A book review of “Wines of the Roussillon”

by  |  19-10-2021

I have something of a soft spot for underdog wine regions which probably explains my pursuit of Roussillon. Existing for years as “le petit vin du Languedoc”, it was this dismissing it as “lesser Languedoc” that’s led me to visit the region on many occasions over the years and also why I published my recent report to shine a light on some of the great wines being produced there.

This is why I was excited when a full book focusing only on Roussillon sans Languedoc was released from Infinite Ideas. If memory serves it was supposed to have been released some time back with a different author who apparently wasn’t able to finish it–writing a wine book is a truly enormous undertaking. Thus, Rosemary George stepped in as beyond being a Master of Wine, she maintains her blog with a heavy focus on Languedoc and she also wrote “Wines of the Languedoc” for Infinite Ideas.

The format will be pretty much known to anyone who has picked up a wine text in this day and age. There’s an introduction to the region, history, explanations of appellations and sub-regions, and all that is followed by winery profiles. That may seem straightforward given Roussillon’s rather compact nature, but it’s still a mountain of work and information. Rosemary has overall managed to encompass all this well and despite her main focus being Languedoc, she is definitely championing the merits of Roussillon as well, its smaller neighbor.

For people who have never really encountered Roussillon before, this will be quite an important book to have. Each sub-region and appellation is explained at length with a light bit of commentary by Rosemary. There are “only” nine PDOs and 2 IGPs which may seem light in comparison to Languedoc which is double that. What makes it complicated as many of the appellations are very historic and thus there’s a lot of layering that can be a bit difficult to understand. For instance, most people probably aren’t aware that the dessert wine Rivesaltes can be produced everywhere in the region despite the single village name, except the four villages where Banyuls is produced but including where the other famed dessert wine, Maury, is produced. Complicated? Oh yes, but don’t worry as it’s all in the book.

Rosemary has done a fine job of clarifying various tidbits of the overall region’s history, such as linking up the various threads of Mas Amiel’s existence. It’s regarded as the largest estate in Maury and it’s hard to miss when at seemingly every turn there is a sign to point you to it. I’ve also often heard it spoken about with a good deal of derision given that the current owner is quite wealthy and thus it’s easy to envy their resources. In his defense, he’s been doing a lot of work to get the winery to produce top wines. What I was unaware of is that the estate’s history and importance goes back far more than just the recent decades and the owners had their tendrils everywhere, even as far out as the coastal areas in Collioure.

If you’re wanting a wealth of facts and figures, the book won’t disappoint as throughout there are plenty of those and at the end there are even more with production totals (Roussillon holds 1/4th the vines it did at its peak for instance) vintage descriptions and more. Admittedly, you can find a good deal of this on the website of the regulatory board (CIVR), Roussillon Wine, that has great quantities of up-to-date information and the press docket they post each year is extremely useful as well. And, working a great deal to carve out their individuality, they’ve partnered with various wine media outlets to run articles with a lot of information.

My main issue with the book is that it’s more description than it is analytical or showing a deep insight of the region as a whole. That may sound like a strange thing to say about a book that runs 250 pages in length, but in total, there are nearly 500 wineries in all of Roussillon. In the introduction, Rosemary says that she visited “almost one hundred” of them in 30 days of on-the-ground research. While it’s clear that the pandemic interfered a great deal with research, to me, a profile of 20% of the wineries in the region comes up a bit short in terms of being a definitive reference and it comes across as something of an afterthought to her larger Languedoc book.

I count 105 winery profiles in the finished book which is more than what she researched in immediate time leading up to publication. Rosemary mentioned that there were some wineries which were visited years before the book was written. Unfortunately this shows in terms of a bit of a bumpy consistency to some of the profiles. For example, I feel like Domaine Treloar is one of these given that the owners are English speakers (as is Rosemary) so I would warrant it was one of the earliest cellars she visited in the region as the profile feels like a much older version of their story. I say this as it was one of my first wineries visited given my extremely limited French years ago and it was a path of least resistance to start digging into the region, so I understand that.

But continuing with the issue of depth, there are some inconsistencies with language and history as well. Until the mid-1600s, Roussillón was all part of the Principality of Catalunya and greater Spain. People spoke and to this day, continue to speak Catalan in daily life alongside French.

While obviously learning an entire language that’s officially secondary in a region you’re writing about would have been overwhelming and unnecessary, there’s a constant issue wherein Rosemary is either taking at face value what some people say, or just assumes that if something isn’t French, then it must be Catalan. There are a number of examples throughout the book but a really big one is ignoring how the villages are all named in their Catalan or Occitan version as well.

These are overall small details but put together, they left me wanting a bit more out of the book in terms of more village details as well as winery profiles and digging more into the issues of the appellations why there’s such a massive usage of the IGP, Côtes Catalanes. Again, I’m in a privileged position of being able to visit the region as often as I can (border closures permitting) so I’m a more demanding audience.

One final issue is one that I’ve mentioned in other Infinite Ideas books is that despite the fact that the books are chocked full of information, the format leaves me a bit lacking. I find the price of £35 (from the publisher directly) high for my taste, for a book that’s mostly black and white text with a few pages of color photo inserts in the middle and a soft cover. It’s emphasized even more by the fact that a comparable book like Académie du Vin’s forthcoming On California title is full color, hardbound, 272 pages and £30.

However, for anyone who is looking for a general reference to the region, which is very much on the up and up and worth your attention, I do say that this will serve as a fine introduction and will probably stand and the best reference in English for some time to come so I would definitely recommend it.

★★★★☆

Review copy provided by the publisher, available here

Please also see the Complete List of Wine Book Reviews

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