One of the world’s hotspots in wine – literally – is in Mediterranean France. On that sun-baked coastline between Provence and the spot further down where you suddenly find yourself in Spain (wouldn’t that be nice?), there is a stretch of loveliness called the Languedoc-Roussillon. In addition to one of the world’s most enjoyable lifestyles, the Languedoc-Roussillon is a highly favourable place to make wine. To say the least.
In wine-speak the term “Mediterranean climate” pretty much defines the delicious conditions that prevail here. Enviable, unending sunlight and dry heat most of the year is nicely tempered by cooling sea winds. Ripe and healthy grapes magically appear in almost every vintage, with great conditions for most varietals. More importantly the most sun-loving grapes like Grenache and Mourvèdre can reach for their fullest flavour and power.
The history here is predictably ancient, with wine going back five centuries before Christ. The name is also quite old and oddly double-barrelled, because the region was originally two. The northern and French-feeling of them is the “Languedoc” – from the ‘Language of Oc’, denoting the Occitan language of the original (and some remaining) inhabitants. The other area to the south sounds more French – Roussillon – but in fact gathers the Spanish influence as it rises above the Languedoc’s dry plains and climbs the foothills of the Pyrenees toward Spain’s border.
But today these regions are one place in every other way. And they also share with each other – and with the neighbouring Mediterranean climes of Provence and the Rhone – a dry landscape dominated by a scrub known as ‘garrigue’, which is said to impart nuances of resinous wild herbs such as rosemary and thyme to the local wines. The same Provencal grapes thrive too in the Languedoc-Roussillon: Grenache and Syrah are the leading reds along with Mourvèdre, Carignan, Cinsault & etc. Whites follow a more or less Provence and Rhone-like pattern, although the Languedoc-Roussillon’s more relaxed rules of production mean both imported crops and special local traditions claim their place all in a very nonchalant, easy, Southern French way.
Take for example an exceptional fortified red that is made, just casually, down the coast in a place called Banyuls – and is comparable to Port. Likewise Maury, a sumptuous Grenache-based fortified red sticky ‘vin doux naturel’ that simply must be enjoyed with chocolate. It so happens that sparkling wine was invented in the Languedoc-Roussillon – in 1531, a century before Champagne! – and it lives on in a delicious little village style called Blanquette de Limoux.
White grapes from across the sea such as Vermentino have settled in the odd vineyard around here (who wouldn’t?). But there are strictly local grapes that claim mini traditions. Like Picpoul Blanc. Now popping up across Mediterranean France, Picpoul was once a “simple” local wine to wash down the local seaside oysters (well, that is the humble way to describe an experience for which most of us would spend a week in planes and airports). This wine is known as ‘Picpoul de Pinet’ – named after the grape and the seaside town in question. Now Picpoul is enjoying an expansion into more fleshy and modern, ‘new wave’ styles such as Hecht and Bannier’s delicious Languedoc Blanc ($22).
Hmmm, let’s think about all this for a moment.
We’re talking about a hot region very close to the best villages of the Rhone and Provence. Here they make Rhone-like Grenache and Syrah blends – and likewise similar whites of Grenache-Blanc and Viognier, among others. And all these grapes are dusted with the same breeze-blown nuances of the Provencal garrigue. Except here the wine history is older than the Rhone – yes, older – and richer too. Because like Provence, the Languedoc-Roussillon offers its modern, Grenache-Syrah satisfaction against a much more complex background – a patchwork of charming local village traditions each with embedded potential to increase in quality, style and reputation.
In fact it could be argued that the geology of the Languedoc-Roussillon is a bit – ahem – superior to the Rhone. The more open-knit Rhone wines come from sands, they say, and its more gutsy ones from clays. But from a “minerality” point of both of these are… well, not terribly interesting. By contrast the Languedoc-Roussillon has a palette of the salty sea on one side and on the other (inland) it is invaded by the southern end of the Massif Central’s huge rock formations. This means a diversity of much stonier soils as well as very distinct microclimates, like the La Clape plateau. Most of all the Languedoc-Roussillon thus benefits from volcanic and relatively high limestone influence to the soils and clays hiding under the generic garrigue landscape. Limestone, you might recall, is what adds fruit brightness to the great wines of Burgundy and the Loire. Thus the Languedoc-Roussillon adds aromatic lift to Mediterranean richness and satisfaction – what a combination!
All this just down the road from Chateauneuf-du-Pape… but from a place few have heard of. So the wine prices are far, far cheaper. With rare levels of ripeness, satisfaction, and quality – especially in reds – the Languedoc-Roussillon is positioning itself as a place to get Rhone-like wines for very low, almost Spain-like prices.
How could the place have been overlooked so long? Partly it’s history. Prior to the late 20th Century, the Languedoc-Roussillon was treated by France’s ever-powerful authorities like a ‘fruit-bowl’ to produce bulk table wine. This mentality was based in earlier history, in which the phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th Century caused the devastation of local tradition and a mass planting of the ‘approved’ grape Carignan. Carignan was chosen because it gives good yields of fruit and adds backbone to basic table blends – being low in finesse but high in body, acidity, tannin and especially colour.
The advent of railways around the same time meant drinkers in Paris and even further could be supplied from the Languedoc-Roussillon – formerly cut off by difficult geography. So the traditional waterborne regions such as the Loire and Bordeaux began slowly creeping up the market, while the supply of bulk table wine for the modern urban masses came increasingly from the Languedoc-Roussillon.
It’s a funny thing. While all this was happening the Rhone was almost next door but managed more or less to truck along with it’s mid and upper-level village traditions. The other neighbour Provence suffered large plantings of Carignan too. But it so happens Carignan is not bad for making Rosé – and Rosé is what they’ve ended up making in most in Provence.
Today some beautiful old vine Carignan is being made in the Languedoc-Roussillon, but mostly it is being replaced with Grenache and Syrah – while the region as whole exploits its relative freedom by diversifying into Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir in places – not to mention the many whites, with Chardonnay a common export.
But the bulk grape Carignan is still so widely planted that it is weirdly knitted into the esprit and brightness of the region’s wines. Because it was planted for a reason: what made Carignan an appealing blending partner all those years ago, still holds. Dense colour, firm tannins and fresh acidity can still give a purplish colour, aromatic openness and acid zing to Languedoc-Roussillon reds that can be missing – dare I say this? – from the heavier Rhone examples.
Richness and satisfaction – almost always! Heaviness or dullness – almost never!
One cute side-note on Carignan is that it is sometimes treated differently from other grapes, to soften its rustic tannins. Carbonic maceration can be used, just as for Gamay in Beaujolais. And this may explain the unusually floral, candied aroma of blue fruits that can further enliven the more popular wines from Carignan-heavy appellations such as Fitou, Corbieres, or Saint Chinian. Carbonic can even be applied to other varieties like Syrah – often used selectively within a blend – as producers in this flexible and dynamic environment are more or less able to suit their own (and their customer’s) tastes. Not a bad thing perhaps.
The Languedoc-Roussillon’s new wave of winemakers – and fortune-makers – are not only offering value but often keeping in mind the upper-middle market. Names like La Clape and Pic Saint Loup – and even less elevated names like Minervois or Saint-Chinian – are consciously harnessing undervalued old vines and terroir to produce deeply “serious” wines for an educated world palate – and future reputation. However the region’s historical baggage and lack of prestige forces the prices to be accessible, relatively speaking.
The Hecht & Bannier Saint Chinian 2011 is a deeply sophisticated and elegant Syrah-led wine (Syrah-Grenache-Mourvedre): so classy, no reader or drinker will find sign reference anywhere to Carignan, Cinsault or any other such provincial crop. Likewise their Cotes du Roussillon 2012 – a beautiful, rich but refined Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre: the soul of ripe Mediterranean red in a very cosmopolitan package.
Hecht & Bannier are a new breed of savvy southern ‘negociants’ – i.e. people who buy and blend quality wine without the risk of their own vineyards. But we also import another producer inspired by the same value-proposition to purchase a number of estates in different sub-regions: Gerard Bertrand.
After converting many of these to organics, Bertrand offers superb value and quality – capturing the local Southern-French spirit and style while using mainly ‘noble’ grapes. His Corbieres 2013 is nothing like the basic red sometimes released under this appellation. As a beautifully made Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre – at only $25! – it offers a density and character that would be unattainable for a Cotes du Rhone. Likewise his charismatic Saint Chinian 2013 is composed of Syrah and Mourvedre, while the cheaper ($22) varietal ‘Reserve’ range is also focused on Rhone grapes like Syrah and Viognier.
Bertrand also makes a gorgeous rosé in his entry level. The ‘6eme’ is only $17.99 but has much of the poise and refreshing dryness of a classic Cotes de Provence. (See our up-coming blog on Provence Rosé for more on that).
The essence of the Languedoc-Roussillon is extreme quality and value, with supremely dimensional quaffers… and inexpensive ‘village’ wines aimed to knock famous neighbours like Bandol, Rasteau and Gigondas off their market perches. Clean and plush, satisfying and rich, these are Mediterranean delights that should cost much more than they do.
And one day soon, they may. In the meantime there is only one approach to take to these under-priced wines. Approach them with a sunny smile on your face, a wine knife in one hand and a glass or two in the other.