The Languedoc is France’s biggest vineyard, and until recently, was a sleepy giant. Worse still, it was an unwieldy dinosaur producing, for the most part, pretty undrinkable vin ordinaire. But then the giant began to stir, and over the last five or ten years, a dramatic transformation has taken place, so that the Languedoc is now the source of some of the most exciting and original wines to come out of France, at a price that we can all afford.
The Languedoc covers three of the southern departments of France: the Aude, Hérault and the Gard, with vineyards stretching from the foothills of the Pyrenees and city of Carcassonne in the west, round the Mediterranean coast, to the estuary of the Rhône in the east. There is a diversity of appellations and vins de pays, but a common thread of grape varieties. Where once Carignan, and even worse, Alicante Bouschet and Aramon were common, these have been replaced not only with Grenache Noir, but more significantly Syrah and Mourvèdre, to effect a dramatic improvement in quality.Although the Languedoc is predominantly red, whites are not being ignored, with varieties, such as Marsanne, Roussanne and Rolle making an impact on the flavour. At the same time greater attention is being paid to cellar practices; small oak barrels and stainless steel tanks are replacing the tired old foudres – the enormous casks that were traditional to the region.
The need for temperature controlled fermentations is now appreciated; cellar hygiene has taken a quantum leap forward and the fermentation technique of carbonic maceration is used to extract fruit and flavour without an excess of tannin. And in the vineyard yields have dropped dramatically, as the pacesetters of the region realised that yields of 100hl/h or more would simply not achieve drinkable wines and that quantity was no longer synonymous with quality.
There has been a marked shift in the vineyards, away from the fertile coastal plain to the wilder and poorer countryside inland, together with a greater understanding of the nuances of different vineyard sites. The principal appellations of the Languedoc are Minervois and Corbières, Fitou, Coteaux du Languedoc and Costières de Nîmes, leaving aside the smaller appellations for sweet, fortified vins doux naturels, such as Muscat de Frontignan and Muscat de Lunel.
Corbières covers the foothills of Pyrenees, producing wonderfully rugged, warm wines, like the countryside; with the vineyards of Fitou interspersed, in the mountains and on the coastal plain. Minervois, taking its name from the village of Minerve across the Aude valley, is firmer, with more backbone.
The Coteaux du Languedoc are divided into various terroirs and crus, such as la Clape on the edge of Narbonne, the warm, spicy wines of Faugères and St-Chinian, the more structured wines of the Pic St. Loup taking their name from the eponymous mountain, and Picpoul de Pinet, a tiny island of white in a sea of red. Costières de Nîmes, to the south of the Roman city of Nîmes, is lighter and fruity, almost the Midi’s answer to Beaujolais.
Nor are the new developments confined to the appellations. The vins de pays are also making comparable strides, notably the Vins de Pays d’Oc with its emphasis on varietal wines providing France’s riposte to the competition of the New World. Their producers, especially if they are newcomers to the region, or indeed newcomers to wine-making itself, are often critical of the restrictive appellation laws and prefer to use grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon which have no tradition in the south. The most notable example of this break with tradition is Mas de Daumas Gassac, but many others have followed suit.
Of course there is still a long way to go. Not all is rosy; not everyone has planted better varieties and reduced their yields. The village cooperatives, which still dominate the viticulture of the Midi, tend to epitomise the conservatism of an agricultural community and its reluctance to change. There are exceptions, but more often than not they do not know how to sell and market the vast quantities of wine which they continue to produce. And the wine that you might drink in a village café in the south is often depressingly dull.
The fine wines of the Midi may represent, at the most, twenty per cent of the region’s total production, but they are growing in number and there is no question that they provide some wonderfully satisfying drinking: wines with a real sense of place, with the southern warmth and the herbs and spices of the garrigue captured in the glass.