The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Eastern Languedoc – quality catching up to quantity ~ Saturday, June 9th, 2012
Unbelievable potential - For French wine collectors, there’s a new neck of the woods to explore, and it’s the eastern Languedoc. Part of the Midi—the gigantic, crescent-like stretch of vineyards spanning the Franco-Spanish border to the mouth of the Rhône—the eastern part of the Languedoc, while not considered an ‘official’ region unto itself, has finally begun to emerge from its long slumber to take its place among the fine winegrowing regions of France.
And not a moment too soon. For most of its history, the eastern (and western) part of the Languedoc has been the source of vinous France’s most significant problem: a bottomless wine lake where producers, gathering their grapes and taking them to the local co-operatives, make millions of hectolitres of mostly bulk wine that simply cannot be sold. Fortunately, this is beginning to change. Nowadays, some of the best wines of the eastern Languedoc are being crafted by ardent, small-scale growers that have cast off their co-operative affiliations and begun making their own wine, usually in small quantities, from the best grapes possible. Armed with a commitment to excellence, these individuals have begun taking advantage of the extraordinary growing conditions of the most prized locations in the eastern Languedoc, with extraordinary results.
But what are these locations, or subregions (subdivided even further to specific terroirs), that have only recently gained so much attention? One of these is picturesque Pic-St-Loup, whose hillsides are now almost completely planted with vines. About 25km north of Montpellier, sunny conditions, relatively high altitudes, and cool nights make for some of the most characterful, lavender-laden wines of the Midi—not surprising when considering the rugged, scrub-patched terrain of the landscape. Here, most wines are blends of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre, with old-vine Carignan and some Cinsault also constituting some immensely pleasurable, deeply coloured, and fully flavoured wines. For collectors, the best bottlings of the Pic-St-Loup, while not inexpensive, seldom fail to both captivate and reward proper cellaring for over a decade, sometimes much more.
Another stunning subregion is Terrases du Larzac, located just north of Clermont-l’Hérault. This is where some of the most intense, long-lived wines of the Eastern Languedoc are produced, especially from the terroirs Montpeyroux and St-Saturnin. Like Pic-St-Loup, wines are typically a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre (limited to 75% individually), though Cinsault and Carignan are also permitted in lesser quantities. Once again, high elevations, sunny skies, and geologically diverse soils play no small part in aiding growers’ efforts.
Just as important are the two most significant stand-alone appellations of the region, of which St-Chinian is probably most familiar. Situated northeast of Béziers in the foothills of the Cévennes, vines are often grown at altitudes more than 1,970ft (600m), with Syrah planted mainly on schist; while vines at lower elevations are planted on an unusual mixture of purple clay and limestone deposits. All the usual suspects are plentiful: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan, and Cinsault; plus a growing number of quality whites crafted from Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino. St-Chinian acquired appellation status in 1982, with Berlou and Roquebrun allowed to append their names to the appellation as of 2004. The best wines are often the sturdiest of the eastern Languedoc, and have little difficulty aging for up to a decade or more.
Just to the east is Faugères, also granted AOC status in 1982. With soils comprised almost entirely of schist, this is natural winegrowing country; yet the appellation has had a much harder time building its reputation. Still, this hasn’t stopped top properties from crafting incredible, cellarable wine, which must contain a minimum of 20% Syrah or Mourvèdre. Up to 40% Carignan may also be used, with Grenache and Cinsault also permitted. In 2005, whites crafted from Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Vermentino were granted appellation status.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg of new place names to memorize, the eastern Languedoc is that much of a hotbed. Better late than never, I say.