Stretching from the Carmargue and the Rhone estuary in the east across the Golfe du Lyon to Spain’s Mediterranean border in the west, the Languedoc-Roussillon encompasses two geographically and culturally diverse regions which have been grouped together for so long that it is difficult to separate them, the more so now that the catch-all AOC for the entire region has been redubbed ‘The Languedoc’. The Region du Languedoc (the name refers to Occitaine, the ancient regional language) incorporates the central-southern departments of the Aude, the Herault and the Gard, and is distinctly Mediterranean-French in character. Vines dominate the coastal plain here, with the best sub-districts located amongst the garrigue (the name given to the quintessential southern French landscape of dry, low-lying scrubland on limestone soils) beyond, and in the foothills of the Cevennes mountains to the north and north-west of Montpellier. The Roussillon has a perceptibly different topography, for it is effectively the eastern edge of the Pyrenees, and the culture is definitively Catalan. The climate and the terrain here are also even harsher, for this is France’s sunniest and most arid region.
Between them, the two regions account for a quarter of all France’s vines, some 214,000 hectares (528,000 acres) in 2000, down from a third of the total in 1990 due to the EU grub-up incentives designed to reduce the European wine surplus. However, the region is the source of only 10% of the country’s Appellation Controlee (AOC) wines, into which may be read that the region is traditionally the source of much of the Vin de Table and Vin de Pays destined for the cafes and bars of cosmopolitan northern France. Though the region has an ancient history of wine production (it is thought that the grapevine was introduced by the Greeks in the 7th century BC) it was indeed the arrival of the railway link to Paris in the 1850s that stimulated the boom in wine production, and vast quantities of table wine, mostly from grapes grown on the low Mediterranean plain, have been supplied via hundreds of co-operatives by a traditionally militantly politicised peasant vinegrower. It is this more recent tradition, and the poor quality vines of the coastal plain, that the EU incentives targetted.
During the last 20 years there has been a significant movement away from quantity and the coastal vineyards to quality and the hills, and it is here that the region has found a vibrant new identity as France’s ‘new world’, for some of the country’s most forward-looking and passionate artisan wine producers have set up shop in this wild and sometimes inhospitable landscape, attracted by low land prices and by the more relaxed AOC rules that permit greater flexibility than many more qualitatively more established regions. Indeed, and as can be seen from the still low production of AOC wines above, many opt for the even greater licence permitted outside the regime, most notably that of allowing the varietal to be named on the label. There are, therefore, two layers of denomination, both of which are of interest to us.
The catch-all AOC for the region is Languedoc, until recently Coteaux de Languedoc. However, within the AOC Languedoc there are a number of crus which distinguish themselves by the particular attributes of their terroirs, and of the quality and originality of their wines. The most significant of these are Pic St.Loup to the north of Montpellier, Cabrieres and Montpeyroux to the north-west of the city, Faugeres and St.Chinian on the river Orb north of Beziers, and the coastal enclaves of Muscat de Frontignan, Picpoul de Pinet, and La Clape, while the Minervois in the north-west of the region brings us the cru of La Liviniere, the Corbieres offers us Fitou (the region’s first AOC), Maury and Rivesaltes, and finally, south of the Côtes de Roussillon and hard up against the Spanish Catalan border, we have the coastal AOCs of Collioure and Banyuls.
The most widely planted variety in the Languedoc-Roussillon apparently remains the much maligned, and until a recent resurgence in popularity, much grubbed-up, red Carignane, mean and astringent in careless hands, but when intelligently raised from old, low yielding vines capable of being juicily delicious. However, as in the southern Rhône the major player amongst quality-concious producers of red wine (and this is predominantly red wine country) is the generous, alcoholic Grenache Noir, similarly supported by cepages ameliorateurs Syrah and much smaller quantities of Mourvedre. Cinsaut also finds its way into blends, most often rose of nature. White wine varieties are represented by Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Clairette, Picpoul (in Picpoul de Pinet) Muscat (for the sweet Vin Doux of Frontignan and Rivesaltes) and a host of others, including small plantings of the Roussanne and Marsanne of the Rhône. There are also significant plantings of ‘international’ varieties, most significantly Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot and Viognier, with the exception of Chardonnay in the sparkling AOC of Limoux, all of which are permitted under the Vin de Pays or Vin de France denominations, where they may usefully appear on the label, but not within the makeup of those wines bearing an appellation controlee.
The Languedoc-Roussillon is therefore a fascinatingly diverse wine producing region which is rapidly shaking off a reputation for being the source of a sea of lacklustre vins de table, and has replaced it as the rich hunting ground for lovers of some of the most exciting and original wines, of all shades and styles but most obviously of rich, dark and complex reds that are increasingly vying for a place at the top table of the world’s great wines, made by an often offbeat, even anarchic cast of characters. Along with the southern Rhône, this is for us the most vibrant and exciting wine producing region in France.