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Roussillon, Unhyphenated

I just came back from a full-week’s immersion in drinking wines and interviewing winemakers in Roussillon, a region I have been intrigued with for decades, both up close and at a distance.  Roussillon is one of the world’s most diverse wine regions, and I have the feeling that even the people who make wine there don’t fully have their minds around all its possibilities. 

So I have a simpler suggestion for those who don’t quite understand the appellation: Just first drink its wines, letting wisdom and understanding come by the glassful.  I would further recommend three wines to start this journey – wines which happen to be my three current favorites: a rosé from Côtes du Roussillon, a red from Collioure and an older, oxidized, fortified wine from Rivesaltes.  Then work your way into the others, an undertaking that may take years.

In spite of its ancient history, there is today a refreshing “newness” about Roussillon, even for wine professionals.

For those of us who grew up in the wine trade during the latter years of the recent century, Roussillon always was tied to Languedoc, a hyphenated relationship with its northeastern neighbor and sometimes big brother.  It had a nice sound: Languedoc-Roussillon.

But it also had a deleterious effect, making Roussillon seem the lesser of the two partners, which it isn’t.  New Zealand successfully fought the same battle in separating itself in retail shops from being lumped together on the wine racks with Australia.

Plus Roussillon even by itself is so big and diverse in its offerings that it’s almost impossible for a wine professional to find an easy way of describing it to consumers.  It has appellations both geographic and by categories. Want IGP’s and pays d’Oc?  Yeah, it has those. Almost every grape variety seems to possess a noir, blanc and possibly a gris side to it.  Roussillon makes good red, white, rosé, sparkling and sweet fortified wines.  These sweet wines can be fresh or ancient, and they may be classified by their color and sold by vintage or average age.  It is one of the few wine regions that recognizes Cognac-like rancio as a category.  Not only that, a wine can be sweet rancio or dry rancio.  Grenache noir is king here, but Grenache blanc is queen, and Grenache gris is prince.  The fortified sweets can be aged in casks or demi-johns (bonbonnes) lulling in the courtyard sun.  Vineyards can be found on flat river plains or clinging to mountainside terraces overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

You get the idea.

And if you ever get tired of drinking the wines of Roussillon, go have a Byrrh. Yeah, that aperitif comes from Roussillon as well.

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