David Williams takes a look at France’s most dynamic wine region, where cheerful varietals have been joined by serious cru wines with a true sense of terroir
Flexibility. Market-sensitivity. Reliability. Those are the three distinguishing qualities that the wine producers of Languedoc-Roussillon have sought to bring to international wine markets since the 1980s.
These are not – it almost goes without saying – qualities that have always been associated with the French wine business. And that’s why – along with its embrace of varietal wine and flying winemakers – the region earned the epithet of “France’s New World”, when Australia et al were riding high and dictating terms in the late 20th and early 21st century.
Wine has moved on since then, of course. And the somewhat caricatured boundaries between supposedly New World and Old World practices have blurred. But the Languedoc-Roussillon has retained its ability to move with the times in a way that remains elusive in more traditional French regions.
Take, for example, the region’s response to one of the most significant wine trends of recent years, rosé.
Demand for wines in a Provençal pale and interesting style has been rising for years, of course, with the Languedoc-Roussillon’s neighbours managing to both increase sales and hold on to a remarkably high average retail price of £8.50.
Increasingly, however, winemakers in the Languedoc-Roussillon have exploited the significant potential of making wines of a similar – in many cases, higher – standard, in a similar style from a similar varietal blend, but at significantly lower prices (and, in recent years, with a similarly stylish, high-quality line of packaging).
With these wines taking their place alongside the richer, darker-hued pinks of local tradition (the Languedoc-Roussillon has the edge on Provence when it comes to variety of rosé style), it’s easy to see why production of rosé in the region increased by 25% in the two years to 2019, so that the region now accounts for some 34% of rosé wine production in France (and a remarkable 11% of the world’s pink wines).
A no less compelling story can be told about organic winemaking. The region’s decision-makers were quick to grasp that their climate – long, hot, dry summers, moderated by the breezes of the always-nearby Mediterranean – meant that disease pressure was much lower than in other parts of France.
Even so, the scale of organic production in the region is quite something: with a consistent flow of new vineyards transitioning to green practices over the past decade, more than 10% of the Languedoc-Roussillon is now certified organic, and the region now accounts for around a third of all French organic vineyards, and some 6% of the global total.
With many consumers looking for affordable organic wine – and many more unwilling to buy products made with conventional winemaking – the Languedoc-Roussillon’s ability to produce organic wine at a scale beyond other European regions has proved enormously useful for retailers.
New varieties, old terroirs
No less useful has been the southern French ability to produce affordable varietal wines that coincide with current consumer interests. The region produces in the region of nine out of every 10 varietally-labelled bottles of French wine, and the composition of the IGP Pays d’Oc vineyard in particular tells the story of the shifting fashions of the past 30 years.
There are currently a Heinz-eclipsing 58 varieties allowed for use in the 118,000ha of vineyards that stretch from Nîmes to the Spanish border. There is, even now, more Merlot planted here than anywhere else on earth, and plenty of Chardonnay and Cabernet, too, as well as a rising amount of local Mediterraneans such as Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Vermentino (Rolle).
But what’s striking in recent years is the successful integration of Pinot Noir (the fourth most widely planted Pays d’Oc variety), and the presence of successful (aesthetically and commercially) wines made from the likes of Malbec and Albariño.
But if the Languedoc-Roussillon has done a superb job of casting itself on international markets as France’s varietal king, much of the past 10 years has also been focused on ensuring it doesn’t miss out on that other more niche but, in terms of value and prestige, no less important contemporary vinous trend: terroir.
Commercially speaking, the most successful AC wine of the Languedoc (and one of the most successful anywhere) has arguably been Picpoul de Pinet. Having gained full appellation status in 2013, it is now firmly entrenched in the minds of consumers in the UK (which takes around a third of all the area’s production) as the seafood wine of the south, and it produces more than 60% of the Languedoc’s white wine total, its vineyard and production having grown by a factor of five since the early 1990s.
But awareness is growing, too, of the Languedoc’s handful of crus, established (in local marketing, if not formal French wine law) in the early 2010s. Consumers are coming to understand the quality available from the region’s best vineyard sites, and start to identify what makes a wine from, say, La Clape or Pic Saint-Loup differ from a wine from Corbières-Boutenac; or why the cru of Minervois-la-Livinière stands out from the surrounding AC of Minervois.
Ironically, in returning to what seems like a very French concept of wine marketing, the winemakers of Sud de France are in fact cementing the reputation they began to acquire 30 years ago. By adding a vanguard of new, exciting, terroir-driven producers to a portfolio of consistent, crowd-pleasing varietal wines, the Languedoc-Roussillon of the 2020s sounds a lot like the new New World.
A case of Languedoc-Roussillon wines
Baron de Badassière Picpoul de Pinet (Liberty Wines)
Benchmark Picpoul from one of the region’s best producers.
Domaine Mas Belles Eaux Petit Verdot (Les Grands Chais de France)
Crunchily drinkable single-varietal Petit Verdot? Only in the Languedoc.
Château de Paraza Cuvée Speciale, Minervois (Jackson Nugent Vintners)
High-class and classic, terroir-driven Syrah-Grenache-Mourvèdre blend.
Château Maris La Touge, Minervois-la-Livinière (Armit)
Rich, supple, savoury biodynamic cru Syrah-Grenache.
Calmel & Joseph Faugères Terroirs (Daniel Lambert Wines)
Exemplary spicy red from an innovative producer.
Domaine les Caizergues Les Amoriers Terrasses du Larzac (Vindependents)
Characterful, evocative, garrigue-infused terroir red.
Mas Janiel Côtes du Roussillon Villages (Enotria&Coe)
Luscious, poised, balanced red from François Lurton.
Domaine Paul Mas Clos des Mûres, Languedoc (Domaines Paul Mas)
Glossy, classy single-vineyard red from the ever-versatile Paul Mas.
Les Oliviers Grenache Cinsault Rosé Pays d’Oc (Boutinot)
Great value, elegant modern rosé from Boutinot’s French team.
Antech Crémant de Limoux Cuvée Eugenie (FMV)
Superb example of cool-climate Limoux’s sparkling talent.
Felicette Grenache Blanc IGP Pays d’Oc (Alliance Wine)
A rising-star variety, attractively made and presented.
Gérard Bertrand Château Sauvageonne Blanc (Hallgarten)
Show-stopping single-vineyard white blend from the ex-rugby playing maestro.
Viranel Rendez-Vous, Saint-Chinian (Bancroft)
Superbly bright, fresh vin de soif blend of Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon.