Once associated with mass production and gallons of plonk, the Languedoc region in southwest France is now firmly established on the country’s quality wine map. Established pioneers, as well as the many new small producers, keep pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved here – all without propelling prices to the stratosphere! The transformation here is unique in France, as the Languedoc learns that it cannot rest on its laurels if it wants to compete in a tough marketplace. Only recently, a new classification of Grands Vins du Languedoc and Grands Crus du Languedoc was established, in a move to demonstrate the improved quality that the region has seen.
Some truly great wine is undoubtedly now being made in the Languedoc. The region encompasses a wide area, a vast arc from the Spanish border all the way towards the lower Rhone valley. The first vines in France were planted here by the Romans who evidently saw great potential in these Great Plains and mountainous valleys. Most but by no means, all of this is produced under a number of different appellations, now under the umbrella of Grand Vins or Grands Crus. However, for reasons of practicality and location, a number of splendid new-wave wines, particular red, are being produced as Vins de Pays. A number are Vins de Pays d’Oc, but Vins De Pays d l’Herault also features, including two of the greatest properties in the region, Mas de Daumas Gassac and Domaine de La Grange des Peres.
One of the biggest and most important appellations is the Coteaux du Languedoc AC. 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. There are some twelve villages which are allowed to add their village names as crus and these include 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.
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 very fine 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 a number of Muscat-based dessert wines which includes Muscat de Frontignan, Muscat de Mireval, and Muscat de Lunel.
South of Narbonne and stretching down to the hills of the Roussillon are a number of key appellations. Minervois, Corbières, and Fitou had for a long time been regarded 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 AC. To the west of Minervois, the smaller AC of Cabardes has real potential and the Bordeaux Varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet France are important here. Fitou, one of the first ACs established in the region has shown real progress in the last 2 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 to Chardonnay and Mauzac. Good sparkling wines are made here, both Blanquette de Limoux and Cremant de Limoux, but it is the barrel-fermented Chardonnays that cause the most excitement in the region. Often blended with a small portion of Viognier, they show a richness and aromatic freshness unrivaled in the Languedoc. Beautiful, rich but structured wines to rival the best of the New World.
The Languedoc region continues to develop into the most exciting region in France today. New appellations are being created, new winemakers are coming to the fore and new ideas are being debated and argued over. We can often associate France with rigid appellation structures and cumbersome rules about what variety you can plant, what style of wine you make. Many growers in the Languedoc have adopted the Vins de Pays classification, which allows them to rid themselves of restrictions and plant a much larger range of varieties in a particular area. It is France’s answer to the New World, where freedom and diversity are being embraced to unlock the great potential of this fascinating part of the wine map.