It’s a region so large and so varied that it can be hard to make sense of it as a single entity. But that was the task we set David Williams, who suggests some wines that would give any independent retailer a representative selection of the south of France
That the Languedoc-Roussillon is an enormous vineyard is a commonplace observation. But statistics about the sheer scale of the place can still boggle the mind.
There are, according to the OIV, some 240,000ha planted to vines in a region that starts around Nîmes in the east and stretches along the Med up to the Spanish border. That makes it easily the largest wine-producing region in what is (in most years) the world’s second-largest wine-producing country, accounting for more than a quarter of France’s vinous output.
That very size is both a blessing and a curse for the region’s winemakers. The Languedoc-Roussillon has always been the engine of French wine, the workhorse, blessed with both the scale of production and the flexibility of winemaking rules to be the provider of bargains and a rapid responder to mass-market fashions.
But that reputation – useful if you’re looking to shift large quantities of cheaper négociant or co-operative wine – has sometimes prevented consumers (and importers) from sampling and appreciating the region’s other, funky side: an ever-growing independent scene comprised of several hundred small-scale or “artisan” winemakers that have flourished over the past 20 to 30 years.
Ask almost anyone working in or with the region and they’ll tell you that the two sides of the Languedoc-Roussillon are very much interdependent. Smaller producers may set the tone: exciting enthusiasts with small-batch, terroir-driven wines helping to publicise the diversity on offer in a region still caricatured as monolithic.
But the region’s economy cannot hope to survive on concrete-egg-fermented micro-cuvées alone. And fortunately, the Languedoc-Roussillon has some of France’s most adventurous and well-run larger producers, a group who between them produce some of France’s most consistent, and best value, independents-only brands.
When it comes to putting together a Midi list, then, it pays to have representatives from all parts of the Languedoc-Roussillon’s wine-producing community and stylistic range. That’s what we’ve tried to put together here: with RRPs going from under £7 to around £30, but superb value running all the way through. And with a greatly reduced 2021 harvest likely to put pressure on prices in the Languedoc-Roussillon (as it will all over France), now seems like the perfect time to stock up.
Domaines Paul Mas Claude Val Blanc 2020 (Domaines Paul Mas)
Jean-Claude Mas’s vinous empire is the Languedoc-Roussillon in microcosm. If you’ve enjoyed a bottle of supermarket own-label Languedoc red blend or Marsanne, chances are you’ll find the Mas name somewhere on the back label (his only real Languedoc rivals for prolific consistency in the UK grocers’ wine ranges are Gérard Bertrand and the increasingly busy Laurent Miquel).
But Mas also crafts some of the region’s best “fine” wines, albeit at decidedly ordinary prices. The superb red Château des Crès Ricards Stécia AOP Terrasses du Larzac 2019, from a single estate in the increasingly interesting Terrasses du Larzac appellation, retailing at around £15, is a particularly expressive example. Between those two points there’s an almost bewildering range of well-made reds, whites, rosés and sparklings, any of which could find a happy place in an independent range. Confined to just one bottle, however, we’ve gone for this serial Wine Merchant Top 100 winner, a fruit-salad blend of varieties including Vermentino and Grenache Blanc with a bright, unoaked tropical juiciness, coupled with surprising weight and freshness.
CB Wines Syrah, IGP Pays d’Oc 2020 (Carte Blanche)
One of the most attractive things about the Languedoc-Roussillon from a smaller British importer’s perspective is the opportunity it offers to create something new and bespoke for your own needs.
There’s a lot of good value wine out there that sometimes – for want of decent distribution, marketing, packaging or just bad luck – struggles to find a market. In the case of Carte Blanche, an importer with a deserved reputation for turning up intriguing bottles from small, organic, biodynamic and natural-leaning producers, a source for some inexpensive but beautifully made wines was found in the village of Castelnau de Guers in “Picpoul country”.
Carte Blanche bottled the wines with its own modernist, eye-catching labels, for a range that is never less than compellingly drinkable and reasonably priced, with the Syrah a particular highlight for this taster in a line-up that also includes a Pinot Noir, a Picpoul and a rosé.
Domaine Lafage Miraflors Rosé, IGP Pays d’Oc 2020 (North & South Wines)
The enormous growth in sales of Provence rosé has been one of the biggest success stories in 21st-century wine marketing. But the Languedoc-Roussillon, France’s largest rosé producer (with around 230 million bottles of pink a year to Provence’s 160 million), has had its own rosé revolution, cannily and subtly borrowing the marketing cues perfected further east along the Med (the variously shaped clear and frosted glass bottles, the perfumier’s fonts etc), and steadily gaining listings and market share.
Rosé now accounts for some 28% of IGP Pays d’Oc production. And while the vast majority is very much in the pastel-Provence mode, the quality (and quality to value ratio) can be outstanding, with Domaine Lafage’s graceful, mineral Sud de France Top 100-topping Miraflors a particularly stylish standout.
Calmel & Joseph Ams Tram Gram Quartier Libre 2020 (Daniel Lambert Wines)
Laurent Calmel and Jérôme Joseph’s eponymous operation has a very distinctive way of working. The two are essentially négociants, but rather than sourcing finished wines with little or no input from them, they work in tandem with their wine grower and winemaker partners, who are generally based in cooler, higher-altitude sites, stamping their signature on all stages of production.
At the same time, the two also run their Domaine Calmel & Joseph, a 200ha site at the foot of the Alaric Mountain and the Haute Corbières. Between the négoce’ and the domaine the duo now produce dozens of wines across a range of terroirs.
But the house style runs like a thread throughout: there’s plenty of fruit but it’s always offset with a winning freshness, not least in the luminous, grapefruit-tangy, floral, mouthfilling Clairette dry white of Ams Tram Gram.
Domaine Les Ors Chardonnay Limoux 2019 (Famille Helfrich)
A number of the Languedoc-Roussillon’s individual crus are starting to gain a reputation – with consumers beginning to identify a particular style in, to pick just three of the higher profile examples, Pic St-Loup, Corbières-Boutenac or Terrasses du Larzac. But few of the region’s sub-zones have the kind of consumer recognition, and sense of distinct identity, that Limoux has managed to attain.
The area’s sparkling wines have undoubtedly had a big hand in that, with Limoux fizz firmly established as a high-quality budget bottle-fermented alternative to Champagne and northerly French crémants.
But the higher-altitude cooler climate is also providing the right conditions for some of the Midi’s most elegant still wines. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and the local white Mauzac all perform well, with wines such as the slinky elegant Bruno Lafon and François Chamoissier Racine Pinot Noir 2020 (Haynes Hanson & Clark) and the peachy-creamy Domaine de Les Ors (a blend of 75% Chardonnay and 25% Mauzac) just two recent highlights tasted by the Wine Merchant team.
Mas de Brousses Terrasses de Larzac 2018 (Stone Vine & Sun)
If Limoux has been among the most successful Languedoc zones at communicating a distinct vinous identity, then Terrasses de Larzac is one of the most coherent of the chasing pack.
As the wine writer and, for the past decade, Languedoc local, Andrew Jefford, said after a recent tasting of the area’s reds for The World of Fine Wine, “it’s a beautiful and diverse wine landscape” which produces “mid-weight, nuanced wines of pronounced Languedoc character”.
He defines this character as intense, dry, rarely low in acidity, and often with a resonant spectrum of bitter notes” of the “garrigue” kind.
All of Jefford’s descriptors can be applied to one of the best wines of the region, Mas de Brousse’s wild, deep, Mourvèdre-led red blend, with its polished-stone tannins and lively, fresh, long finish.
Domaine Jones Fitou 2018 (Gonzalez Byass UK)
The Languedoc-Roussillon wine scene has more than its fair share of Brits living the French winemaking dream.
Expats are responsible for a surprising number of the region’s best wines, whether it’s Bertie Eden (Château Maris) and Jon Hegarty (Hegarty Chamans) in the Minervois or Justin Howard-Sneyd (Domaine of the Bee) and Jonathan Hesford (Domaine Treolar) in the Roussillon.
The backstories alone would make these Brit-made wines a compelling listing. From Elizabeth David and Peter Mayle to A Place in the Sun, there’s a certain strain of Brit who loves to hear about those who’ve made a success of life in the south of France.
But this kind of romantic tale only really works if the wine itself comes up with the goods, as it most emphatically does in the case of a much-loved ex-pat British winemaker, Katie Jones, whose Fitou is rich, deeply flavoured, sun-filled but superbly balanced.
Château Milhau-Lacugue Saint Chinian Cuvée Magali Languedoc 2015 (Yapp)
Robin Yapp was one of the earliest UK importers to bring in quality wines from small-domaine Languedoc producers when he got started as a merchant in the 1970s.
The business still has one of the best selections of Languedoc-Roussillon going, with a knack for finding wines in that independents’ sweet spot between £10 and £20. Château Milhau Lacugue’s blend of Syrah, Grenache Noir and Cinsault, grown on limestone soils, and with plenty of softening bottle age, would surely come with a much bigger price tag if it came from a smarter address to the east in the Rhône, or the west in Bordeaux.
As the Yapp website has it: “If one were looking for a wine that exemplifies how the Languedoc offers terrific quality at modest prices, this would silence any sceptics.” After tasting it, we’d have to agree.
Gérard Bertrand Domaine de Cigalus Blanc 2018 (Hallgarten & Novum Wines)
Like Jean-Claude Mas, Gérard Bertrand is one of the Languedoc-Roussillon’s big négociant beasts making wines across the price spectrum with a rather remarkable consistency.
But if, in my view, Mas has the edge when it comes to finesse at the entry-level or thereabouts, Bertrand shades it at the top end. The ex-international rugby player has a number of cuvées, both red and white, from individual crus and estates: from the brooding spicy “grand vin” of Château Hopitalet in La Clape, to the concentrated slick of red and black fruit of Clos d’Ora in Minervois-La Livinière, these are wines of power and intensity with long potential lives in the cellar.
Perhaps the highlight of the portfolio is his superb-value (around £25 rrp) Domaine de Cigalus white: a richly concentrated, barrel-fermented blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc with a heady intensity and a spark of citrus tang.
Mas Amiel Muscat de Amiel 2016 (Bancroft/Lea & Sandeman)
Much like their counterparts in the Douro, the winemakers of the Roussillon have made an impressive fist of adapting to the world’s dwindling appetite for fortified wines, forging a reputation, instead, with dramatic Grenache-based reds and intriguing full-bodied, mineral whites.
If the mass market for Roussillon fortified wines is a thing of the past, however, the best, premium exponents are still much in demand.
Names to consider include Domaine de la Rectorie with its plummy, figgy spiced compote of a Banyuls Cuvée Léon Parcé, and the fractionally-blended treats on offer from the Maury co-operative.
The modern labelling and impeccable fruit in the fortified bottlings of Mas Amiel, both red (the succulent Maury Vintage) and white (the almost dainty, floral and zesty Muscat de Amiel), have their own stylish appeal.