When Rosemary George passed her MW in 1979, there were few women who had earned the esteemed title beforehand. At the time of studying, she had no idea she would go on to author 13 wine books (and counting) on countries and regions as diverse as New Zealand and Chablis, or topics as broad as Wine and wine-based cocktails. Today Rosemary is one of the leading writers and communicators on the wines of the Languedoc, and her journey into wine fittingly started with a few cheeky glasses on holiday in France with her parents (although it was possible that those wines were actually from rather more distant lands…) Amanda Barnes interviews Rosemary from her home in London.
What’s your first memory of wine and how did you get interested in wine?
My first memory was in 1960 in Brittany with my parents and I was allowed a sip of daddy’s wine, aged 10. Thinking back, it was the house wine and it was probably Algerian. I think it was red wine one evening and white wine the next. I didn’t like either particularly. The first one I can remember quite liking was Henkell Trocken on holiday about four years later, you know frothy and slightly sweet. I think the next Christmas, I was allowed Champagne. Then, I joined the London University Wine Society. This was back in 1968 and that was a time that the wine trade could afford to be quite generous with its tastings. That sort of set me off.
What do you with a history degree? I thought that if I learnt to type, then somebody might give me a job, and the Wine Society did. I went for an interview and was offered a glass of Champagne, as well as job, and it was a secretarial job, and I thought this sounds rather good.
What was it like studying the MW in the 70s?
I think I would say, accurately, it was easier then because the world of wine was just so much smaller. Had you told me when I passed the exams in 1979 that less than 20 years later I would write a book on New Zealand wine, I would’ve thought they don’t make wine in New Zealand. The tasting was France, Germany, Italy a little bit, and Spain with Rioja just coming onto the market. For the New World, South Africa produced sherry, Australia produced tawny port. If you wanted to show you were really up to date on your theory, you put an example or two from California. It was a completely different world.
Would you undertake the MW today?
I suppose when you’re doing the exam, you’re working from what’s happening now. If I took my driving test now, quite frankly I’d be terrified, but you’ve grown up with it. Doing the theory exam, somebody produced the papers from 1957 and we looked at them and thought we were doing this exam 20 years too late.
You’ve been writing books for…
My first book on Chablis was published in 1984. I started writing after I left the wine trade in 1981 and I found a publisher with two phone calls, would you believe it! I rang Christie’s and Michael Broadbent said: ‘Oh that won’t sell’. I rang Sotheby’s and a friend in the wine department said: ‘Oh, I’ll get the publishing department to consider the idea’. They came back and said, ‘do us a synopsis’ and it was my first book on Chablis.
You’ve also specialised very significantly in the Languedoc and have just released your newest book on the region. Can you tell me a bit about how you’ve seen the region evolve and what excites you about the Languedoc today?
There are so many new producers and areas being appreciated. Now, one of the more fashionable areas, for want of a better word, is Terrasses du Larzac. When I went to Languedoc in the late 1980s, nobody had heard of Terrasses du Larzac.
Indeed, some of the villages that make Terrasses du Larzac were not classified in the appellation Coteaux du Languedoc and that was created in 1985. The area was deemed too cool, it was up in the hills and the grapes wouldn’t ripen.
The Languedoc was also very much dominated by cooperatives but things were happening, like Mas de Daumas Gassac was starting up, with the first vintage in the late 70s. There were little pockets of quality. I remember meeting one guy in La Clape, who was making some really exciting white wine that was totally unlike anything that was being produced in the area. I think it’s an area that’s woken up and it continues to surprise me. There’s lots of new things happening and lots of new producers. One of the interesting things is where they come from and what has brought them to the Languedoc, because there are a lot of outsiders. There is a group called The Outsiders, it’s [not only] foreigners, but also people from other parts of France.
Do you think the UK has woken up to the Languedoc yet?
I still think the choice of Languedoc wines available in the UK is quite limited, compared to what there could be. The large importers, shall we say supermarkets, have a fairly unimaginative range of Languedoc wines. They tend to go for the big boys, obviously because they need quantity. There are some smaller importers who are trying to do things and be more imaginative in their range. I did a piece for Decanter on my 30 top white wines, but a lot of the wines I would’ve liked to have included weren’t brought into the country.
You’re also a regular blogger. How do you see the worlds of traditional print press and wine blogs interplaying at the moment, and how do you see it in the future?
My original thought was that I wasn’t going to blog, and I’d quite like to get paid for writing, but I read an interesting article in The Society of Authors magazine, which was suggesting that if you consider yourself an expert in the subject and if you blog about it, then it’s self-advertising in a low-key sort of way, and it keeps your name out there. I’ve been asked to do one or two things because people know me from writing about the Languedoc as a blogger. The trouble about blogging is that if you read someone’s blog, you have no idea about how well informed they really are. I say on my blog that I’ve been visiting the Languedoc for 30 years. People go on the net and just write and perhaps what they write may not be very substantial or substantiated. It would be a shame if the written word declined at the expense of the electronic word. It would be a shame if wine books disappeared. There’s nothing like turning the printed page and looking at photographs and things.
You split your time between France and England. What’s your pet peeve about each country?
My pet peeve when I come back to London from France is how busy London is and how people look at mobile phones as though they’re the only person in the street. The trouble about living in a French village is – in London we’re spoilt for public transport – if you want to go anywhere in the Languedoc, then you’ve got to get in the car. I’m not a very relaxed driver, so I’ll walk if I can. A bus isn’t an option, nor is a taxi when you’ve been out to dinner. Uber has not yet got to the wilds of the Languedoc.
What’s your favourite thing about living in both countries?
I love the bustle of London and I think it’s a very exciting city. There’s a lot going on in London. The choice of theatres, concerts, lots of friends and that excitement of a big city. I suppose it’s the contrast. In the Languedoc we have a house on the edge of the village and it’s more of a countryside existence. The difference between being in London and the Languedoc in a heatwave – in Languedoc we have a swimming pool, air conditioning in the bedroom and travel in an air-conditioned car – none of which will happen in London.
You’ve just released your book on the wines of the Languedoc. What’s next?
I’ve just started work on Chablis mark III. It’s an update of my second book on Chablis, which was 25 years on from my first book. The thing that amused me is that with this book I’m meeting the grandchildren of the people I met in the first book!
When can we expect to see that?
My deadline is March next year. After that I have a contract to write Roussillon with a deadline of August 2020…
Interview by Amanda Barnes
Edited by Robert Smyth
Photo by Decanter magazine