I have been visiting the Languedoc pretty regularly for more than 30 years, and it never ceases to surprise me — and delight me. There is always some discovery or development: a new estate, or an old estate under new ownership, or benefiting from a generation change; a new grape variety or a new look at an old grape variety. There is a wonderful sense that nothing is impossible, for unlike the more established wine regions of France, the Languedoc remains relatively unhampered by tradition, and that is very much part of its appeal.
The region has had a chequered history. For much of the last century its main function was the supply of le gros rouge, cheap bulk wine in large quantity. Happily things changed when far-thinking winegrowers realized that the future lay with quality and not quantity, and that movement has gathered momentum. Winemaking in the Languedoc has improved beyond recognition, with the introduction of temperature control and insulated cellars, as well as the shift from large oak foudres to much smaller barriques, to name a couple of the most obvious changes.
A shift in terroir
There have been similar dramatic changes in the vineyards. Once they were concentrated on the flat coastal plains. These days new vineyards are planted on increasingly inaccessible slopes and at higher altitudes, as winemakers search for cooler sites and less fertile soils. Pic St. Loup is recognized as one of the cooler parts of the Languedoc, producing elegant wines based on syrah. The wines of the more recently recognized Terrasses du Larzac are gaining in reputation and attracting new winegrowers, for the same reason — the wines have an appealing freshness.
Grape varieties are being reconsidered. Syrah, mourvèdre and grenache noir were seen as cépages améliorateurs and planted extensively to improve flavor. These days, people are reassessing the quality of more traditional carignan and cinsaut, and nurturing their old vines. White wine too has improved beyond recognition, with the introduction of rolle or vermentino, roussanne and marsanne, which made for some intriguing and original blends, as well as chardonnay, chenin blanc and viognier. Although the appellations rules of the Languedoc are as strict as any part of France in regard to what you can or cannot plant, the much more flexible regulations of the various vins de pays, or indications géographiques protégées as they should now be called, allow for all manner of experimentation with different grape varieties.
New winemakers bringing energy
Much of this improvement is driven by the newcomers to the region. The great advantage of the Languedoc is its affordability. Recently, a winegrower from Burgundy was able to buy a whole estate in Roussillon for the price of one hectare of Nuits St. Georges. The newcomers have often had careers in other fields and have an energy that drives them forward. There are any number of examples. Graham Nutter at Château St. Jacques d’Albas and John Hegarty at Domaine de Chamans both had extensive means to invest, while on a more humble scale there are people like Peter and Deborah Core at Mas Gabriel, Simon and Monika Coulshaw at Domaine des Trinités, and Jonathan and Rachel Hesford at Domaine de Treloar.
The appellations themselves are in a state of flux, undergoing quality realignment, though I fear that may only serve to confuse the consumer. Coteaux du Languedoc, the appellation that was created in 1985, with various smaller terroirs stretching from Narbonne almost to Nîmes, is being replaced by Languedoc, which will also cover the vineyards of Roussillon, as the base of a pyramid of quality. Then as you go up the pyramid there are smaller, more defined areas such as La Clape and Pic St. Loup, with even smaller crus such as Roquebrun in St. Chinian and La Livinière in the Minervois as the pinnacle of the pyramid.
The powers that be of the Languedoc have also come up with a two-tier system of grands vins and grands crus. You may well ask which is better. It is certainly not obvious to my mind, and there are glaring anomalies. St. Chinian, which was an appellation in its own right before being incorporated into the Coteaux du Languedoc, will be a grand vin, while the much newer Terrasses du Larzac will be a grand cru, along with Pic St. Loup and La Clape, among others. St. Chinian is a grand vin while St. Chinian Roquebrun is a grand cru.
Maybe things will become clearer with time, but for me the choice of wine from the Languedoc, depends above all on the reputation of the wine grower, rather than on any appellation. And right now the choice is enormous — and affordable.
Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.
Photo: Vines in the Languedoc. Credit: Rosemary George