Alba Vineyard Consulting - Wine Casks Alba Vineyard Consulting - Wine Casks Alba Vineyard Consulting - Wine Casks
Alba Vineyard Consulting - Wine Resources France

Languedoc

The Languedoc (or Pays d'Oc) region is in the heart of southern France, lying along the Mediterranean Sea and just east of Provence. The hot, dry climate produces powerful, spicy and full-boded wines. Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault are the dominant red grapes, exhibiting plentiful tannin, fruits and spice. The white grapes that flourish are Chardonnay and Viognier, both incredibly fruity and rich. Still considered an up-and-coming region of France, very good values can be discovered here.

France is known mainly for its "Classic" wine regions, should they be Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhône or Loire wines. Each has created a certain style of wine which has often been the standard and has been imitated sometimes with great success by the "new" vineyards of the world. They constitute what the experts call the "Classics." The Languedoc, however, has rapidly become what we would call a "New World" vineyard because all rules are being rewritten there although wine making in this region dates back to the Romans and probably even earlier to the Phoenicians. This area is called the Languedoc-Roussillon or sometimes simply"Pays d'Oc."

"Pays d'Oc" appeared as a denomination in the early 90's. It really does not mean anything, and it is certainly not recognized as an official AOC by the very conservative body which grants "Appellations Contrôlées" in France. The area we are talking about is a vast natural semi-circle which starts at the Pyrénnées mountains in the West and goes up to the natural border of the Rhône River some 250 kilometers to the East. The Mediterranean lies to the south and the barren mountains of the Cévennes limit it in the North (and offer the most perfect slopes to grow vines). With an average of 2,600 to 2,700 hours of sunshine per growing season, this area has been (since the Phoenicians) an ideal wine-growing region. The cleaning of the "Canal du Midi" entrance in Narbonne a few years ago revealed thousands of amphoras a few feet under the sand under the canal, evidence of great wine shipping activity even in BC times.

In the early 1900's, this region became the center of production for industrial wines. Extremely productive varietals such as Aramon were planted there to satisfy the thirst of the French blue collar workers who, until after World War II, would easily drink up to two liters of wine per day! (French wine consumption per capita was then 120 liters per year. It is now 57.) In the early 1980's, with a big shift towards quality, thousand of acres of Aramon were torn-out to be replaced by the modern varietals such as Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon but the insistence on high yields continued. A new phase began when "Pays d'Oc" wines produced quaffable, varietal wines at very reasonable prices. Such wines arrived on the US market at a time (the mid 1990's) when California, by far the largest supplier of US wines, ran into a serious phylloxera problem and was unable to satisfy the growing appetite of US consumers for good but inexpensive wines. For a short while, Pays d'Oc became the supplier of wines imported by the large California wineries, who took great care to print the "Product of France" requirement as small as possible on their labels. But as early as 1997, this great US export market declined and the whole Languedoc-Roussillon area fell into a slump. There were still satisfactory and more permanent export markets such as Germany or the UK but obviously the future of varietal wines was limited.

Fortunately, since the early 1990's, this vast region of over 750,000 acres of vineyards has attracted a fair number of European investors who wanted to live in this beautiful, remote area and grow vines. Because land there was still relatively cheap, it also attracted young growers with long familial wine-making traditions who could not afford land in Bordeaux or Burgundy. All these talented individuals brought to the region new wine-growing and wine-making techniques. To start with, most of them planted the traditional local varietals: Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, and Mourvèdre for the reds, and White Grenache, Maccabeu and Bourboulenc for the whites (although much more red is planted in the region than white.) The most arid and isolated terroirs, particularly Mid-hill, were reclaimed from the garrigue and planted 5 or 10 years later with some stunning results. On the wine-making side, one can find in the area the most modern wine making facilities and since every year France produces a surplus of oenologues from the various oenology schools of Bordeaux, Montpellier or Dijon (only to name a few), it is not difficult to hire a young and talented oenologue to help produce top quality wines.

^back to top

The problem with all those domaines is that they are small and their yields are very low. Since the wines can be stunningly good, they have no difficulty selling their production in the domestic market or to some nearby export markets such as Germany or Switzerland. Exporting to the US markets is usually not their main preoccupation. Also, the top US importers have already learned a few years back that such growers cannot supply them with the minimum quantities of 1,000 or 2,000 cases that they require to place a new wine "in their line" and therefore many of the top Languedoc wines have remained little known by the US consumer.

The Grapes

The dominant grape from the region is the red Grenache with higher percentages of Carignan as we go west and more and more Syrah as we go east. We have selected quite a few wines with a high content of Syrah because 1998 was particularly propitious to this varietal and we also think that it reflects what the future wines of this region will be. Two other varietals play an important role as adjuncts, Cinsault and Mourvèdre. As to the whites, the dominant varietal is the white Grenache, but it also requires other varietals in smaller percentages to make it more complex and interesting.

The Terroir

From the west, the first Languedoc appellation is the Corbières region, a vast area of complex topographical variations with a dominance of calcareous soils and large alluvial deposits. The poor soils are covered with wild shrubs called "Garrigue" and the vines usually planted without supports (gobelets) enjoy the best expositions. North and east of Corbières, one finds the Minervois appellation. The landscape is one of gentle hills climbing slowly towards the Montagne Noire, the first ridge of the Cèvennes mountains in the north. Sandy marls and lots of calcar deposits are found in the soil; drainage is also excellent. Further east and to the North are two interesting appellations called St Chinian and Faugères. The best vineyards of these two terroirs tend to be between 200 and 400 meters of altitude on slate and schistous soils. The same grapes grown here produce lower yields and have very specific terroir flavors. Faugères also has strong winds blowing very frequently. Quite a few top quality domaines are in the Faugères appellation.

Continuing eastward, one encounters new terroirs which have not yet earned an AOC status. Cabrières is one of them and is reserved to red wines (as the whites enjoy an AOC called Clairette du Languedoc) grown on schistous soils. It produces wines of great finesse while Montpeyroux next to it produces wines with more structure and more suitable for aging.

Finally, further north, one encounters a larger terroir called Pic St Loup, named after a ridge which dominates a great plateau of vineyards. Such vines grow on thick layers of "Gravettes" which consist of pebbly soil issued from limestone massifs. The wines are round and pleasant with aromas of ripe red fruits. The 3 above-mentioned terroirs also benefit from Mediterranean winds which bring humidity half of the time (when the dry Mistral wind from the north does not blow). A large appellation exists around the ancient town of Nîmes and stretches up to the western-most arm of the Rhône river; it is called Costières de Nîmes. In the sandy plains near the Mediterranean, one can see again thousands of acres of vineyards; most of it consists of undistinguished monovarietals except for a small white appellation called Picpoul de Pinet which produces whites with character that are particularly enjoyable with shellfish. The whole area consists of an incredibly complex geological formation resting on parts of the Massif Central, the oldest mountainous formation in Europe reshaped beyond recognition by the formation of the Alps and Pyrénées in the tertiary and by alluvions and erosion in the glaciary period. Besides this technical geological description, the whole area is of extreme beauty. Wild and daunting at times, it has numerous remnants of past civilizations; the Romans first, then the Cathars, then the Pays d'Oc style of living with its comfortable houses with thick walls to protect from the heat during the long and hot summers. While the sea coast is overcrowded and really unpleasant most of the year, the back country is still unspoiled and a delightful area to visit (particularly in September).

View wines from Languedoc