Posted on | May 24, 2013
Written by | Jeffery Lindenmuth
In the south of France, on a swath of land bordering the Mediterranean Sea, stretching to touch Spain, the world’s largest demarcated vineyard area has been satisfying the demand for characterful and affordable wines with little fanfare for decades. With abundant sunshine and growing conditions so favorable that the region contributes 30% of all of France’s organic wine, Languedoc-Roussillon is not prone to splashy headlines and sensational vintage reports. Each vintage is generally good. Life goes along with little drama.
These, however, are suddenly exciting times in the south of France, with foreign investment, visionary veteran producers, and coordinated communication stirring to life the long sleeping giant that is Languedoc-Roussillon, and earning these wines new respect from wine lovers around the world.
Unfortunately, there is no simple sound bite to sum up Languedoc‐Roussillon. White, red, rosé, sparkling and sweet wines—all of them are found here. “It is always difficult and frustrating to describe this region in a few words,” laments Christine Molines, export director for the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc (CIVL). “I think we have done a good job first letting people know where in the world we are. And the message now is that our wines are very much to the taste of the American consumer. We are not California, but we are closer to California than to Burgundy in terms of climate,” says Molines. The unifying quality of these wines can’t be told, but must be tasted. It’s in their style and their soul, the way they capture the freedom and joie de vivre of the south.
The sunny disposition and ripe fruit of Languedoc‐Roussillon is reflected in wines at every quality and price level. While the abundant and affordable Pays d’Oc (the region’s most basic designation, established in 1987) have made inroads for the region in the U.S., with 56 permitted grapes they do little to help pin down the wines in the minds of consumers.
About half of Pays d’Oc wines produced are exported. The U.S. currently ranks seventh as an importer of Pays d’Oc wines, with sales on the rise—up 29% over the previous year for the period of January-September 2012. Much of the growth owes to the region’s eagerness and ability to adapt to consumer trends: Pays d’Oc wines are a go-to source to fill innovative packages as well as year-round rosé and affordable renditions of varietal wines.
Since its debut in 2005, Jean-Claude Mas has sold over 8.5 million bottles of Arrogant Frog, his line of Pays d’Oc varietal wines and blends featuring a beret-wearing frog on the label. “We did not have a reputation for quality in the Languedoc,” recalls Mas. “We were just a raw material producer until 20 years ago. So, when I brought this wine to market it was an opportunity to think outside the box, to proclaim that I am a French producer and know about good wine, but I am different from Bordeaux.”
Varietal naming remains a key innovation, making the affordable Pays d’Oc wines—including fanciful ones like Arrogant Frog and Boisset’s French Rabbit wines in Tetra Prisma packages—even more consumer-friendly. “This new consumer goes first by varietal. We show them the grape, then the style of the wines, and then Languedoc,” says Mas. However, Arrogant Frog does embrace the full diversity of Pays d’Oc, with wines like Tutti Frutti Blanc, a blend of seven white grapes, and Lily Pad Pink, a dry, sparkling rosé. Mas bestows his Arrogant Frog with the same attention and pride he applies to his higher-end wines under Château Paul Mas label. It’s an effort that he hopes will help the region avoid some of the fate that befell Australia with the success of high-volume brands.
The Rise of AOC
Mas, like most producers, is also pursuing ever-higher quality wines in the burgeoning AOC areas of Languedoc-Roussillon, which now number 36 and represent about 10% of total production. Recent changes to the appellation designations in Languedoc-Roussillon have instituted a clearer hierarchy. Pays d’Oc wines are now officially appended with IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) in synch with overarching EU laws. Meanwhile, more classical AOC wines (now technically AOP, indicating protected status) populate three tiers.
With the 2007 vintage, AOC Languedoc became the base tier, replacing Côteaux du Languedoc, which is being phased out entirely by 2017. Of the other appellations, the majority are designated Grands Vins du Languedoc, representing about 60% of AOC production. The top designation—Cru du Languedoc—is limited to the most elite sub-regions, including Minervois la Livinière, Corbières Boutenac, Saint Chinian Roquebrun and Saint Chinian Berlou, with more under consideration.
In contrast to the Pays d’Oc wines, these three levels of appellation wines generally appeal to savvier consumers intrigued by the old-vines and ancient history of Languedoc-Roussillon, and perhaps more appreciative of traditional blends. “With under $20 wines, a varietal wine is affordable, accessible and easy. But above that price, consumers prefer to have an experience, to look for the terroir. When we pursue a blend, we are including a taste of the terroir,” says Gérard Bertrand, who owns seven estates across the Languedoc and has been crafting super-premium wines there for more than two decades.
For Bertrand, the greatest treasure of the region remains its old vines of Grenache and Carignan. “The taste of the south emanates from the Rhône Valley. Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Carignan, we can take and blend differently into wines of great character. [For example,] Corbières with the GSM [Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre] blend, which is very important in reflecting our character. And Minervois, made in a style that is very U.S.-oriented with a high percentage of Syrah,” notes Bertrand. “Then there are the grapes that are newcomers in the last 30 years: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Malbec. With this we have full diversity, but also deeply rooted identity.” For consumers looking for varietal details, most producers, including Bertrand, explain the specifics of their blends on the back label.
As part of CIVL’s trade outreach, Christine Molines was able to test the waters in markets across the U.S. in 2012. What she discovered was pockets of appreciation. “We have 36 appellations, and not all of them are even present in the States,” says Molines. “In San Francisco Corbières was best-known, in Chicago they appreciated Minervois, and in Boston it was Picpoul that got attention. I also think Limoux is gaining recognition and had quite a good year,” she adds, referring to the region’s AOC that predates Champagne as a producer of sparkling wine.
Tim Ford, an Englishman with a background in horticulture in Africa, also saw opportunity in Languedoc-Roussillon; he co-founded Domaine Gayda, whose first vintage was 2004. “We were then excited by the massive diversity of terroir joined with a New World approach to winemaking. We have 10 different terroirs within an hour drive. In Australia that would take you a week,” beams Ford.
Gayda was quick to embrace the traditions of blending to conjure the greatest character from their fruit. “It can be a struggle to sell the blends in U.S. For a long time, blending had a bad name. But our base range is varietal and we choose to blend all of our top wines,” says Ford.
Ford suggests the best is still to emerge from Languedoc-Roussillon, as the abundant sources of old-vine fruit are identified and reaped by savvy locals and enterprising newcomers. “Traditionally 80% of the grapes went to co-ops. No one worried about it because there is a lot of ‘mañana’ attitude here,” says Ford. “I am not disrespecting the people because they are great producers of wine, and in many cases it was the co-op that screwed them up. But now, we are seeing you can cherry-pick from some truly beautiful vineyards.”
Equally exciting is the future for organic production to increase as more producers get on board with certification. Gayda currently has four wines certified organic is working to become fully certified organic for their accessible wines, including their Flying Solo white and red blends available in the U.S. “It is easy to be organic,” notes Ford. “We have a benign climate with high sunshine and beautiful winds.”
For producers and wine lovers still uncovering the secrets of this vast region, Languedoc-Roussillon has awakened to a world full of potential.