. But the French domestic market is not very welcoming to Roussillon dry wines, so emphasis is on developing exports. China, George tells us, became the #1 export market for both the dry and the sweet wines in 2017.  But, as good as they can be, these dry wines have not yet established a clear identity.

The Old and the New

So the elephant in the room is the problem of selling both the sweet and the dry and it seems that this issue comes up whenever George gets into a conversation with a Roussillon wine grower. The problem has had a visible impact on the region — both vineyard area and total product have declined dramatically over the last 30 years. Old identities are hard to dislodge and new ones tricky to establish in a wine world full of where much is changing at once.

I wrote about the identity problem after our visit three years ago and noted a certain refreshing optimism.

The Roussillon producers we spoke with saw old reputation as less of an issue mainly because their region is not so well-known as Languedoc. Roussillon is often lumped in with Languedoc or left out altogether. They see today’s market as an opportunity to build a strong reputation from scratch.

We enjoyed all the wines, both sweet and dry, and sensed important shifts, from older cooperative members to younger independent producers

When we arrived at Domaine de Besombes we met winemakers from the region and shared a delicious Catalan barbecue lunch. And we tasted their delicious stereotype-breaking dry red and white wines, too. Sue was particular fond of the wines made by Laurent Pratx of Serre Romani. The grandson of the man who founded the local cooperative, Pratx returned to Roussillon after working in the Rhone Valley committed to taking his wines in new, independent directions.

So a lot of factors are at work, but the problem remains to establish Roussillon’s identity in today’s environment. Tourism, George suggests, might be part of the answer (once pandemic restrictions have passed). Visitors who learn about Roussillon’s distinct identity can become ambassador’s for the wines. So there is much work to do and you can tell that George appreciates the challenge and believe that the wines are worth the effort and will succeed once they are better known and understood.

Elizabeth George’s The Wines of Roussillon is a rewarding survey of the Roussillon wine landscape and the people who are driving it ahead. Highly recommended.

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I thought you might be interesting in this menu from a gala dinner with the winemakers during our visit to Roussillon. It was quite fantastic and showed the versatility of the Vins Doux wines.

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