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This Weeks Tastings
Wines of the Languedoc
Thursday, 21st November: 5pm - 8pm
Saturday, 23rd November: 11am - 5pm
Languedoc, France’s best-value, most fluid wine region and certainly its most important in terms of volume of wine produced, and in terms of the importance of viticulture to the region’s economy. The Languedoc takes its name from a time when its inhabitants spoke Occitan, the language in which oc (rather than oil) is the word for ‘yes’, hence langue d’oc. It comprises the three central southern départements of the Aude, Hérault, and Gard, a sea of little other than vines just inland from the beaches of the Mediterranean.
For administrative purposes, the Languedoc is often bracketed with the region to its immediate south, as in Languedoc-Roussillon, although the roussillon has a perceptibly different character, and is better equipped to replace vines with the other fruit crops it has for long cultivated.
Between them at the turn of the century a total of 31,541 vignerons cultivated 241,537 ha/596,596 acres of vineyard, a quarter of all French vines. (It had represented a third a decade earlier.) But strenuous eu-inspired vine pull schemes aimed at reducing Europe’s wine surplus were specifically targeted at France’s deep south with considerable success. By 2010 just 19,752 vignerons grew 192,286 ha/474,946 acres of vines, still more than a quarter of all French vines but the plains of the Languedoc have been transformed, with other crops widely replacing vines.
Despite its quantitative importance, Languedoc-Roussillon produces only about an eighth of France’s aoc wines. For many years, the Languedoc’s only appellation was Fitou, but in 1985 Corbières, Minervois, and the catch-all appellation Coteaux du Languedoc were elevated from vdqs to AC status and others have followed. Indeed the taxonomy of Languedoc wines has been revised several times in recent years, and the Coteaux du Languedoc AOC replaced by languedoc aoc.
A high proportion of the vast area technically included in these AC zones is dedicated to non-appellation wine, however, either because the encépagement is outside the appellation specifications, or because the vigneron continues to be more interested in quantity than quality. The Languedoc is still by far the principal producer of vsig, as well as producing nearly 60% of France’s intermediate igp, much of it labelled regionally and, typically, varietally, as Pays d’Oc. In a very real sense the Languedoc is France’s most anarchic wine region. Not only is it the only one in which vignerons still take direct and often violent action in protest at the organization of their sector of the wine business, a phenomenon all too visible in the 2000s, it is also the one in which wine producers are most obviously dissatisfied with the detail of the, admittedly relatively recent, appellation laws. Some important producers routinely ignored the AOC system completely and put most of their effort into making high-quality IGP wines.
Not much more than 10% of the Languedoc’s wine output was white in the early 2010s. The best Languedoc whites, after a decidedly oaky phase, have become increasingly fine and interesting. The small proportion of dry rosé is mainly for local consumption. A substantial quantity of vin doux naturel is made (see muscat), and limoux is the Languedoc’s centre of sparkling winemaking. The Languedoc is still principally a source of red wine, however, a typical representative being no longer a thin, pale remnant of the region’s past as a bulk wine supplier but a dense, exciting, increasingly supple ambassador of some of France’s wildest countryside.
Vines were planted as early as 125 bc on the hills near the Roman colony of Narbo, modern Narbonne, which today produce Corbières, Minervois, and Languedoc AOC. Narbonne was then an important Roman port, protected by what was then the island of La clape. Cargoes would be taken up river as far as Carcassonne and then transported overland to join the garonne and thence to the Roman legions in Aquitaine. The hinterland of Narbonne and Béziers came to produce so much wine that it was exported to Ancient rome, although the edict of domitian was designed to put a stop to this.
It was not until the Middle Ages, under the auspices of the Languedoc’s monks and monasteries, that viticulture once again thrived (although today only the Abbaye de Valmagne retains its wine-producing role). Already the University of montpellier was established and arnaldus de villanova oversaw several important developments for wine and spirit production there. The development of greatest potential significance for the Languedoc and its wines was the late-17th-century construction of the Canal du Midi, which connected the Mediterranean with the Atlantic. The Bordelais were by now so experienced at protectionism, however (see haut pays, for example), that the wine producers of the Languedoc failed to benefit substantially from this new distribution network until the end of the 18th century.
Much more profitable were the efforts of the dutch wine trade in the late 17th century to develop northern European markets for picardan, a sweet white wine made from Clairette and Picquepoul grapes that was well known in Holland by 1680, and subsequently for eaux-de-vie. The port of Sète was established in 1666 and became particularly important for exports to england and the netherlands, Narbonne having long since silted up. Sweet wines were also produced, notably a dried-grape wine made from Muscat grown at frontignan, whose inhabitants insist that it was as a result of a visit by a Marquis de Lur-Saluces to Frontignan after the great frost of 1709 that Ch d’yquem became a sweet wine property, and that their straight-sided bottle was adopted for bordeaux.
By the mid 19th century the vineyards of the Languedoc could be divided into the hillside vineyards, vines planted on gravelly terraces at mid elevation (roughly approximating to the majority of modern Languedoc appellations), and vines, mainly aramon and terret grapes, planted on the plains for distillation into brandy.
In 1855, the Languedoc’s fortunes were to change for ever, as a result of its first railway connection, via Lyons, with the important centres of population in the north. A link via Bordeaux was opened the next year. Between 1850 and 1869, average annual wine production nearly quadrupled in the Hérault département. The arrival of phylloxera could hardly have been worse timed, but, thanks to feverish experimentation and the eventual adoption of grafting, as well as hybrids and some of the new bouschet crosses, the Languedoc vineyard was the first to be reconstituted after the devastations of this American louse. By the end of the 19th century, the Languedoc became France’s principal wine supplier, producing 44% of France’s entire wine production, from 23% of the country’s total vignoble.
This superficial success was at some cost, however. Dr guyot had in 1867 warned against the increasing influence of vine varieties and practices designed to produce quantity rather than quality, and against the over-industrialization of the Languedoc wine trade. By the turn of the century, the plains of the Languedoc, the Hérault particularly, were being milked of thin, light, pale red that needed blending with the much more robust produce of new colonial vineyards in algeria to yield a commercially acceptable drink. France had sown the seeds of her (continued) dependence on wine imports. Such was the extent of commercial interference in the French table wine market, including widespread adulteration and fraud, that prices plummeted and France’s social crisis of 1907 provoked what were merely the first in a long series of wine-related riots.
Since then the vignerons of the Languedoc, typically but by no means always members of one of the region’s hundreds of co-operatives, many of them formed in the 1930s and most now part of a larger group, have been some of the world’s most politicized. Their sheer number has given them political power, but the fall in demand for basic vin de table and difficulty in selling even the keenly priced vin de pays, which took its place as the Languedoc’s principal product, led to increasing frustration among growers.
Land here is relatively inexpensive, which has drawn a wide range of new investors, both producers with an established record in a more famous wine region and complete outsiders keen to set up lifestyle wineries.
Geography and climate
The great majority of the Languedoc’s vines (and virtually all of those which have been ripped out recently) are or were planted on the flat, low-lying alluvial plain, particularly in the southern Hérault and Gard. In the northern Hérault and western Aude, however, vines may be planted several hundred metres above sea level, in the foothills of the Cévennes and the Corbières Pyrenean foothills, sometimes at quite an angle and on very varied soils which can include gravels and limestone.
The climate in all but the far western limits of the Languedoc (where Atlantic influence is apparent) is definitively mediterranean and one of the major viticultural hazards is drought. Annual rainfall is often as little as 400 mm/15.6 in by the coast. July and August temperatures often exceed 30 °C/86 °F; such rain as does fall tends to fall in the form of localized deluges. wind is common throughout the growing season, with the tramontane bringing cool air from the mountains.
The Languedoc is the land of the proud peasant farmer. The size of the average holding is small, and usually much divided between parcels inherited from various different branches of the family. Basic, straggling bush vines still predominate, although an increasing proportion of vines, especially the newer international varieties, are being trained on wires. irrigation is theoretically permitted only within strictly specified limits, and in practice only the best and the worst producers tend to have any form of available irrigation system. The flatter, larger vineyards lend themselves to mechanical harvesting but their parcellation, and ripping out, has slowed the inevitable invasion. The region is by no means free of fungal diseases and some sprayings are usually necessary.
The dominant late-20th-century vine variety carignan has been definitively routed by the vine pull scheme of the eu, and by 2011 was only the third most planted variety in the Languedoc after Syrah and then Grenache Noir. Merlot, grown mainly for IGP wines, covered almost as much ground as Carignan, with Cabernet Sauvignon, not nearly as much at home here as Merlot, some way behind. The ever-changing regulations of most red wine appellations in the Languedoc specify various combinations of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre with declining proportions of Carignan, and most often, usually as minor blending ingredients, Cinsaut (especially good for rosés and fruity reds) and the Grenache relative lladoner, or Lledoner, Pelut.
By far the most planted white wine grape, though even less common than Cabernet Sauvignon, is Chardonnay, used for both varietal IGP wines and the still and sparkling wines of Limoux. Sauvignon Blanc is the next most planted and Viognier fourth most popular white wine grape—further signs of how important international varieties are to white wine production here. Each white wine appellation has a different cocktail of preferred ingredients from a palette of traditional pale-skinned Languedoc varieties which include Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Maccabéo, Picquepoul Blanc, and Vermentino, although Roussanne, and Marsanne are also specified occasionally.
With some high-profile exceptions, winery equipment and techniques are still relatively unsophisticated in the Languedoc, where selling prices have rarely been high enough to justify major investment. destemming equipment, for example, was widely regarded as a luxury until this century, and new oak barrels beyond the means of most producers. (In any case, the fruit is so intense in many red wines that, like the same varieties in the southern Rhône, they do not necessarily benefit from new, small oak.) The great majority of Languedoc wine is made in one of the co-operative cellars that still dominate production and whose will to make good-quality wine varies considerably. Fermentation and élevage typically take place in large concrete cuves, although stainless steel is slowly invading the region. Partly in an effort to tame the natural astringency of Carignan, full or partial carbonic maceration was for long the most common red winemaking technique. bottling often takes place at a merchant’s cellar rather than on the premises where the wine was made. The wine container most frequently seen by the consumer in the region is probably the road tanker (a high proportion of the locals buy their wine in bulk rather than bottle).
– Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine