Languedoc: GoS Report 2014

In July 2014, the Guild of Sommeliers sent six members—Amanda McCrossinNadia Pavleska, John Freitas, William Moss, Daniel Bjugstad, and Eric Entrikin MS—to Languedoc in Southern France to experience this rapidly evolving wine region. Following is their report.

Languedoc: Then and Now
Eric Entrikin MS

What can you say about a region that has a 2,600-year-long history of vine cultivation, yet everything current seems to have been achieved in the last ten years? Recent dramatic changes in the Languedoc occurred due to economic, social and political climates that seemed to converge in the early 2000s. On the economic front, the costs of producing wine in the region were rising and inexpensive bulk imports from Spain, Italy and Portugal were taking sales away from the local wines. Socially, the French population was drinking less wine and moving away from the average table wine produced in the region. And on the political side the EU-mandated vine-pull scheme (arrachage) helped dry up the Great European Wine Lake Languedoc had been faithfully contributing to—and ended government subsidization of low-quality bulk wines. In 1990 the region yielded 29 million hectoliters but production dropped to 11 million hectoliters by 2010. (It is slowly rising again.) Many growers just decided to quit and accepted the buyout to remove their vineyards. Sadly, the intention of the vine-pull scheme—to remove the bulk wine sites—was not necessarily preserved, as it affected both young high-production vineyard sites and old vine vineyards that had high quality but low production. Fortunately, some of these old vineyards were left in place and have helped to create a better understanding of the best sites for specific grapes and types of wine.

The Languedoc is a region of many identities. I was there about ten years ago—around the time of the violent protests against imported wines—and could see desperation among many growers and winemakers. For decades the French government subsidized the growing of grapes, followed by EU payments to rip out vines (beginning in 1988). With payments coming to an end and the region in crisis many Languedoc growers asked: what do we do now? When I returned to the region this past July, the road to a new identity for Languedoc winegrowers had been underway for a few years. First came separation from the Roussillon and greater development of a unique regional identity. Then the subregions of this large area started searching for their own true identities. As this trend continues, I would expect more subregions of the Languedoc to receive their own AOPs in the next few years, just as Terrasses du Larzac received AOP status shortly before our trip in July.

The search for identity has led them on a bit of a wild ride. In the early part of the 20th century the Languedoc was the chief source of the daily wine allotment for every French soldier, and it later became the source for the value wines drank by the majority of French consumers. When they started to fall by the wayside the region began looking for new customers and had to renew its focus—both within and outside France. Initial attempts saw producers attempting to please critics. While this is not always a bad move, it may not have been the best vehicle to establish an identity for the region. There was a concerted effort by larger, quality-minded négociants like Paul Mas, Georges Bertrand’s Château L’Hospitalet (L’Hospitalet’s Gris Blanc, made from Grenache Gris, was a refreshing surprise on our arrival), Jeanjean and Val d’Orbieu among others. They sought to make value and quality synonymous rather than opposing factors. Now individual growers are in the early stages of developing their wines and discovering the identity of their terroir. Smaller producers, once the exception, are the new normal in the Languedoc and are enriching the varied character of Languedoc wines. Some still chase the critics, but many are turning their attention to the true nature of their terroir. In a region where more than 90% of the production is red, there was a clear dividing line between wines that were elegant and balanced and wines weighted down by extraction and oak. I hope vignerons in the region look to the former to shape the identity of their regions—when minimally handled many of the reds we tasted showed a distinctive savory quality that would distinguish them from the nearby reds of the Rhône. Overall, I came away with a new appreciation for the wines of the Languedoc and look forward to seeing many of them hit our shores, and I feel the region will experience greater development than any other in France over the next few years.

They'll have to change the sign...

Languedoc History
Dan Bjugstad

Compared to just about every other French winemaking region, the Languedoc's reputation is undeniably poor. But the Languedoc has as much, if not more, historical precedent for grape-growing as Burgundy, Bordeaux, or the Rhône Valley. 5th-century BCE Greek settlers are likely the source of Muscat and Bourboulenc in the Languedoc, but the first written record of grape production dates to the 2nd century BCE, after the arrival of the Romans. Cicero, in De Re Publica, references a decree from General Scipio Aemelianus forbidding the Gauls from growing vines or olives in Gallia Transalpina (the modern Languedoc region) in favor of Italian exports. This attitude seems to have relaxed by the first decades of the Common Era, as Greek geographer Strabo writes in Geographica about vines near modern-day Narbonne. He describes the local warriors-turned-farmers cultivating the same figs, olives, and vines as were grown in Italy.

With the increase of Christian power in Late Antiquity, vine cultivation fell under the stewardship of monastic organizations. This recurring motif throughout wine history could have been as successful for the Languedoc as it was for Burgundy or the Rhône Valley; unfortunately, this period was disrupted by a wave of extreme violence. In 1209 Pope Innocent III began a crusade against the Cathars of the Languedoc, an ascetic splinter of the Catholic religion who might have been considered social progressives today. Unfortunately they angered the wrong people, and after 20 years and nearly a million dead the Languedoc was in ruin.

Attempts to restore wealth and prestige proved difficult. In 1667 construction of the Canal Royal en Languedoc began—it became known as the Canal du Midi after the French Revolution. The canal was an ambitious project; its architects hoped to connect the Mediterranean at the Etang du Thau near Pinet with the Atlantic at the Gironde, thereby limiting the supremacy of Spanish trade while increasing the economic power of the Languedoc. For their part the winemakers of the region hoped to gain access to the English markets available through Bordeaux. The project was so costly that even the government would not finance it entirely; instead, chief engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet poured his own fortune into the project only to die in 1680—one year before its eventual completion. The canal did widen the market of the Languedoc within France, but the coveted English import market remained closed. The Bordelais enjoyed centuries-old privileges with England that simultaneously excluded their wines from any tariffs while preventing other regions from selling their wares before St Martin’s Day (November 11)—just enough time for the Bordelais to harvest, vinify, and sell their lots of wine to England before anyone else got a chance.

In 1855 the railway between Paris and Marseilles opened and increased the demand for Languedoc wine, which could suddenly be shipped cheaply by rail. Between 1850 and 1870, plantings in the Languedoc quadrupled—just in time, of course, for phylloxera to strike France! During the period of rebuilding Languedoc vignerons continued to over-plant as foreign wines were subject to heavy taxes. To meet domestic demand Languedoc producers planted hectare upon hectare of the vigorous Aramon grape. The wines were routinely chaptalized, manipulated, and considered poor quality. By 1907 the resulting deflation in grape prices caused farmers and grape growers to demonstrate in towns throughout the Languedoc. In Narbonne the demonstrations turned to riots, resulting in the shooting and killing of five protesters by the military.

These violent events resulted in the déclaration de récolte—mandatory harvest declaration—by the government and the widespread expansion of cooperatives. Both were designed to curb the Languedoc’s tendency to overproduce. Efforts were only partially successful as the extremely vigorous Aramon grapes were replaced with slightly-less-vigorous Carignan. 

One of the last periods of vine expansion in the Languedoc occurred in the 1980s. This happened to occur simultaneously with the phylloxera outbreak in California that targeted AXR1 rootstocks. Producers we spoke with in the Languedoc hinted that their wines were imported and blended into Californian wine during that time, but I found no evidence to corroborate these claims. This last surplus, wherein Carignan was ripped out in favor of international varieties and more Syrah, was countered by the EU-sponsored vine-pull scheme. But wine prices continued to fall. In 2008, 100 years after the Narbonne riots, Languedoc winemakers once again took to the streets to protest, starting fires and causing property damage. The French government acquiesced with €3 million in aid.

Today, the region is mostly peaceful but no less lost in the modern market. Thousands of years of foreign meddling have stymied the development of a native wine culture. Yet today, with quality-focused winemakers and curious sommeliers on board, the Languedoc has a new opportunity to find, and define, itself.

Pure Expressions
Amanda McCrossin

Montpelier greeted us with its sunny 85° arms in mid-July; we all arrived jet-lagged but eager for discovery. As we traveled south to Narbonne I couldn’t help but notice the ease of the landscape unfolding in front of us. Lush green foliage atop rocky, schist-laden soils covered the mountains and valleys as we weaved around on our way to Château L’Hospitalet in the La Clape subregion. I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the rustic stone enclaves or the topography of the land—after all, we were in the south of France. Tranquil and picturesque, it embodied everything I expected it to, as if the rest of the world had passed by and left it untouched for hundreds of years. What I didn’t anticipate was the feel of it all: this feeling of ease and respect for the land, the weather, and the grapes. It was evident in everything from the wine and the food to the people and their relaxed sensibilities. Perhaps the most important takeaway from my experience in Languedoc wasn’t so much the varying nuances in wines from one area to another (although these certainly exist), but the how and why of the wine and the reason it should remain exactly as it is—pure and simple expression of fruit in a pure and simple region.

At times our days seemed to be endless, albeit welcome, progressions of meals. At our first lunch, at Abbaye Sylva Plana in the Faugères AOP, our host at the vineyard preemptively apologized for the food—I’m still not entirely sure whyand its lack of flair and precision. No apology necessary: the chef pulled the best ingredients from the land and just let everything happen naturally. A simple tomato salad picked straight from the farm, drizzled with olive oil pressed from surrounding trees, and basil from the nearby herb garden was essentially perfect. The wines we tasted on that day varied greatly, with some styles seeing minimal or no oak usage (concrete/stainless steel) while others underwent full-on barrel aging for 2-3 years. But there was this consistent notion of ripe vibrant fruit and minerality—especially evident in many of the wines that saw little to no oak. At Domaine de Cébène, Brigitte Chevalier introduced us to her bright, unobstructed, Mourvèdre-based "Felgaria" with its notes of cassis and lavender—a prominent wild flower throughout the region. According to Brigitte, great care was taken to ensure “as little intervention as possible.” And there it was: in parallel with the region's gastronomy, the wines allowed the fruit to express itself honestly. There was balance, purity, and—most importantly—a sense of the region.  

In Pinet—home to the Picpoul de Pinet AOP—white wines made from Picpoul Blanc (“lip stinger”) are everywhere. The ease and high acidity of these wines made them hard to resist. Domaine Gaujal de Saint Bon and Château de Pinet both produce great examples. The best, as elsewhere, saw only stainless steel or cement, and great care was taken to maintain the integrity of the grapes. Languedoc claims Picpoul de Pinet wines are the “new Pinot Grigio.” A complete marketing ploy, but I would agree that the flavor profile and price point (a very reasonable $8-$15/bottle frontline) could allow Picpoul de Pinet to achieve widespread appeal and a prominent place in the American wine market.  

For the last few years farm-to-table restaurants have been a major trend in the United States. What better way to complement the idea than with wines of the same caliber? I don’t expect Languedoc to achieve the quality and prices of Burgundy and Bordeaux anytime soon, but I don’t think it needs to, either. For me Languedoc is the perfect example of great quality wine I can enjoy with a simple meal of roasted meat and grilled vegetables from the garden. Without pretense, pomp and circumstance, Languedoc wines can be just pure, simple, delicious.

Vines at Domaine de Cébène in Faugères.

Freshness & Acidity
Nadia Pavlevska

I kept trying to find some common ground and trends among all the AOPs and regions we visited. I asked winemakers about the state of the region overall and their common goals. Repeatedly I heard the same answer: acidity, acidity, acidity. Freshness has been one of the main issues for producers in Languedoc over the past 10 years. The winemakers were trying to achieve freshness in a variety of ways: by taking advantage of the cooling effect of the Atlantic, playing with vineyard exposures, seeking protection from the sun in the foothills, picking earlier, and using new vinification practices that support the retention of acidity. Collectively, it was working. Many of the wines were surprisingly balanced and fresh in the warm Mediterranean climate of southern France, with its reputation for riper table wines driven by higher levels of alcohol.

I found the white wines to be especially refreshing, interesting, and very aromatic—often either floral or herbal. The majority of them were Rhône-style blends comprised of grapes like Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Vermentino/ Rolle, and Grenache Blanc. We tasted some varietal wines, which were—with the exception of Picpoul de Pinet AOP—often classed as IGP rather than AOP. Picpoul I enjoyed very much; it is an easy-drinking, unpretentious wine that has just the right amount of acidity to make it refreshing and summery. Winemakers from the coastal appellation suggest that it is best one year after harvest—after two or three years the wine starts to lose its freshness. It's a favorite local pairing with oysters. The 2013 vintage was exceptional for Picpoul, and a great vintage for the whites of Languedoc in general. In comparison to 2012, 2013 is fresher, cleaner, and has more vibrant and pronounced acidity. Overall, there is a lot of potential for growth among the white wines of Languedoc, and some winemakers indicated that with rising popularity they may increase production in some AOPs, like Faugères.

White Wines Ascendant
Eric Entrikin MS

I expected many full-bodied, rich and flavorful red wines from this sunny region—which we tasted—but I was really excited by the quality and character of the white wines. This is a new development: Faugères got its AOP in 1982 for reds, but white wines were not added until 2005. In the inland, semi-mountainous region of Faugères winemakers have identified 12 different types of schist—it is the predominate soil—and Roussanne is the main variety for white wines. At the Abbaye Sylva Plana they produce a white Faugères composed of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier, displaying a dense floral layer, wax, nut, and straw—yet a strong mineral component and a compendium of stone and citrus fruits give it balance. 

La Clape is only four km from the coast. Only 600 years ago the region was an island—alluvial runoff from the Pyrenees connected it to the mainland. In La Clape the soil is predominately limestone, a perfect terroir for the mixture of white grapes that go into the wines. Château D’Anglès "Classique," made with 50% Bourboulenc, 30% Grenache Blanc, and 10% each of Marsanne and Roussanne, provided a refreshing start to a delicious alfresco meal in the early evening. Bourboulenc—often called Malvoisie in the region—is required to make up 40% of the blend; I’ve had it in blends from Cassis in Provence, but the character expressed here in La Clape provided a richer, longer flavor profile.

One of the most expressive whites I tried during my week in the Languedoc came from the Château Notre Dame du Quatourze, an estate owned by Georges and Suzanne Ortola south of the city of Narbonne. Although the subzone of Quatourze can annex its name to the Languedoc AOP, producers may only do so for red wines, so the château must continue to bottle white wines under the general AOP. The "Cuvée Nautica" 2012 had an intense plethora of aromas—grapefruit, pineapple, green mango, fennel, pine tar—and a salty, briny mineral note underlying a ripe body that was still light on its feet. All of these wines finished with a brightness that may have been missing just 10 years ago; they were refreshing yet rich and carried a true stamp of terroir. Another surprise came in Limoux at the Domaine de Flassion, producers of the Antech Blanquette and Crémant de Limoux sparkling wines. The Antech Blanquette de Limoux Brut Nature was a fantastic wine that would give any sparkling wine lover a great introduction to the world of zero dosage—Mauzac is somewhat lower in acid than typical sparkling wine grapes and tends to really benefit from no added sugar. The wine had an intense purity led by shaved fennel, pear, and peach, and an iodine-brine note on the back end. If these wines are a window to the quality and range that can be produced throughout the Languedoc today we will certainly see more of them arrive on our shores.

Vines at La Clape.

Limoux Méthode Ancestrale
Dan Bjugstad

“It is 5% of our production and 95% of our headache,” said Francoise Antech, referring to her family’s production of Méthode Ancestrale Vin Mousseux Blanc. It's so much trouble that many producers in Limoux don't even bother to make this ancient style of wine. From nearby vineyards—all located within 15 kilometers of the winery—Antech selects parcels of Mauzac vines that will last until the last days of harvest, letting the grapes accrue high levels of sugar. Once harvested (long after the Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc) the wine is fermented in concrete tanks. Once the juice reaches 5% alcohol by volume, it is cooled to 0° C, arresting fermentation. The wine is then bottled and brought up to a temperature of 14-16° C. Fermentation resumes, creating carbonation. This slow "secondary fermentation"—really just a restart of the first—can continue for four to six weeks, resulting in a final alcohol of about 6.5%. The wine is disgorged, but yeasts will remain in the bottle.

Then the headache begins: after dégorgement, it's time to brace for the explosions. Re-fermenting bottles will actually erupt in Antech's cellar! In some years, she can lose up to 20% of her production; in others, not a single bottle will explode. It is a baffling puzzle that makes her question why she even bothers to continue making the wine at all...

The result, however, is a true and honest delight. We tasted the 2013—a good year for the Languedoc and Limoux in particular, as cooler temperatures helped preserve freshness and allowed for harvest to occur up to three weeks later than normal. The wine is an almost clear, green color; it's aromas are redolent of fresh, sweet fruits. A portrait of an orchard, the wine tastes like red apple skin, green and yellow apple flesh, and ripe pears with a sweet, fresh tarragon herbal character. At 85 grams of sugar per liter, it is certainly sweet—but an unabashed delight. Compared with Blanquette and Crémant de Limoux, the Méthode Ancestrale tastes like a truly singular, incomparable wine. Tasting it, you really appreciate Francoise's headaches!

Languedoc Rosé
William Moss

Languedoc rosé wines made an unexpectedly good impression. Many were Cinsault- and Syrah-based, done in a fresh style with common notes of pink grapefruit and raspberry. In a region dominated by red wines, rosé was often served as an aperitif at restaurants, matching the seasonal tomato dishes offered throughout the region. The color is darker than the fashionable pale salmon that characterized many Provence rosés, and Languedoc rosé tends to have more body than typical Mediterranean rosés. Personally, I believe AOP rosé from Languedoc can match Tavel and Bandol in quality. With proper marketing—take a page from the playbook in Provence—and a corresponding increase in consumer awareness this could be a newly fashionable category—and a perfect summer wine to promote the whole region.

Château Fontenelles
John Freitas

On the fourth day of our trip, we were taken to a small village called Douzens in the heart of the Cathar country, some 20 minutes from Carcassonne and its famous medieval city center. Amidst a row of houses on a residential street, Château Fontenelles is almost easy to miss—did its unremarkableness aid the proprietor's mother when she hid refugees fleeing the *** during the Second World War? Thierry Tastu, representing the fifth generation of his family to inhabit the château, showed us a full range of Corbières AOP red wines, including the prestige bottling of the house, the "Moural de Salomon" 2008, an old vine Syrah blended with a touch of Carignan. Its name—moural—commemorates the paintings left behind by wartime refuges. Other wines included a rare Corbières AOP rosé, the "Cuvée Tenue de Soirée," and two other reds: the "Cuvée Renaissance" and the "Cuvée Notre Dame," both blends of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and old vine Carignan. The Carignan, here and elsewhere, was vinified by carbonic maceration—a trend in the region that lent red blends freshness.

Modern Languedoc: Large and Small (And an Unlikely Hero)
Dan Bjugstad

In the wine world we define identity through place. A strong identity builds a strong brand, as in Burgundy and Bordeaux. The Languedoc we know—a wine lake of poorly made, overripe juice—has a poor brand. Our group of American sommeliers was invited to the Languedoc as part of a campaign to rebuild the reputation of the region. In this pursuit, we tasted countless wines and spoke with numerous producers (and ate loads of duck). The following week a group from China would embark on the same tour. In an effort to rebrand, producers are employing two strategies: some producers are making exciting, boutique wines for restaurants and wine shops, while others embrace the wine lake, making cheap wines in huge quantities to line the shelves of supermarkets worldwide. 

Enologist Frédéric Alcouffe, winemaker for the large cooperative Val d’Orbieu, oversees the combined production of 60 estates, 2,500 members, and 17,000 hectares of vines. Since 2009, it has tailored its winemaking styles and products exclusively to international demand. They analyze the global wine market and craft competitive wines to fill available niches. For them the greatest goal is producing quality varietal wine at the entry level. Crafting a ten-dollar Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon to compete on the supermarket shelves with Australia, Chile, and Argentina is the ultimate challenge. Frédéric recalls comparing wines with another large-scale producer from Argentina. The Argentinean winemaker was unimpressed; upon learning that the wine cost ten dollars, the Argentine was even less impressed. She believed she could make a better wine at that price point, and Frédéric agreed. This encounter impressed upon him the importance of price and quality as well as the ferocity of global competition. So Frédéric works to raise quality while producing wines in line with international tastes. He soaks lightly toasted oak chips in one rosé for “body and a sensation of sugar.” He offers a defeated shrug in response to a question about acidification: under the Mediterranean sun, freshness must be achieved by any method. The wines may lack romance, but they are totally pleasant, and frankly more enjoyable than many estate wines from smaller producers in the region. Simple, fresh and drinkable, they could provide a steady supply for a high-volume restaurant or supermarket. Mastering large-scale production with the highest possible quality and lowest possible price is a matter of survival. The price-quality ratio to compete with New World counterparts is not only a business goal, but a path to sustainably maintain the massive amount of vines and producers in the Languedoc. For Frederic, Val d’Orbieu’s success is less a quest for wealth and more an attempt to avoid ruin.

On the other hand, the great challenge for ambitious smaller producers is to define great Languedoc wine.

In a restaurant filled with crying children, cigarette smoke, and more duck, we met Sabine Bertrand of Fitou's Bertrand-Berge. The quality of her wines shined through the distractions around us. Fitou is  Languedoc’s oldest AOP for dry wine; it is split between a coastal sector—Fitou Maritime—and a mountainous section to the west, Fitou Montagneux (Haut Fitou). The two regions are divided by five kilometers of mountainous garrigue scrubland—but reaching one region from the other is a 40-kilometer drive. The Mediterranean meets the Pyrenees here, and Fitou Montagneux is 300 meters higher in elevation than Fitou Maritime. In the higher-elevation vineyards, rounded stones known as boulières are strewn throughout the soil. Sabine’s family, unsurprisingly, believe Fitou Montagneux has better terroir than the Maritime region. Their confidence in this terroir inspired them to leave the local cooperative in 1993 and make their own wines. A choice highlighting their dedication to high quality wine.

The wines are deep and powerful—all clock in around 15% alcohol, impressed by the heat but not imprisoned by it. They maintain a natural freshness that softens the wallop; they attack like a bear hug rather than a punch. Their “La Bouliere," a blend of Mourvèdre, Carignan, and Grenache, sees 18 months in new oak and is one of their most expensive cuvées. The most "native" of their range is “Les Megalithes"; made from 95% carignan (including some 100-year-old vines) it is a singular delight. Fermented with partial whole-cluster in concrete tanks, it is a pure expression of the grape, exhibiting layers of gravelly minerality, purple flowers, black cherry, dried herbs, and light reduction. The wine lives between Mediterranean France and Catalonia and would fit among Spanish or Southern Rhône wines on a list.

Producers like Bertrand-Berge offer a glimpse of a future definition of quality in Languedoc. Yet many small producers, even with estate wines and long family histories in viticulture, make chunky, dried-out, pruny wines, often clipped by volatile acidity or brettanomyces, with searing levels of alcohol. Work remains. And as Eric mentioned, the region has many identities—and suffers from an identity crisis because of it. The Languedoc grows all kinds of grapes, white and red, but which wines will shape their regional identity? The ubiquitous Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Carignan blends of the region can be great wines, but will they ever stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the gluttonous and unashamed pleasures provided by Châteauneuf-du-Pape? I am not convinced altogether convinced. The unlikely hero here might be Carignan: from good sites and in good hands, it offers the most distinctive wines.