Languedoc Paradox: How a Big French Region is Trying to Show its Identity
In the world of marketing and sales, it’s always good when you can keep things simple. Of course, this can be quite a challenge for an industry like the wine industry, where realities of place, grapes, vintages, styles, and terroir add up as so many variables to take into account—enough to confuse everyone but the aficionados.
Consider, then, the challenge faced by a region like Languedoc, as it keeps trying to move away (and up) from its longtime role as a provider of high-volume plonk. As it does so, its main tool is to show diversity—in appellations, wine styles and varieties—and thus, paradoxically, to showcase its complexity.
The many faces of a region
There is, of course, lots of room for variations in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, which encompasses a vast area going from the Spanish border to the edge of the river Rhône. With over 11 million hectoliters produced in 2010, its production represents about a quarter of all French wine production—and as much of all the wine made yearly in Australia. While most of the volume is still classified as Vin de Pays, rather than appellation wine, the focus is increasingly on the latter. Even the VdP label no longer automatically means cheap wine, with some remarkable producers voluntarily choosing the category to give themselves a freer hand in how they craft their cuvées.
The landscape in which these wines are produced is itself an ode to diversity. Vines grow on ridges, mountainsides, low-lying plains and coastlines. Most of the area is influenced by the Mediterranean Sea, but some western appellations actually are more susceptible to Atlantic influences. If only visually, there is little in common between the forest-covered hillsides of the Cévennes, in the north, the wind-swept, seaside rocky outcrops of La Clape, near Narbonne, the plateaux of the Larzac or the steep schist slopes of the Roussillon, yet all those locations can make wines in the Languedoc AOC.
Production is also more varied than one might think, at first glance. There is a lot of red (and rosé) from the traditional Mediterranean varieties (grenache, mourvèdre, syrah, carignan, and cinsault), with some appellations adding cabernets and merlot to the mix. There are also delicious whites, from rich and flavorful blends of grenache blanc, roussanne, marsanne, and co. to refreshing, crisp Picpoul de Pinet. Red and white dessert wines from Maury, Rivesaltes, and Banyuls are also part of the package, as are the inexpensive (but not uninteresting) bubblies from Limoux.
In other words, simply asking for a Languedoc wine at your neighbourhood wine store could get you to a lot of different places. “Diversity is both our advantage and our problem,” summarized Jean-Claude Bousquet, geologist and author of a beautiful book on the terroirs of Languedoc, during a talk he gave, late April, as part of the yearly showcase of the region’s wines called Millésimes en Languedoc, held near Béziers, France.
Trying to get organized
So when you start to take in the region’s diversity, you may start to wonder how to map it. How do you find your way around this vast landscape? And where is the good stuff?
In 2010, the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc (CIVL), the body responsible for overseeing, coordinating and promoting the Languedoc appellations, got the OK for a major reorganization from the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), which oversees the entire appellation system for food and drinks in France. Under this plan, a three-level hierarchy of Languedoc wine was created. On the ground floor, so to speak, there is the AOC Languedoc, a basic, regional appellation aimed mostly at entry-level, higher-volume wines. Above that comes a second level, called the “Grands vins du Languedoc,” made of regional appellations like Faugères, Saint-Chinian, Minervois, or Cabardès. Then at the top of this pyramid come the “grands crus” of Languedoc, with (normally) more localized appellations pointing to specific terroirs and communes, like Minervois La Livinière, Terrasses du Larzac, Pic-Saint-Loup, or Saint-Chinian Roquebrun.
In a predictable manner, especially in France, fighting ensued between various localities, generally on a “why-are-these-guys-grand-cru-and-not-us” mode. Indeed, it is not always obvious to see why one appellation or sub-appellation belongs to one category of the other. In the case of Minervois La Livinière, the grand cru points to an area of the Minervois appellation that has long been recognized for its specific qualities. In the case of Pézenas, though it produces many lovely and distinctive wines, it is more difficult to distinguish a specific character to the wines or the terroir: soils range from limestone to basalt and sandstone, among other variables. Could this (still ongoing) process create more confusion than anything else?
In considering the current state of affairs, one must remember that the organization of the region into appellations, before the current attempt at creating a hierarchy, is itself pretty recent. Though there are older ones like Fitou, dating back to 1948, or the Blanquette de Limoux (1938), AOCs are mostly recent, like Cabardès (1999), Terrasses du Larzac (2005), or Malepère (2006). Even more established appellation names like Minervois and Saint-Chinian are thirty years old or a little less. So the addition of the new three-layer system comes on freshly turned ground, so to speak.
Still, all this classification is not totally arbitrary, though it struggles in producing a coherent image at this point. Places like Montpeyroux, Fitou, or Pic Saint-Loup, for instance, were recognized for their particular character centuries ago. And you can see a common character in many of the current sub-appellations: structure and minerality in the Grès de Montpellier; herbal if not slightly vegetal accents in wines from La Clape; a rustic, spicy, slightly rugged yet delicious character in Faugères, etc.
Some things to look for—and forward to
While it is impossible to take an exhaustive look at the region’s diversity in the scope of an article like this one, here are a few pointers to help find your way around and take advantage of its many offerings:
• Three cheers for carignan and cinsault. Grenache, syrah and mourvèdre may be the great trinity of southern French reds, but what brings true distinction to so many Languedoc and Roussillon wines is actually other traditional varieties like cinsault and carignan. Though they long got a bad rap because they were made to produce high volumes of light quaffers, older vines of carignan produce something beautifully spicy and rustic, while cinsault keeps a freshness that can come in very handy in warm years like 2009. Many wines from the Larzac and Pézenas benefit from a good percentage of cinsault.
• Bubbly personalities. While it produces some very interesting still reds and whites, the Limoux appellation is mostly known for its Blanquette, which is not just a creamy veal preparation, but rather a pleasant, easy-going bubbly made primarily from mauzac, a variety also used for the production of sweet wines in southwestern France. Blanquettes are fun, but sometimes a little rich, which is why I preferred the Crémant du Limoux, where chardonnay and chenin blanc play a greater role. As a result, the wines are zippier and crisper, especially the brut versions with very light dosage (the addition of sweet liqueur at the finishing stage of bubbly production).
• Oak takes a back seat (mostly). That was one of the pleasant surprises in tasting dozens and dozens of wines over three days at the Millésimes du Languedoc event, in April. Very few wines showed significant oak character, either because they were produced with moderate new oak or, even more often, in stainless steel or cement tanks only. “Barrels are not really a tradition, here,” explained the director of the Saint-Chinian appellation’s Syndicat general, which represents the AOC’s vignerons. With the exception of some ambitious reserve bottlings, clearly meant to impress, many producers seem to be thankfully keeping this tradition in mind.
• West meets South. One of the most interesting discoveries, for me, in that same April trip, was the wines of the young AOCs of Malepère and Cabardès, at the northwestern edge of the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Sitting halfway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, they’ve decided to blend the varieties from both sides. Cabardès actually makes it compulsory to have a minimum of 40% Atlantic varieties (merlot and both cabernets) and 40% Mediterranean varieties (syrah and grenache), with 20% leeway for producers to find their own way. As a prime spot for bulk wines, back in the days when Algerian reds were massively added to the mix, the two appellations had to reinvent themselves completely in the last couple of decades to ensure any kind of future for the local wines. Many young producers have come from outside and given the area a new energy. Malepère reds, in particular, are often delightfully fresh and make lovely picnic wines. Malepère and Cabardès will be two AOCs worth watching over the next few years.
• Why not a white? Most of the attention in the Languedoc is on red wines—and rightly so. However, there is a fair bit of fun to be had on the white side of things, too. The best whites from appellations like Faugères, Saint-Chinian, and Minervois can be reminiscent of Rhône whites from places like Saint-Joseph, with the aromatic contributions of roussanne, marsanne, or viognier blending in with local varieties like grenache blanc, grenache gris, maccabeu, or bourboulenc adding local color. While the heat can sometimes make life difficult for producers (most 2009 whites were acidified to keep them from falling apart in overripeness), many wines from 2010 and 2011 strike a nice balance of richness and acidity. On the crisp side of things, the piquepoul grape does great in its namesake appellation of Picpoul de Pinet.
• Don’t forget the Roussillon. One of the strange things about the reorganization of Languedoc AOCs is that the Côtes du Roussillon disappeared into AOC Languedoc. A strange turn of events, when the push otherwise seems to be towards praising distinctiveness. Mind you, many vignerons from the steep mountainside vineyards near the Spanish border may not mind that much, as they have been avoiding AOC rules and producing their wines as Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes, which gave them more flexibility in things like the choice of varieties. A lot of very old vines (80, sometimes even 100 years old or more) have been picked up by energetic, bright organic and biodynamic producers, and their wines are solid, distinctive, with a unique blend of freshness and structure, due in large part to the old plantings.
How about aging?
In the same way that appellations in Languedoc cannot all be put in the same box, categorizing all Languedoc and Roussillon wines as fruity, expansive and early-drinking would be a mistake. In Languedoc, in April, I had the chance to taste magnums of 2000 and 2001 Mas Jullien, a renowned producer in the Larzac area: both were barely nearing maturity, with complex blends of red and dark fruit, spice, licorice, mineral, and herbal notes, as well as terrific length and structure. Several reds I tasted from the 2004 and 2005 vintage felt positively youthful, notably a Domaine de l’Aiguelière 2004, from Montpeyroux, and a Château Pech-Ménel 2005 from Saint-Chinian, which both got whole tables of writers excited. Muscats and other dessert wines like Banyuls can also develop amazing flavors over decades.
As a rule or thumb, vineyards that are a little higher in altitude count on old vines and benefit from interesting soils (schists, clay and limestone, alluvial stones, etc.) tend to produce wines with more structure and acidity, and thus with better aging potential. Just exert care with some of the vanity cuvées, which sometimes have a tendency to substitute layers of new oak for terroir expression.
In any case, there is a general benefit to tasting through the terroirs of Languedoc and Roussillon: the wines are moderately priced, meaning that even a strict trial and error approach can generally yield substantial returns on investment, whether you drink them now or lay them down. A comparative advantage for these parts of Southern France, compared to exploring the grand crus of, say, Burgundy and Bordeaux.