Yes, France’s Languedoc region, including at its southern extremity the Roussillon (which is managed separately, making things a little confusing at times as to the figures produced), is the biggest wine-growing region in the world, covering much of the land that lies just below the Massif Central and between the Spanish border to the south-west and the river Rhône to the east (see map below).
The above map show the very complex mosaic of the Languedoc and Roussillon wine appellations. Most of the total area that does not show the bright colours can also be occupied by vineyards under the IGP system, which is additionally an alternative for producers within AOC areas, if, for example, they want to produce a wine from a single grape variety.
Languedoc’s rebound from past times, when it used to produce vast quantities of mainly low-quality cheap plonk, to one of the world’s most interesting quality regions has been steady but nonetheless spectacular over the past 40 years or so. Altough Languedoc-Roussillon still produces almost a third of France’s wines, it has moved quite a long way up the quality scale over the period by successfully adapting to a changing world market that, on the whole, now pays more attention to quality than to quantity. Before looking at some of the causes for this quiet (maybe not always!) revolution, and whilst also taking a critical look at the current situation, let’s resume some of the main facts.
If one takes the Languedoc on its own (so without the Roussillon), the region has 23 different appellations, to which one could add another 15 from the Roussillon. This does not count the various IGP/Vin de Pays designations, of which there are also around 25. To make a region clearly visible from afar, such numerous divisions seem rather excessive and even counter-productive, even if this follows the general European trend (historically led by France) towards the constant multiplication of wine appellations which do not always seem to me to show very significant differences in terms of their wine styles: in other words, these appellations and their subdivisions tend to correspond more to the wine producers’ egos than to the consumer’s needs.
These 23 Languedoc AOCs collectively cover 37,000 hectares, which is a bit more than Champagne and around a third of the Bordeaux region. In the latter case, almost all of Bordeaux’s production is accounted for some 50 appellations. But in the Languedoc, two thirds of the region’s wine production comes from the IGP category with its less stringent production rules, to which one should also add another 16% of wines who do not claim any specifc geographical origin other than France. Hence AOC wines constitute just 20% of the region’s total production. The IGP category, in contrast to the AOC one, authorises a wider choice of grape varieties, does not oblige producers to blend from several varieties (very few Languedoc AOCs authorise single varietal wines), and also allows higher yields. In other words, IGP wines, such as the vast Pays d’Oc designation, are particularly well adapted to international markets and to the production of what are usually entry level wines or those just above in price terms.
The main focus of this article will remain on the AOC category, however interesting many vins de pays wines may be. One of the most impressive things about this category from the Languedoc has been its capacity, as a whole, to gradually build an image for top quality wines for the region, by increasing value as well as volume and also by growing its export markets. Exports currently account for 37% of these wines and have doubled over the past 8 years as well as increasing their average price. Within the gradually declining French wine market, what is striking is the market share for Languedoc AOC wines that is held by specialist wine shops and restaurants. A figure of 35% for this segement in a wine market where the supermarkets usually trust around 80% of volumes is an impressive figure. Indeed, it seems that 99% of specialist wine shops in France list wines from at least one Languedoc AOC. And export prices have risen considerably in all major markets, such as the UK, Belgium, Germany or the USA.
What kind of wines are produced in the Languedoc appellations? Reds dominate with 74% of volume, followed by 17% of rosé and just 9% of white. As elsewhere, rosés are on the increase, unhappily in my opinion, although this is probably good news for the producers’ cash flow as they sell much faster than other wines at the moment. What is more alarming in my opinion is that these rosés are following the dictatorship of the fashion for the palest of hues, that which makes me confuse many of these wines with whites! Producers understandably object that, if they now produce rosés that have some real colour, their clients will not buy them. From a financial point of view, this is of course a valid objection, but I do find the result rather sad and especially disconnected from any notion of quality.
I have written recently on this blog about wines from several appellations from this vast region: Picpoul de Pinet (white), Limoux (bubbles) Terrasses du Larzac and Fitou (reds). If one takes the largest category, which is that of reds, the wines from the various appellations all use roughly the same grape varieties, with some minor variations. Grenache, syrah, carignan, mourvèdre and cinsault are almost always present in the AOC’s that produce red wines. There are occasionally a small number of other varieties, but these variations are on the whole minor, except for the two appellation at the western tip of the region, Cabardès and Malpère where the climatic conditions mix Mediterrean and Atlantic ingredients, and thus incorporate Bordeaux varieties. I find that the rules that govern the proportions of the grapes that are authorized in the blends are often quite byzantine in their complexity. I am sure that each appellation has its justification for these, but I admit that they leave me quite perplexed at times. Just one example to show my point here, which comes from the rules governing the grapes allowed in Minervois-La-Livinière (another appellation about which I have written here, a while ago). Here are the rules:
Main authorised varieties: Grenache Noir, Lledoner Pelut, Mourvèdre, Syrah. Secondary authorised varieties: Carignan, Cinsault, Piquelpoul Noir, Rivairenc, Terret Noir. In addition, the proportion of the main varieties in any wine must be of at least 60%, and the proportion of either (or both together) Syrah and Mourvèdre must be at least 40%. Better get your pocket calculator out when you are blending here! And this is not a unique example.
What explains the rising success curve of Languedoc wines? I would say Mediterranean climate (ie regular ripeness in the grapes), beautiful landscapes and interesting site variations, well-adapted grape varieties and, above all, increasing levels of both knowledge, implication and passion on behalf of producers. Several small independant producers have spearheaded the move towards quality, enegendering emulation on the part of others as well as critical acclaim. Another point has been the attractiveness of this region (climate, price of land, etc) to investors, large or small. This has often introduced new approaches and ideas into this region and has been highly beneficial to the general quality of its wines. One could also add, from a market point of view, the move by a new generation of retailers away from those regions that were revered (to an excess) by their predecessors. So-called Bordeaux-bashing, as stupid as it is, has opened the door to the Languedoc, amongst other regions, and this increasingly shows on wine lists. Rising prices in Burgundy also.
Other remarks. I sometimes feel that many appellations from the Languedoc tend to produce very similar red wines. The differences in style come more essentially from the winemakers and their choices and/or means at all stages in the process. I am therefore not convinced by the current fashion for each village or sub-region to try to place their names on the labels.
I also feel that the growing success of wines from this region owes a lot to several fairly large producers, and not just to the numerous small ones who have, in various fields, often acted as pioneers in the making of top quality wines here. In order to gain a wider image and reputation than can be obtained through readers of specialist reviews, wine has to be more freely available than just through a few specialist outlets or by getting yourself onto a waiting list for direct sales. It also has be sold at accessible prices. So the big négociants, such as Gerard Bertrand or Paul Mas, smaller ones such as Calmels & Joseph or Hecht & Bannier, as well as the best cooperatives such as Castelmaure have all played a considerable rôle in this respect.
Yes, big can be beautiful, both as a region and as an individual producer.