It was an indication of trends in the region that sweet wines were much less in evidence than dry at the Roussillon tasting in New York (for those statistically inclined, the breakdown was about half dry red and a quarter each of dry white and sweet wines, with a handful of rosés).
Whites have been making progress in the south of France, but it remains a bit of an uphill battle against the sun in Roussillon, the farthest south, driest, and warmest region in France. Whites were in a small minority, and on this showing, are having some difficulty in establishing a balance between becoming overly aromatic and phenolic (and alcoholic) or maintaining freshness (by picking early but at the expense of flavor variety and intensity). Most of the wines are fermented purely in stainless steel, but occasional essays into oak sometimes do bring a touch of greater roundness and complexity.
Getting a bead on the character of the region is not helped by the wide range of varieties, from aromatic Muscat or Viognier to flat Grenache Blanc or Carignan Blanc. In the Languedoc, experiments with more northern varieties, such as Chenin Blanc, have sometimes led to attractive results, but Roussillon seems more to be sticking to its traditional varieties. It’s curious that the difficulties of viticulture in cool climates have resulted in development of grape varieties that do better under marginal conditions (although none has yet produced more than serviceable results), but there do not appear to have been comparable attempts to develop white varieties for warm climates.
Reds show more consistency, although it is hard to identify styles with grape varieties. I don’t think it is so much that terroir trumps cepage as that climate (and winemaking) trump cepage: there’s a certain sameness in high alcohol and extract. It can be hard to see the cepage behind the soft, round, character, especially at entry level. Even 100% Syrah can taste more like Châteauneuf du Pape than like Hermitage. When ripeness verges on over-ripeness, there’s a tendency to convergence, although perhaps Grenache stands out a bit for its overwhelming fruit and tendency to nuttiness on the finish.
Although AOPs must be blends, mostly of traditional varieties, whereas IGPs can be monovarietal and tend to have more “international” varieties, the difference between them is not as marked as you might expect in either style or quality. I do not think that in blind tasting it would be possible to distinguish wines as coming from the AOP Côtes du Roussillon as opposed to the IGP Côtes Catalanes. (Of course, sometimes the differences are blurred by ignoring the rules: that 100% Syrah was in fact an AOP wine.)
Sweet wines run a range from Muscat Rivesaltes, which tends to be a bit dull (why is Muscat considered one of the noble varieties in France?), to the slightly “sticky” impression of many Rivesaltes, and a handful of very concentrated old wines in the ambré category. These can be good, but only the very best achieve the complexity of dessert wines from Sauternes or the Loire; given the expense of production and the limited market, you can see why producers are moving out of the category.
Roussillon is a work in progress. It’s come a long way from the days when the Midi produced cheap bulk wine, but on this showing, it hasn’t yet really found its identity completely in the quality market.