The Languedoc is undergoing a tremendous transformation. Formerly known as France’s ”wine lake,” this vast area in Southern France that extends in an arc from the Rhône River towards the Spanish border is evolving into one of France’s most exciting wine regions. Experimentation abounds as many producers eschew the traditional appellation d’origine controllée (AOC) regulations, preferring to bottle under the more flexible IGP (indication geographique protégée) designation. The commitment of the growers and producers, most of whom are small, is apparent: fully one-third of France’s organic vineyards are in the Languedoc. It’s an area where you find wines that we all are looking for--those that deliver more than their price suggests. But finding them takes work, a bit of trial and error and a willingness to experiment.
Although some high profile top-notch properties, such as Mas de Daumas Gassac, have existed in the region for decades, this hot dry rugged expanse was notable for high alcohol red wine shipped north in tanker trucks for blending. Tanker trucks can still be seen plying the roads, but the region’s reputation is evolving as consumers realize the fabulous bargains--at all price points--that are available.
Intense, but Not Over The Top, Red Wines
Even with its evolution, the region’s focus remains on hearty red wines made primarily from what I call the “Languedoc five:” Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault. What’s most remarkable about these wines is how the best of them deliver power and intensity without being overdone or alcoholic. They combine an alluring herbal and earthy component with ripe, but not overripe, black fruit elements. Some have a charming rusticity to them. They typically finish with a slight bitterness that distinguishes them from New World wines made from the same grapes. Despite their size, the tannins are usually not aggressive, which makes them enjoyable for current consumption. These characteristics make the Languedoc red wines perfect for wintertime fare or to accompany grilled meat this summer.
Despite the vast progress and the plethora of outstanding wines, the wines from the Languedoc remain inconsistent, in part because of experimentation in the vineyards and in the winery. And not all experiments turn out well. In the vineyard, in addition to the Languedoc Five, growers are planting a diverse selection of vines, including Tempranillo, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Viognier, and Chardonnay. In the winery some producers avoid oak aging entirely, while others embrace the use of small barriques. Still others use large older oak barrels. Sadly, some attempt to make wines more “important” than the grapes and locale allow. And, of course, as with any region, there are wines that are not for everyone’s taste. Not surprisingly, there’s still some wine that was bottled that perhaps should have remained in the tanker truck.
The Appellations are Confusing
The AOCs themselves are in transition, which can cause confusion. But it’s worth sorting them out because there are important distinctions. The profusion of AOCs results from vast differences in soil, elevations and exposure. Using the typical pyramid approach, the broad base is AOC Coteaux du Languedoc, which is being phased out and replaced by simply Languedoc. (For now, consumers could see either on a label depending on the vintage. Starting with the 2012 vintage, AOC Languedoc will prevail and Coteaux du Languedoc will disappear.) At the top of the pyramid are the long established well-known small appellations, such as Corbières, Faugères, Minervois, and Saint-Chinian. Here’s where it starts to get confusing. Appellations recently have sprung from Corbières and Minervois resulting in the less well known Corbières Boutenac and Minervois La Livinière. And there are other individual AOCs within the Languedoc, such as Cabardàs (the only one in France that allows a blend of both Atlantic grapes--Merlot or Cabernet--with Syrah, a Mediterranean grape) and Clairette, which have not had the name recognition of the others.
Here’s more confusion: Within the AOC Languedoc there are individual subregions, such as Grès de Montpellier, La Clape, Montpeyroux, Pic St. Loup, St. Saturnin and Terrasses du Larzac, which are lobbying for their own AOC designations. For now, they are in an in-between status that allows their name on the label along with the AOC designation, Coteaux du Languedoc or Languedoc. Wines from these areas are distinctive and have an unexpected elegance for their size, which is why they deserve their own AOC.
While we’re detailing the multiple sources of confusion afflicting the Languedoc, I should also note that the AOC designation itself is being replaced by the European Union terminology of AOP, appellation d’origine protégée, and IGP is replacing France’s Vin de Pays designation. It is a good thing that Languedoc wines are delicious and fascinating--since they are far from simple to understand.
A case in point among the Languedoc’s sea of red wines is a small AOC (AOP), Picpoul de Pinet, that’s home to astoundingly vibrant--for this part of the world--white wines, made from the Picquepoul grape. These perky wines are dry and zesty with citrus tinged finish and are perfect to accompany shellfish or simply prepared seafood. Chateau Petit Roubié makes a particularly attractive one.
A good way for the consumer to sort out the differences among the AOCs is to look for wines from the excellent négociant firm, Hecht & Barnier. They produce wines across many of the AOCs of the Languedoc and since their style remains constant, the differences you taste reflect the individual locales.
Languedoc and the Rhône
To put this AOC morass into perspective, I would compare the Languedoc to the Rhône, with Coteaux du Languedoc or Languedoc analogous to Cotes du Rhône. Think of Corbières, St- Chinian and the others as analogous to the cru of the Rhône, Vacqueryas or Gigondas. The up and coming areas, such as Pic St Loup, then would be analogous to the named villages of the Côtes du Rhône-Villages, such as Cairanne, that too are lobbying for their own AOC.
Most importantly, however, do not be a slave to the AOCs. There are fabulous wines at both the low and high ends of the price spectrum bottled under the IGP designations, such as those from négociant, Maison des Terroirs Vivants, and Mas de Daumas Gassac, respectively.
So go to your local wine shop and start exploring the Languedoc. Let me know what you find.
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Email me at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein