A drive lasting more than two hours in southern France last month took me across three administrative départements, the Gard, Hérault and Aude. The shimmering Mediterranean was occasionally visible to the left; hills and outcroppings from the ancient Massif Central rose and fell on my right, and for most of the 120-mile trip I saw vines growing on both sides of the superhighway. All were part of one wine region, and when delineated as such, one overarching appellation--the Languedoc. There were so many vines in so many different places that anyone would have to wonder what might connect them. The answer, I have since discovered, is nothing except for reams of bureaucratic forms and paper.
Grapes have been grown and wine made in the Languedoc for over 2,000 years, but as home to a delineated appellation, this vast region is just 30 years old. Only in 1985 did the French authorities grant it appellation contrôlée status--first as a long swath of vineyards designated as the “coteaux,” and then, in 2007, simply as Languedoc. It has been “30 years of hard work,” says Jean-Benoît Cavalier, chairman of the appellation’s growers’ organization, “30 years to fulfil an ambition of connecting a product--Languedoc wine--with its land and its people.”
The problem, and it is a huge one, comes from this land and these people being so varied. The Languedoc appellation as currently delineated stretches from vineyards at the edge of the Rhône basin in the east all the way to the foothills of the Pyrenees in the southwest. It is not only the largest French wine region, with roughly 700,000 acres under vine, but one of the biggest anywhere in the world.
The Languedoc is diverse as well as immense. The landscape at one end is dramatically unlike the landscape at the other, as are the soil types and weather patterns. The people are different as well. In the east, you can hear elements of Provençal in the local dialect, while in the southwest the patois can be sprinkled with Catalan. So too with the wines. Those made in the east tend to take their stylistic cues from southern Rhône wines, those in the west from Bordeaux. In short, the appellation is so big and so multi-faceted that it makes little sense as anything but a marketing tool.
But then, the French appellation system, which was instituted in stages between the 1930s and 1960s, always has been as much about marketing than about the elusive concept of terroir. While commentators like to romanticize it, often by reverentially referencing the subtle distinctions between wines made in small appellations in Burgundy, the truth is that appellations were created primarily to help sell wines. They would do this, ran the original argument, by distinguishing certain wines, or certain classes of wine, from other ones. The issue wasn’t so much wines from one appellation as opposed to wines from another. Rather, it was wines from any appellation contrasted with generic vin ordinaire. And no place in France produced, nor still produces, more ordinaire than the Languedoc.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the big challenge was what to do with all the Languedoc wine that did not qualify for appellation status, much of it grown on the flatlands between the different appellation pockets or zones. While some, made primarily by large cooperative wineries, tasted decent and sometimes even quite good, much of it proved virtually impossible to sell. There was no market for it in France, where people were drinking less but better wine, nor in England, Scandinavia or the United States, where it would have to compete with more attractive wines coming from all over the world. This was the now infamous “wine lake,” gallons and gallons of simple, un-saleable, overwhelmingly red wine.
Over the past decade, aggressive policies from Paris and Brussels (home to the European Union) have helped reduce the lake somewhat. Growers and co-ops either have raised their ambitions or gone out of business. The big challenge today, then, is not so much an excess of ordinaire, but rather an absence of any sort of recognizable identity for many of the region’s best wines. The problem is that no one, not consumers or producers or even connoisseurs, really knows what an appellation Languedoc wine should taste like.
People certainly know, or are coming to know, what some specific Languedoc sub-appellation wines taste like. A red Pic-St-Loup likely will be tamer and less rugged than a red Corbières, while a white Picpoul de Pinet will taste lighter and livelier than a white Limoux. Since the grape varieties used in these are all different, and the distances between the vineyards quite extensive, this is not at all surprising. What is surprising, and again problematic, comes from the fact that pockets of appellation vineyards that can be identified only as Languedoc lie close to all of these. What if anything can or should distinguish them?
If consumers cannot recognize these wines, they likely will not buy them. And if people do not buy Languedoc appellation wines, the wine like will get bigger rather than smaller, people will be forced out of business, and the region as a whole will lose whatever stature it enjoys on wine’s world stage. “We are 30 years old and still as fresh and young as ever,” says Jean-Philippe Granier, the appellation’s technical director. Of course, another word for fresh and young is immature, and to my mind immaturity is exactly what Monsieur Granier’s comments suggest.
The good news is that the past three decades thirty years have proved that some spectacular wines can come from the Languedoc. The bad news is that the appellation quite clearly remains too big and too diverse for its own good. Southern French growers and vignerons have a long history of blaming bureaucracies for their problems, but in this case the bureaucrats were was simply doing what the growers and vignerons said they wanted--granting them appellation status even though the appellation had no geographic or cultural viability. That appellation is 30 years old now, but it’s still nowhere near grown-up.