Languedoc: Long on history, long on value

Rod Phillips

Rod Phillips

Languedoc is a broad region of southwestern France that runs back from the Mediterranean coast to the foothills of the Massif Central. It was here that vines for wine were first planted in France, more than 2,000 years ago, and over time Languedoc became one of France’s most important wine-producing regions. After the railroad linked the south of France to Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, wine from Languedoc fuelled the workers of France’s northern industrial cities. Wine from Languedoc accounted for most of the tens of millions of hectolitres of wine the French government provided as soldiers’ rations in the First World War.

For much of its wine history, Languedoc has been about volume. But now, as inexpensive, value-driven wine can be sourced from many parts of the world, Languedoc is re-imagining and re-inventing itself at all levels.

The region encompasses many well-known Appellations Contrôlées (sometimes now shown as Appellations Protégées), such as Minervois, Limoux, Corbières and Saint-Chinian, all of which have established themselves as regions producing many quality wines. The other major classification comprises wines that are produced in the broader Languedoc region, and now called IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) Pays d’Oc. (Pays d’Oc refers to the ancient region of Oc, with its Occitan language.)

The administrators of IGP Pays d’Oc are striving to ensure that wines bearing the name represent quality and value. It’s an immense challenge, as the organization represents 2,000 independent producers and 300 cooperatives that cultivate more than 90,000 hectares of vines. The equivalent of more than 700 million bottles of IGP Pays d’Oc wines is produced each year, and Languedoc ranks as the fifth largest wine exporter in the world.

Vineyards outside the walls of Carcassonne

Vineyards outside the walls of Carcassonne

The popular image of Languedoc is conditioned by its proximity to the Mediterranean. It seems like a warm, sun-soaked region where the wines are likely to be full-flavoured and rich. True enough, to a point, but Languedoc’s growing regions are a lot more varied than often thought. Some sub-regions are as much or more influenced by the cool Atlantic as by the Mediterranean, and others by the winds that sweep down from the Pyrenees. Throughout Languedoc, many vineyards are located in meso-climates, some at high altitudes. We’re not talking the thousands of metres of the foothills of the Andes here, but in Languedoc, significant variations in growing conditions can be measured in hundreds of metres above sea level.

Keeping track of quality falls to the technicians and staff at the IGP’s headquarters at Lattes, near Montpellier, where thousands of wine samples are analyzed and tasted each year. They are collected from producers, then tested and tasted blind in a state-of-the-art laboratory and sensory evaluation facility.

Four or five producers provide an idea of the range of properties and wines that IGP Pays d’Oc represents. First there’s Anne de Joyeuse, a cooperative in Limoux that was established in 1929 and currently has 600 grower-members. Among the wines are some new products that are low in alcohol and calories, responding to some current concerns about wine, but most of the wines are conventional. Among the most impressive are the reds (Anne de Joyeuse produces more red than white), notably pinot noir, syrah, merlot and cinsault.

They’re marketed under a number of brands, representing different quality tiers, but most are very good value. For example, Camas Pinot Noir 2011, made in stainless steel, is a no-nonsense, easy-drinking pinot that’s readily identifiable as a pinot. But Gargantuavis Pinot Noir from the same vintage (and named for a prehistoric creature whose bones were discovered near the vineyard) was aged in big oak barrels and delivers a lot more depth and complexity.

Tasting at Domaine Gayda

Tasting at Domaine Gayda

Domaine Gayda is a very different proposition. It was established from scratch in 2003 on the site of a farm that dates back to 1749. Compared to Anne de Joyeuse, which produces tens of millions of bottles of wine a year, Gayda turns out a mere 700,000, many under the Figure Libre brand, with its distinctive label that shows a flying man.

Gayda wines are impressive across the board. Highlights include Figure Libre Macabeo 2012, a white that’s plush and luscious, with a hint of viscosity in the texture, and Gayda Grenache 2011 (the only one exported to Ontario, and which will sell under the Figure Libre name in the LCBO). It’s a rich and dense red that’s focused and characterized by excellent fruit-acid balance.  A third stand-out is Chemin de Moscou 2010, a blend of syrah (63%), grenache and cinsault that’s plush, opulent and richly textured.

Domaine Paul Mas, another IGP Pays d’Oc producer, draws on grapes from its seven properties throughout Languedoc. It markets wines under a number of brands, including the entry-level Arrogant Frog. Others include Mas des Tannes, Mas des Mas, Domaine Martinolles and simply Paul Mas. Paul Mas Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2011 is in the LCBO, and Paul Mas has also supplied wine to Air Canada. There’s quality across the board here, from entry-level to top-tier. Domaine Martinolles Pinot Noir 2012 is a solid, savoury pinot in a style reminiscent of many from New Zealand. Paul Mas ‘Vigne de Nicole’ 2012, a blend of chardonnay and viognier, shows a fairly opulent texture, but is crisp and clean.

Paul Mas shows a modern face, with a new restaurant and facilties, but at Domaine Raissac there’s a stark contrast between an old, partly renovated winery that dates to 1830, and smart, classy wines. Domaine Raissac ‘Les Crès’ Viognier 2012 shows lovely sweet fruit and a crisp, lively texture. While Domain Raissac ‘Le Puech’ 2012 (a blend of chardonnay, muscat and viognier) delivers complexity and concentration, with subtlety and style. Château Raissac, where the owners live, is an elegant country home of the 18th and 19th centuries, so filled with ceramic and others art that you have to navigate the rooms and corridors with care. They offer comfortable and modern accommodation, which you can check at www.raissac.com.

Chateau de Raissac, 17th-century cellar

Chateau de Raissac, 17th-century cellar

A final face of IGP Pays d’Oc is Gérard Bertrand, a large producer with vineyards in many parts of Languedoc. Art de Vivre Cabernet Sauvignon is in the LCBO, while other Gérard Bertrand wines are released by Vintages from time to time. The winery has developed a range of wines under the ‘Natural’ brand, which is a bit problematic now that so-called “natural” wines have caught on among some producers and consumers. These wines have no added sulfites, and are far more conventional in flavour and texture (and are therefore much more drinkable) than many “natural” wines.

Gérard Bertrand’s Domaine de l’Aigle Pinot Noir 2012 is notable for its good acidity that lifts the bright but serious savoury flavours. Gérard Bertrand de l’Hospitalet Syrah-Cabernet-Merlot 2011 is big and plush, with dense fruit and gripping tannins.

The producers of IGP Pays d’Oc are as varied as Languedoc’s sub-regions themselves. Unlike many French appellations, this is a sprawling region that permits a wide range of grape varieties: wines here are made from 56 varieties as diverse as macabeo and merlot, pinot noir and portan, cabernet sauvignon and chenanson. The grapes and the styles make it a sort of miniature of France as a whole, an idea that other French regions might find offensive, but that should be attractive to consumers looking for quality, diversity and value.

Cheers!

Rod Phillips

For more reviews visit our Critics profile page: Rod Phillips


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