Monday, 9 February 2015

Decanter's Roussillon Tasting - The Right of Reply


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 14.5  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:





8 comments:

CTB Dids said...

I note in this reposte to the outrage in the region and by drinkers committed the wonderful wines that the region has to offer, that you made no mention of the fact that the tasting was restricted to the 2013 vintage. How many of the top class Roussillon producers had finished 2013 wines? What wines they probably had to offer were their entry level wines "fresh" in the bottle. I also note that some producers like Domaine Treloar, chose to send their latest vintage of top end wines. Did you even taste these?

You also talk of Simon Taylor of Stone Sun and Vine having as having a long association with the region. Yet they only have one Roussillon producer on their lists. You are also incorrect in stating that he has a Masters of Wine, he doesn't.

It is very sad that you yourself who supposedly a protagonist for the region, hasn't been too it for too many years to mention. It is something like 15 years ago since you've written anything meaningful about the region. Indeed wine making practice in the whole world has changed considerably, let alone the Roussillon. It is sad considering that you only live down the road, that you have not done any tastings and reports of the region for so long.

Thank god for the likes of critics like Jancis Robinson, who take an open and even handed approach when tasting regions like the Roussillon. But I suppose she isn't encumbered by the fact that is a region that brings very little advertising revenue in for her.

Just another indictment for why I no longer choose to subscribe to Decanter.

Jonathan Hesford said...

There are several issues here which you are avoiding or glossing over. The first is that it is not one or two individual producers who are niggled about their relative rating. The tasting almost universally panned the wines of all the top producers. Gauby, Clos des Fees, la Rectorie, Madaloc all make great wines and in quite different styles. Are you honestly saying that you didn't appreciate any of those styles?

The second thing is that even though Decanter wanted to taste only 2013, the wording of the sample request was confused. So you actually tasted wines from 2009, 2010, 2011,2012 and 2013. You didn't rate any of them. So excuses about the "difficult" 2013 vintage are nonesense.
Rather that trying to stick to your guns and reiterate prejudices and blame the wines, it would be far more honest and reconciliatory if you offered to come and visit the Roussillon and reassess your opinions by visiting some respected producers and rotating the wines in context.

CTB Dids said...

Looking through your blog, she writes very little on the Roussillon. There are tasting notes, but these seem to be as a result of a tasting at one of the merchants. There is a specific tasting of La Soula, a vertical of reds and whites, but again it appears at the behest of the importer Richards Walford (who of course are now BBR).

Your tasting notes warm to the Roussillon when they are gutsy winter warmers, or are one of the VDN wines. So it appears, very traditional tastes.

Funnily enough in searching out for an opinion of the more recent producers wines you appear to shy away from an opinion:

In an article on Revue De France, she states of Jean Gardies, that she couldn't express an opinion as she has never tasted his wines. Of Coume del Mas in Collioure. "I’ve tasted their wines from time to time, but have no firm impression". When Gardies is lauded in his own country as one of it's best wine makers as a wine journalist surely you are duty bound to search out his wines and express an opinion?

This indeed confirms that you are reluctant to search out and discover what is positive about the region if her taste is stuck in the past and you are reluctant to taste what is in the present. I personally think that is bizarre behaviour for a Master of Wine.

The Wine Lake said...

Rosemary, I'd be curious to know what the purpose of the tasting was and what readers should make of the results.

Would you find it hard to recommend that anyone buy any of these wines (particularly the more expensive big names) when it seems that VFM is to be had among the coops (or elsewhere entirely)?

Blind tasting is very hard, particularly with such young wines, and respect due for daring to call it as you saw it, but I suspect you under-estimate the public's knowledge of this, with your para beginning "We all know that...".

Graham said...

I have a question. This was a blind tasting, but obviously it was known all the wines were from the Roussillon.

How much was matching expectations of Roussillon "typicity" an influence on the results as opposed to a "here are a set of wines, what is their absolute quality and potential irrespective of the style and, even, whether the taster actually likes them or not".

I appreciate this gets to the root of the problem with blind tastings.
I've more often than not found big names disappointing when tasted blind, it's the nature of the beast.

Rosemary George MW said...

May I clarify a few points?

The tasting was not restricted to the 2013 vintage. Growers were asked to submit their current vintage, and 46 out of the 82 wines were from the 2013 vintage. I made a similar point to CTB in my summing up in Decanter suggesting that a lot of wines were still very adolescent. And they inevitably dominated the tone of the tasting.

And CTB you accuse me of not writing very much on Roussillon. There is a reason why my blog is called Taste Languedoc, and not Taste Languedoc- Roussillon. The Languedoc by itself is a large enough area to try to cover in any detail - I only live 'down the road' for a small part of the year. But if you only found le Soula and my off the cuff comment about Coume del Mas, you didn't look very hard.

I think the purpose of the tasting was to give a snapshot overview of the wines that are currently available from Roussillon. And in an ideal world readers would be guided to the exceptional and highly recommended wines. It was very sad that so many wines did not show well on the day, but how long a life do tasting notes have? Maybe I am underestimating the public's knowledge, but I think Decanter readers are on the whole pretty well-informed and are also perfectly capable of making their own minds up about a wine.

And Graham we knew that the theme was Roussilon, and also knew the vintage and appellation of each wine. And as you suggest, blind tastings can be very tricky. I think you look for a combination of tipicity and quality. Some of Lionel Gauby's wines may not conform to an idea of tipicity of Roussillon, but they certainly exude quality.

I'd love to spend some more time in Roussillon. I have a long and never-ending list of growers whose wines I would like to get to know better.

Caius Dericheleau said...

It seems CTB Dids and Jonathon Hesford have very similar view, very similar!

The wines didn't show very well, maybe it was the day, maybe they need time or maybe they're not very good. The tenor of the article was that this was a surprise and a disappointment not that, true to form the Roussillon wines are below par, as his been made out by certain rabble rousing elements. A lot of nonsense about nothing!

CTB Dids said...

Caius,

inference without any knowledge is a very dangerous thing! If this is alot of nonsense about nothing, I suggest you read what has been written by people who care a bit more passionately about the region, like Vincent Poussen for instance.

Considering that Decanter is a strong wine publication in the UK and tasting panels like this are very rare for the region. What has been written becomes a bench mark for the region for a very long time and most definitely gives the wrong impression of the region.

Which is unfortunately the impression Ms George gives of the region going back over her blog over the past two years. As she gives the impression of spicy winter warmers and endearing sweet wines. This is a very antiquated impression of a region that has worked hard at producing serious wines, built for age and the ability to develop.

It appears I have made more effort tasting in the region in the last three years, than Ms George, just scraping the surface in tasting at wineries such as Coume Del Mas, Jean Gardies, Sarda Malet, Clos De Fees and Domaine Treloar. Her blog on the RVF article, where she states that she couldn't possibly comment on Jean Gardies as she has never tasted his wines is derisable to the region, as this is one of France's most well thought of winemakers, and the lady lives a darn sight closer than me. So if she can't be bothered to go out and taste wines of the region on a regular basis, what right has she to organise a tasting on the region.

Coming back to your throw away point about it being "a lot of nonsense about nothing". Would you really think, that if you were a vigneron who had someone come to his vineyard, and being questioned asto why he/she were asking more for their wines when the cooperative wines down the road scored more highly for less money? The likes of Jonathan Hesford have to bear the brunt of misrepresented tasting panels like this for a long time to come.