Unmasking the IGP Pays d’Oc – Special Feature

by Sara d’Amato

This feature was commissioned by Pays d’Oc IGP.

One of the world’s most sought-after tourist destinations, France’s Mediterranean coast boasts an impressive number of sunshine hours but also great reprieve from heat due to its drying winds and variations in altitude. The IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée, or in English, Protected Geographic Indication) of Pays d’Oc is an area that many serious collectors routinely overlook given its reputation for ready-to-drink wines of a nebulous geographic region. Yet, steadily, the designation has been transforming, naturally coming into its own offering a range of styles and whose quality is increasing faster than its price. The Pays d’Oc is an undeniably naturally gifted wine region given the low disease pressure caused by dry heat and a diverse array of soil types from which to draw complexity and varied degrees of crop vigor. Its greatest challenge may just be the effects of climate change, but the region is one of the fastest growing in France when it comes to sustainable and organic production. More than just pleasure-for-price, the area is also a non-conformist playground, thanks to the freedom afforded specifically by the Pays d’Oc IGP designation, where you can find creative wines of quality, unique in France. There is no room for pretense in these wines that aim to show varietal distinctiveness and are inventively marketed to those of us outside of Europe.

Old but New

It has been 34 years now since the since Pays d’Oc name was ostensibly recognized and labelled as such on wine bottles. Since then, France’s largest IGP has become known worldwide for its affable wines of significant value but the history dates back much further. Time travelling back before the international influx of winemakers and a brief phase of critter labelling, before the inception of the geographic designation in 1987, we get to its origins in the 6th century BC when the Greek’s gave root to the first vineyards of the Languedoc-Roussillon. It wasn’t until the Romans arrived in 118 BC in Narbonne that France’s oldest wine region began to flourish. Its development began humbly enough, as a result of gifts of land bestowed by the Emperor Augustus upon Roman veterans, who were commonly raised in the vineyards of Campania. As estates flourished, the Via Domitia, Gaul’s first Roman road connecting Italy to Spain, spanning an astounding 200 kilometers across what is now known as the Languedoc-Roussillon region, allowed for the accumulation of wealth from trade and furthered expansion.

Then came the monks, the forefathers of the concept of “terroir”. When the Roman Empire fell and the dark ages of barbarian invasion subsided, the Cistercian and Benedictine monks arrived to save the vineyards of the Languedoc. Busying themselves with precisely mapping out the region distinguishing noteworthy vineyards, these “Fathers of Vines” were rewarded with status and prestige for their order. The Renaissance led to the expansion of maritime markets attracting royalty such as King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de Medici who became particularly fond of Muscat de Frontignan during their stay in the Languedoc. Later, in the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson was reported to have become enamoured with the wines of the area, and subsequently as President of the US, exempted taxes in order to facilitate imports. The region burgeoned post phylloxera to an impressive 430,000 ha under vine (more than half of what France grows today) but high crop levels producing mediocre wine needed to radically transform in order to compete in the increasingly competitive global market. Varietal based wines were determined to best meet export demand. Quality also underwent a significant transformation at the end of the 1980’s and continued to do so after 2009 when the region was recategorized by the EU labelling conventions as an PGI/IGP.  As a result of a recent tasting with my WineAlign colleagues of the current Pays d’Oc selections available at the LCBO, I feel confident in saying that overall, the wines are becoming sharper with lighter-handed winemaking and are taking on a more distinctive regional expression with each passing vintage.

Sunset over the vines – Inter Oc

What is an IGP?

The designation of Pays d’Oc holds the European Union classification of IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée, en Français) which is otherwise known as PGI (Protected Geographic Indication). Formerly, this category of wine was known as Vin de Pays, a designation between that of the generic Vin de France labelling term and the most restrictive category of AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée). In 2009, the Vin de Pays wines became IGP wines to conform to the new EU food and wine market reforms that included new labelling conventions. The harmonization of European protectionist categories led to the designation of PGI/IGP. it is important to mention that it is one of two official EU wine labelling designations, the other being that of PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) which in France corresponds to the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Protégée). So, what’s the difference between PDO and PGI? A PDO wine or regional product is “produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area, using recognized know-how” involving both environmental and human factors. A PGI/IGP “emphasizes the relationship between the specific geographic region and the name of the product, where a particular quality, reputation or other characteristic is essentially attributable to its geographical origin”.  In a nutshell, a PGI/IGP and PDO/AOC are both defined by specific geographic borders, but PGI/IGP wines often encompass larger territory and have more relaxed restrictions with respect to permitted grape varieties, grape growing and winemaking. Finally, the Vin de France (formerly Vin de Table) designated wines are the most generic of all with no specific geographic indication (non-GI) of their origin within the country. IGP wines are a notable step above these wines as they have distinctive regional style. Although the specifications are less restrictive than those of the PDO/AOC wines, there are still precise specifications that require compliance and are routinely inspected and certified by a third-party assessment institute known as the Bureau Veritas. In addition to all the technical details, this also includes an organoleptic assessment, i.e. tasting, to ensure the wine expresses regional character. Now that you understand the nomenclature, let’s have a look at the distinctive features of the IGP of Pays d’Oc.

Ensconced in the territory of the Languedoc-Roussillon along France’s southwestern Mediterranean coast, the Pays d’Oc is the most productive IGP in the country. The Languedoc-Roussillon region encompasses both 53 AOPs and IGPs combined. Most of the production in the region is in the IGP category, making up 70% of the total regional production among the 2 large regional IGPs, that of Pays d’Oc and Terres du Midi, along with the 3 departmental IGPs and 22 smaller IGP subzones. The 26 AOP appellations account for 21% of the production in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. 

(Pays d’Oc is big and we know it excels in the production of top-quality bulk wines. When I say it’s big, I should emphasize, it is the biggest IGP in France. To give you some perspective, as of as of 2017 all of France’s IGPs totalled 195,000 ha under vine and the Pays d’Oc alone makes up 120,000 ha under vine as reported by Vitisphere. Pays d’Oc thus makes up 61% of all IGP wines in France. For even greater scope, all land under vine in France makes up 788,000 ha (according to the OIV in 2017) which means that 15% of vines grown in France are in the Pays d’Oc.)

Yet because of the more relaxed restrictions with respect to grape varieties, production methods and planting densities, this is also a playground for experimentation and a source of the most significant production of mono-varietal labelled wines in France. By mono-varietal, I mean wines that are made by a single grape variety which is listed front-and-center on the label. Most of us who routinely drink wines labelled merlot, shiraz, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc from around the world might not see the need to point out this feature but it is relatively uncommon in Europe. A reminder that the E.U. wine labelling conventions with a geographic indicator were developed to protect local geographic designations of origin and their traditions that were formed based on the suitability of the region to produce a specific style of wine. This means, that the name is an all-encompassing term that not only defines borders, but the grapes permitted and production methods most suited to producing the best wines in the given area. For example, the AOC of Champagne is cool, wet and northern and as such is best suited for the production of sparkling wine of a blend of varieties which include chardonnay and pinot noir that are early ripening. Hence, the name of the region alone communicates all of the above.

The IGP Pays d’Oc is impressively diverse because, for one, there are now 58 permitted grape varieties. One of the strengths of this IGP is its varietal-based wines that provide a straightforward buying experience for consumers. The grape is clearly listed on the label giving you an intelligible indication of what to expect. No doubt that this resonates particularly well with non-European consumers. If chardonnay is what you fancy, then you can find them in abundance but what if non-traditional blends of cabernet and pinot noir or shiraz strikes a chord with you, Pays d’Oc can provide.

Sea, Wind & Sun

At its zenith, the sun that floods the the Pays d’Oc causes most residents to partake in the afternoon “sieste” but the vines are immersed in the essential ingredient to achieve phenolic ripeness in its grapes. A region that is simply bathed in sunshine and warmth can ripen and produce grapes for bulk production in droves but has trouble producing wines of quality. For quality wine, you need more components. Here is where the Languedoc-Roussillon region shines. Extending from just east of the city of Nîmes, westward to the Spanish border, the 13,000 producers of the Pays d’Oc are situated on diverse soils that range from sandy to limestone-rich, pebbly or clay-based, even red clay and shale can be found. Elevations vary too from vineyard situated on the foothills of the Massif Central and the Pyrenees to marshy coastal plains of the Camargue.

So important are the dry continental winds that sweep across the Pays d’Oc that they are named: the Tramontane, that picks up speed as it passes through the corridor between the Pyrenees and the Massif Central from the northwest, and the Mistral, that gains strength as it barrels down the Rhône River to the Mediterranean. The coastal breezes further ensure that the vines are clean, disease-free and cooled.

Top Summertime Finds at LCBO/VINTAGES

Over the years I have come to appreciate both the premium independent players who break with tradition to make progressive, idiosyncratic wines as well as the large cooperatives that have successfully been able to compete with the global value-driven market. Micro wineries like Le Soula that contribute to the cultural diversity of the region by employing a foreign (American) winemaker but also with an unconventional approach yielding some brilliant wines that could only have been creatively conceived under the IGP designation can be found in the Pays d’Oc. Distinguished, quality-minded producers of the Languedoc-Roussillon AOC such as Gerard Bertrand and Michel Châpoutier also play under the Pays d’Oc banner helping to promote recognition of the designation. Below we have listed some of our top picks and the stories of the producers that have changed our perception of French wines.

Stylistically diverse, the Pays d’Oc makes wines that can be appreciated year-round from refreshing unoaked whites, rosés and light reds along with more substantial, barrel-aged vins de garde and sweet wines. With contributions from our tasting team at WineAlign, John Szabo MS, Steve Thurlow and David Lawrason, I’ve put together a collection of top picks from our WineAlign tasting last week that are sure to refresh in these warmer months, many of which can contend with your smoky barbecue spreads.

Les Jamelles Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Les Jamelles Sauvignon Blanc 2020, IGP Pays d’Oc ($14.80)

Lead by husband-and-wife winemaking team Laurent and Catherine Delaunay, Les Jamelles wines make up one of the largest collections of varietally-labelled wines in the Pays d’Oc. Meant to be approachable, and ready-to-drink with a certain universality that comes with varietally-labelled wines in a global market. A very modern style of sauvignon blanc reminiscent of another “new world” leader in this grape variety but more competitively priced.

Philippe De Rothschild Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Philippe de Rothschild Sauvignon Blanc 2020, IGP Pays d’ Oc ($13.80)

Philippe de Rothchild may base itself in Bordeaux but it is part of a growing number of well-established French producers that are venturing their négociant business south to the Languedoc-Roussillon and the Pays d’Oc IGP to take advantage of the region’s naturally gifted climate. A sauvignon blanc that is neither Loire nor Bordelaise featuring the distinctive salty and abundantly fruity style of the Pays d’Oc.

Calmel & Joseph Villa Blanche Chardonnay 2020, IGP Pays d’Oc ($15.30)

At the helm of this hands-on négociant project are Laurent Calmel and Jérôme Joseph who work with 20 different sustainably certified and organic producer partners to make wine largely for export. Although they make wine from premium sub-regional AOCs in the Languedoc-Roussillon like Corbières, they are also known to make sophisticated, unfussy wines in the Pays d’Oc IGP.

Fat Bastard Chardonnay 2020

Fat Bastard Chardonnay 2020, IGP Pays d’Oc ($14.80)

Fat Bastard had as its aim to “de-snobbify” French wine culture in 1998. Made mainly for export, this label by winemaker Thierry Boudinaud and British importer/merchant Guy Anderson helped to show non-European wine drinkers that French wine didn’t have to be uptight. The name may suggest that the wine has a boisterous personality but the style has changed considerably to reflect evolving tastes of the market which tend to prefer fresher, tighter and less manipulated wines. A clean, uncomplicated and easy-drinking chardonnay.

Gerard Bertrand Gris Blanc Rose 2020

Gérard Bertrand Gris Blanc Rosé 2020, IGP Pays d’Oc ($15.75)

Gérard Bertrand now manages over 15 estates that are in transition to or are biodynamically certified. A former rugby star with unforgettable southern charm, Bertrand’s wines are widely considered to be top values in the category of Pays d’Oc and Languedoc-Roussillon due to their notable reflection of place. The Gris Blanc Rosé is produced in the sea-breezy region of Tautavel using direct pressing to ensure the palest of colour from the grenache gris variety. 

Les Vins Georges Duboeuf Hob Nob Pinot Noir 2019

Les Vins Georges Duboeuf Hob Nob Pinot Noir 2019, IGP Pays d’Oc ($11.05)

Georges Duboeuf of Beaujolais along with the Deutch Family have thrown their hat into the Pays d’Oc making upbeat, uncomplicated wines for convivial settings. We appreciated the utterly satisfying nature of this relaxed, unmanipulated wine with naturally abundant fruit spice.

Les Tannes En Occitanie Merlot 2019

Jean-Claude Mas Les Tannes en Occitanie Merlot 2019, IGP Pays d’Oc ($10.50)

An immensely successful négociant-producer, Jean-Claude Mas has amassed over 800 hectares of vineyards in the Languedoc across 15 different properties and now makes over 22 million bottles per year. This merlot is anything but Bordelaise with its wildflower, anise and herbes de Provence infused nose.

Chapoutier Marius Syrah Grenache 2019

Châpoutier Marius Syrah Grenache 2019, IGP Pays d’Oc 2019 ($11.40)

Châpoutier is just as much at home in Languedoc-Roussillon as in Rhône Valley making wines of similar grape varieties that reflect distinct regional character. As with all of Châpoutier’s wines, labels feature Braille embossing. Marius is the name of the great-grandfather of owner Michel Chapoutier who looks to the past as much as to the future when drawing winemaking inspiration. Lively and supple with a distinct notes of garrigue (wild flora), this easy-to-appreciate red blend becomes even sharper with a slight chill.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Wines of Pays d’Oc with our top picks for the fall months and a look at the wealth of varieties grown in this vast wine region.

Santé!

Sara

This feature was commissioned by Pays d’Oc IGP. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.


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