Languedoc-Roussillon Wine Region Guide
Where Pioneering Vintners and Time-Honored Traditions Craft Wines of Distinction
Last updated: February 28, 2024
Adventurous pioneers and the many new small producers have firmly established the Languedoc on France’s quality wine map, once associated with mass production and gallons of plonk. They continue to push the boundaries of what can be achieved here without propelling prices to the stratosphere. The transformation here is unique in France, as the Languedoc learns it cannot rest on its laurels if it wants to compete in a globalized marketplace.
Think of the region as a more rugged and wild Provence; it is a land of bullfighting, rugby, garrigue, and powerful red wines. It boasts the vibrant capital of Montpellier, sun-baked Nimes, and fairy-tale Carcassonne. Meanwhile, deeper inland, you’ll find a continuation of the Massif Central, sparsely populated mountain terrain home to some of the region’s most celebrated terroirs. They yield red wines of such potency and spicy concentration that even winegrowers in the Southern Rhone are beginning to invest in the vineyards of Minervois and La Clape.
Yet this is just the beginning: the Languedoc has over ten distinct appellations, and the increasingly reliable IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) Pays d’Oc. This enables growers to market various wine styles – white, rosé, dessert, and sparkling wines are all up for grabs. Some of these wines have become household names in markets like the US and UK. In the Languedoc, individual brands carry as much weight as the land.
Winemaking and regional classifications
You’re spoilt for choice in the vast (and varied) terrain of the Languedoc. One family will dedicate their lives to producing red wines – typically a heady blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and possibly Carignan. Meanwhile, its neighbor purchases fruit from the cool-climate vineyards of Limoux to fashion an (almost) Burgundian Chardonnay: structured and deeply complex. Indeed, there is scarcely a category or style that you cannot find in this corner of southwestern France. The only potential issue is consumer bafflement: how can we understand it all?
Pays d’Oc: A Label of Diversity and Quality
Some insider knowledge will help. It is important to remember that the Pays d’Oc designation oversees the production of many of the region’s best wines. Over 50% of the Languedoc’s total volume is now labeled as ‘Pays d’Oc’; however, unlike most designations, it does not limit itself to one specific region. Any grower in the Languedoc is entitled to produce red, white, and rosé wines under the rules from a palate of 58 grape varieties; most appellations allow a maximum of four or five. Moreover, the authorities rigorously enforce quality standards, resulting in very few poor wines being made today.
Quality Without Borders
Officially, the next step up in the hierarchy is Languedoc AOC, again covering wines of all three colors made across the region. Some brands market delicious (and good value) wines under the pan-regional appellation framework. However, arguing that Languedoc AOC trumps Pays d’Oc regarding overall quality is hard. Finally, we have geographically delimited zones like Fitou and Minervois. The vast majority of red and white wines are blends, relying heavily on varieties such as Picpoul and Grenache that can tolerate the intense summer heat of the Languedoc – the high-elevation terroirs of Limoux are a notable exception.
Innovations and Traditional Methods
As a result, we cannot make generalizations about winemaking in the Languedoc. The best wineries boast state-of-the-art equipment, modern barrel cellars, high-tech laboratories, and a team of oenologists at their beck and call. Elsewhere, you’ll find modest enterprises that have not changed their approach – or fermentation tanks – for decades. Yet truly rustic – and/or lazy – winemaking is a thing of the past. There just isn’t a sizable market for Languedoc plonk anymore.
Geography and terroir
The Languedoc is a giant-sized vineyard stretching from Carcassonne in the west to the border of Nimes. Its climate is quintessentially Mediterranean: hot summers and mild winters. And that is where the generalizations must end: the sweep of vines around France’s central Mediterranean coastline encompasses a multitude of different macroclimates, altitudes, soil types, and aspects. Indeed, while the local growing conditions in most of the Languedoc are firmly Mediterranean, the Atlantic influences the vineyards southwest of Carcassonne. So they have little in common with the intense, powerful reds of Faugeres.
Key appellations and subregions
In 2007, the Coteaux Languedoc designation was renamed ‘Languedoc AOP’. In terms of raw acreage, it has few rivals in the south of France. Vast and sprawling, it stretches from Nimes in the east around the coastline to Narbonne and a considerable distance into the hills of the Gard and Herault districts. Twelve villages can add their names as crus, including La Clape, Picpoul de Pinet, and Pic Saint-Loup. There are some splendid wines here, generally blends of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre for the reds and the whites from a host of varieties, including Roussane, Grenache Blanc, and Clairette.
Faugeres and Saint-Chinian
Meanwhile, just to the north of Beziers and to the west of the Coteaux du Languedoc are the small appellations of Faugeres and Saint-Chinian. Some magnificent small estates are now producing great reds; the most important variety is Syrah (which loves the soil here), although Grenache, Mourvèdre, and old–vine Carignan all play an important role in the local winemaking. There are also several Muscat-based dessert wines, which include Muscat de Frontignan, Muscat de Mireval, and Muscat de Lunel.
Minervois, Corbières, and Fitou
Several key appellations are south of Narbonne and stretch down to the hills of the Roussillon. For a long time, people regarded Minervois, Corbières, and Fitou as little more than French workhorse wines, passable on a long airplane journey! This, thankfully, is no longer the case today. The wines of Minervois have shown the most potential, and within that appellation is the recent cru sub-zone of La Liviniere, the source of generally the richest wines of the appellation. To the west of Minervois, the smaller AOC of Cabardes has real potential, and the Bordeaux Varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet France are essential here. Finally, Fitou, one of the first ACs established in the region, has shown real progress in the last two years, and exciting new producers are emerging all the time!
To the west of Fitou, in the rolling hills around the town of Limoux, cool hillside vineyards are planted with Chardonnay and Mauzac. Excellent sparkling wines are made here, both Blanquette de Limoux and Cremant de Limoux, but the barrel-fermented Chardonnays cause the most excitement in the region. Often blended with a small portion of Viognier, they show an unrivaled richness and aromatic freshness in the Languedoc. Beautiful, rich, structured wines rival the New World’s best.
The Languedoc continues to develop into the most exciting region in France today. New appellations are being created, new winemakers are emerging, and new ideas are being debated and argued over. We often associate France with rigid appellation structures and cumbersome rules: you can’t plant this, and you can’t do that, etc. Yet many growers in the Languedoc have adopted the Pays d’Oc classification, which allows them to rid themselves of restrictions and plant a much more extensive range of varieties in a particular area.
A Catalyst for Change in the Languedoc
Indeed, the success of the Pays d’Oc initiative has played a crucial role in the renewal of Languedoc. To quote Domaine Gayda’s winemaker Vincent Chansault: “The appellations rules, especially in the larger zones, are probably not adapted to the energy and passion of the emerging generation, helping to shape the region’s future. I know lots of friends who don’t produce AOC anymore just because of the waste of time, effort, and energy the French bureaucracy imposes.” It’s a rallying cry for producers who combine the best elements of Old World terroir with New World methods. As far as they’re concerned, the sky’s the limit.
Quality and Innovation Under the Pays d’Oc Label
Yet this liberal framework is not a pushover. A tasting panel involving over 150 professionals scrutinizes every bottle certified as Pays d’Oc to the nth degree – it must satisfy their standards. The wine must pass muster to be allowed to use the Pays d’Oc designation. Equally, the rules encourage innovation, imposing very few limits on grower ambitions; the acreage cultivated according to organic/biodynamic principles has increased dramatically over the past ten years. Meanwhile, the cool kids favor a ‘hands-off’ approach in the winery, illustrated by the increasing number of unfiltered bottlings and wines with no added sulfites right through to natural offerings. Witness the rebirth of Europe’s erstwhile wine factory, transformed into France’s answer to the New World.
If you enjoy rich, flavorsome dishes cooked with flair and imagination, you’ll love the Languedoc. But despite the onward march of new ideas and molecular gastronomy, no dish is more evocative of the region than the traditional cassoulet, a simple (yet utterly delicious) casserole with beans and meat. There are at least three major varieties of cassoulet: the Toulouse version incorporates saucisse de Toulouse, which adds even more richness to this winter warmer. France’s most famous cheese is also made in the Languedoc: Roquefort.
Languedoc-Roussillon Gastronomy Guide: Read more
The Languedoc has received many visitors over the centuries: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors all passed through the Languedoc in the ancient area. Yet the Romans forged Gaul’s (France’s) first wine industry, planting vines across their vast Western Empire. The favorable Mediterranean climate has turned the Languedoc into one of France’s most productive vineyards; often, producers used its wines to ‘beef up’ the more dilute and acidic tipples of northern France, especially in weak vintages. Yet, although this ambitious political project endured for over four centuries, it collapsed under the weight of its hubris. Rival civilizations, once airily dismissed by the Romans as ‘barbarians,’ poured into Western Europe in the 5th century.
Shifting Control in the Languedoc
One of the most successful was the Franks, initially led by the Merovingian king Clovis I. His successors conquered the Languedoc in the 8th century. However, the Franks were generally happy to leave political – and economic – affairs in the hands of local chieftains. The Moorish general Tariq’s invasion of Spain in 711 led to his Muslim forces briefly controlling the region in the latter part of the century. But, Frankish Knights outmatched the Moors at every turn – they eventually consolidated their base in Andalucia.
Culture and Wine
By the 1100s, the Languedoc reached its zenith: winegrowing resumed at full speed, and Occitan, the local language, became considered the most cultured dialect of southern France. The French kingdom annexed the Languedoc, which had enjoyed considerable autonomy, in 1208. Nevertheless, it retained its proud cultural identity, celebrating the wines of Minervois and Fitou in southern France and across the border as well. Its capital, Montpellier, became a prosperous city with trading links all over the Mediterranean. In addition, the Languedoc was home to Europe’s first medical school, founded in the 13th century.
Innovation and Crisis
However, its true heyday occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries. The construction of a port in Sete and the Canal de Midi opened up new markets in the 1700s; the arrival of the railway in 1853 enabled winegrowers to compete with producers in northern Europe while domestic consumption skyrocketed. Unfortunately, the phylloxera louse destroyed many vines in the late 19th century and remained unchecked until a solution was found: vineyards had to be regrafted onto resistant American rootstock. A large-scale replanting program occurred across the region in the early 20th century, yet growers were unsatisfied. Indeed, overproduction allied to weakening demand had caused prices to plummet in the Languedoc, pushing many families into abject poverty.
Rebellion and Renewal
Things came to a head during the famous growers’ revolt of 1907 – a battalion of soldiers mutinied after protesters were shot at in Narbonne. Eventually, the unrest died down, and the mutineers were pardoned. But the Languedoc’s reputation had suffered irreparable damage; it became France’s industrial workhorse, shipping massive quantities of cheap plonk. Things only started to improve in the late 1900s, as competition from the New World forced growers to up their game. Today, the region faces significant challenges: global inflation and climate change are major concerns for producers worldwide. Yet the Languedoc has managed to stay solvent – and relevant – in a fast-changing world. This dynamic and innovative vineyard is very much alive and kicking in 2023.
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