I was in Mexico for the second half of January so was blissfully unaware of the fallout from the results of Decanter's Roussillon tasting that were published in the magazine in early January, in the February issue. It had not been a happy tasting. I was one of three tasters, with fellow Master of Wine, Simon Field, who buys Roussillon, amongst other things, for Berry Bros & Rudd, and Simon Taylor, who set up Stone, Vine & Sun, a company which makes the south of France something of a speciality. All three of us are therefore very enthusiastic about Roussillon, and had high expectations from the tasting. But sadly these were simply not met.
There were 82 wines in all, mainly Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon Villages, but also some Maury, Collioure and Côtes Catalanes. None achieved Outstanding status; there were just five Highly Recommended wines, a large swathe of 47 Recommended wines, and a pretty large swathe of wines that registered merely Fair, including some of the big names of the region, such as Gauby, la Rectorie, Clos des Fées and Matassa.
I had already been asked to write the introduction to the tasting. I have always thought it a pity that Roussillon is so often always lumped with the Languedoc, when in fact it is so different. Roussillon is Catalan. It did not become part of France until 1659 with the treaty of the Pyrenees. The viticultural history of the region is based on vin doux made from Grenache, and Grenache is still the principal grape variety of the region, though Syrah has grown in importance and you will also find venerable old Carignan vines, as well as Mourvèdre. The terroir is a mosaic of soil types, with schist, limestone, clay .....and the sun shines. There are a growing number of independent producers replacing the village cooperatives as the dominant force in the region. To my mind the red wines are Roussillon are rich and warm, perhaps with more in common with Châteauneuf du Pape and Gigondas than with the neighbouring Languedoc. Inevitably but not always they tend to quite high alcohol levels and 14.5⁰ was pretty much the average amongst the wines at our tasting.
We were very shocked and very disappointed and at a loss to explain why the wines had shown so badly. As the person asked to write the concluding expert summary, I was faced with the challenging task of finding some positive things to say. I like the wines of Roussillon and in the past have greatly enjoyed other vintages of some of the wines that did not show well. We all know that tastings notes are not carved in stone. Tasters can have off days, and so can wines. Taste buds can easily be influenced by the preceding wine, so that a blockbuster will overwhelm a more elegant wine. Some believe in the biodynamic calendar and that fruit and flower days are better for tasting rather than root or leaf days. Also climatic pressure and the prevailing wind can make a significant difference. Pascal Dalier from Domaine Joncas in Montpeyroux asserts that a change in the barometer has more impact on how a wine tastes, than the change from a flower to a root day. I have not infrequently encountered a wine grower who has observed that their wines were not tasting well that particular day because of climatic pressure. Another adverse impact on wine flavour is how recently the wines were bottled. The majority of the wines we tasted came from the tricky 2013 vintage, and had probably not been that long in bottle. I certainly found quite a few of them to be distinctly adolescent, but like most adolescents, with plenty of potential.
There was also a summary of our immediate impression, written by Christelle Guibert, Decanter's tasting director who was responsible for obtaining the wines in the first place. Decanter had contacted individual wine growers through the CIVR, the Comité des Vins de Roussillon, the professional body of the region.
Roussillon seems particularly upset that we said that the wines were not elegant. I was quoted by Christelle as saying that you do not go to Roussillon for elegance, and that we should have been tasting full-bodied wines that would cheer you up enormously on a winter's day. And I stand by that. I do not choose Roussillon for delicate ethereal wines. I want a punch of flavour, something rich, warming and spicy. The wines are usually pretty high in alcohol but that does not mean that they are heavy or clumsy. They should be in harmony, with enough fruit and flavour, and maybe some judicious oak ageing to balance the alcohol.
I am not going to reiterate the individual results in the magazine. And while I can appreciate and understand that individual producers might be upset that their wines fared badly in the tasting, they need to remember that it is just one result on one day. You could well ask: what is the purpose of such tastings? The newer wine regions tend to place great value on results in a blind wine tasting. It can be a useful barometer for young wine growers to assess their wines among their peers. But I also think that all blind tastings need to be taken with a large pinch of salt. As I observed to Brigitte Verdaguer from Domaine de Rancy in Latour de France, after her Rivesaltes Ambré had won a trophy in Decanter’s world wine awards, you bought a lottery ticket by entering your wine for the competition and you won the jackpot. Nobody likes to be criticized, but critics are essential in any field where something is presented to a discerning public, and their judgments are open to discussion, and that is healthy. Life would be awfully boring if we all liked the same things. I would have thought Roussillon mature and experienced enough a region to rise above the comments of three people in one magazine on one particular day.
Decanter has conducted other tastings where the results have been equally damning for a particular region, but to my knowledge this is the first time that there had been such a collective outcry from the region in question. Classed growth châteaux or champagne houses shrug off the blip in their reputations caused by an adverse tasting result, but to suggest as one grower did that the article was mean-spirited with a hidden agenda to show up Roussillon badly against the Languedoc is absolutely unfounded. That was how the wines showed on the day, and our marks were remarkably consistent. And I for one will carry on enjoying the wines of Roussillon. And don't forget that all publicity is good publicity. The tasting will probably prove to be a storm in a tea cup that may well have brought Roussillon to the attention of people who had previously paid it little attention.
And if you want to exercise your French, the following two links - one newspaper article leads to a blog - offer some entertainment value, but what jelly and porridge have to do with wine tasting, I am not quite sure. We were accused of being old-fashioned in our view of Roussillon, but it is only too apparent that some people still have a very out-dated view of English food!.
And this is a more measured overview of Roussillon by my friend Sylvie Tonnaire in Terre des Vins: