A journey into Languedoc-Roussillon – part 1
Languedoc-Roussillon is far from the most famous French wine region. It doesn’t have a singular signature style like Bordeaux, Burgundy or Champagne. And historically, it hasn’t always been associated with quality. That said, it’s increasingly a source of some fantastic wines at a fraction of the price of its self-important colleagues. The comparatively hot climate on the edge of the Mediterranean and the pervasive use of blends makes the wines approachable, and more familiar to the Australian palate.
For starters, let’s look at the varieties grown in the region. Syrah, grenache, carignan, cinsault and mourvedre play a major role in the reds. For the whites, think grenache blanc, grenache gris, picpoul, viognier and the muscats. Of course you’ll also find the so-called ‘international’ varieties - like chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, which are worth trying. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Styles range from pure and fruit-forward to subtle, savoury beauties. And, like in Australia, winemakers in the Languedoc-Roussillon aren’t bound by the long traditions that you’ll find in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy, and this leads to a culture of innovation.
The scenery and food are stunning. Seafood is plentiful, a glass of rosé on the beach is a rite of passage for anyone visiting the region for the first time.
The biggest wine-producing region in the world
The Languedoc-Roussillon stretches some 240 kilometres from the region of Banyuls at the Spanish border and follows the arc of the Mediterranean coast westwards to the Rhone River around Arles. It’s big. With around 700,000 acres under vine, is in fact the single biggest wine-producing region in the world. It has a rich history, with the early Greeks planting the first vineyards around Narbonne in the fifth century BC - making these vineyards, along with parts of Provence, the oldest in France.
Like many regions in France, the Languedoc-Roussillon was decimated by phylloxera in the late 1800s. But it was a botanist from the Languedoc, Jules Émile Planchon, who’s credited with thwarting the bug’s seemingly endless rampage when he discovered that the American rootstock was resistant to the disease.
Five of the most famous AOCs that stretch along the length of the Languedoc-Roussillon are Languedoc, Corbières, Faugères, Minervois, and Saint-Chinian. The AOC (Appellation d'origine Contrôlée) is the top tier and most rigid of the French wine classification system. AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée), which you may also come across, is the updated version of the same, and the two are interchangeable.
Languedoc-Roussillon has long had a reputation for quantity over quality. But things evolve, and even though there’s plenty of the former still around, there are many fantastic, captivating wines that speak of the passion of the vigneron and the nuance of site. Let’s have a peek into a couple of the AOCs of the Languedoc-Roussillon.
GSM Fitou for any occasion
The Fitou AOC is located in the arid foothills of the Pyrenees and is an all-red appellation. The region also has vineyards that can produce grapes for the fortified sweet wines of Rivesaltes. It’s wild, scraggy, and fairly remote, and is the oldest appellation in the Languedoc. Fitou Maritime is the coastal half, whereas Fitou Montagneux lies in the hills, and is where the best wines tend to be found.
The dominant grape variety is carignan, which has to make up at least 40% of any blend. You will also find grenache, syrah and mourvedre in the mix. Think rustic, leather-scented, medium-bodied and moderately tannic wines with hints of Mediterranean herbs.
Just to the north of Fitou is Corbières AOC, the largest appellation in the Languedoc-Roussillon. It’s a region of rugged beauty, and is probably the best known of the appellations. Similar red blends dominate production here, but you’ll also find rosé, and white wines made from grenache gris, picpoul, grenache blanc, bourboulenc, macabeo, marsanne and roussanne.
James Wilson, in his wonderful book Terroir, describes the soils of Corbières as a “geological cacophony”, which sums up the situation beautifully as there are myriad valleys, plains, slopes, and hillsides to contend with. There’s everything from clays and schists higher up to coral limestone by the sea.
The wines of Corbieres seem to have a tighter bandwidth of quality, and you’ll find many fruit pure, juicy wild-edged red blends from the region, along with textured, crisp savoury white wines. Wines from Corbieres are pretty easy to find and a few of my personal favourite wines, Le Clos Perdus and Maxime Magnon, come from the region.
We’ll pause there and pick up next time with a look at the communes in the Languedoc and then take a peek into the Roussillon. Until then, stay thirsty. Or buy some Languedoc-Rousillon wines here to sustain you in the meantime.