France's fertile crescent
Languedoc region transforms its wines from ordinary to extraordinary
Fertile crescent: Languedoc is France's largest single vineyard area. If you took all of Australia's vineyards together and about doubled them, you'd have Languedoc covered. (Rick Tuma illustration)
The winemaking region is properly called Languedoc-Roussillon, but it's always just called Languedoc. The name comes from a group of languages spoken throughout the southern half of France during the Middle Ages that signified the word "yes" as "oc"; hence, "la langue d'oc," or "the language of 'oc.'"
Languedoc is France's largest single vineyard area (in fact, at 650,000 acres, the globe's). If you took all of Australia's vineyards together and about doubled them, you'd have Languedoc-Roussillon's covered.
In the past, like any immense vineyard, it routinely turned out the vin ordinaire for the daily meals of an entire nation.
No one thought highly of the wines; they were that felicitous but sorry combination of cheap and rough. In the 1980s, however, imaginative winemakers from inside and outside Languedoc took stock of the native promise of Languedoc — older vines, copious sunshine and a nourishing climate — and forever changed winemaking there.
Nowadays, a new river of better wine, and the best values in French wine as a whole, flows from Languedoc. Today, Languedoc's wines are polished versions of what they were always: wines with a lot of flavor for not a lot of money.
Welcoming the 30 appellations of Languedoc into your wine circle can be confusing, so let me group them for you into five regions. Each region is unique in the elements that it sports, which, in turn, contribute to the style of wines from it. Along the way I'll offer some recommended wines.
This region is close to the bottom of the Rhone Valley and also spreads up against the Languedoc mountains facing the sea. It uses blends of many of the southern Rhone red grapes such as grenache, mourvedre and syrah, and, consequently, its red wines resemble rustic Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Two Languedoc appellations of exemplary quality are Pic St. Loup and Faugeres. When they come out soon, jump on the 2012 dry roses of either Chateau de Lancyre or Chateau Fontanes, both of Pic St. Loup (usually $15-$20).
2009 Leon Barral Faugeres Jadis: This blend of half old-vine carignan, 30 percent syrah and 20 percent grenache is simply overwhelmingly captivating; you'll swoon over its dense, layered flavors of dark red fruits and come-hither scents of chocolate, espresso and brown spice; a true sense of terroir comes through as the result of all-biodynamic farming. $40-$45
This region benefits from cooling Mediterranean breezes that retain acidity in its white wines and temper the often-scorching southern French heat ripening its reds. Picpoul de Pinet abuts one of the country's best oyster beds, and its screeching acidity makes it the go-to white for seafood.
If you are on the lookout for some terrifically delicious, deeply concentrated reds, search out the La Clape appellation. One excellent producer there is Chateau des Karantes. Gerard Bertrand, ubiquitous in Languedoc as a whole, turns out several fine La Clape reds and whites for between $20 and $75 a bottle.
Languedoc can boast some of its most award-winning red wines from this region, which sits facing the Mediterranean largely as a group of appellations devised on terraces sloping into the mainland.
It's a sort of immense amphitheater with the sea as stage. The names to remember here are Minervois and St. Chinian.
2009 Chateau Bousquette Prestige Saint Chinian: A blend of organic syrah and mourvedre, with solid crisp acidity at the finish along with supple tannins and a lengthy shadow of dark red fruit flavors. $25
Some of the moderating, cooling Atlantic climate sneaks over the Pyrenees to influence grape growing in this large region of Languedoc.
Many so-called international varieties such as pinot noir and chardonnay grow here, alongside native varieties such as mauzac, the basis of one of the area's strong suits — sparkling wine from Limoux.
Research indicates that the famed "methode champenoise," or second fermentation in the bottle, began in Limoux in the 1530s, a century before Dom Perignon labored in Champagne.
This sometimes blisteringly hot region contains the highest percentage in Languedoc of grapes native to southern France, stalwarts such as carignan. While carignan can be harsh and gratingly tannic, as it showed itself in the old Languedoc days to render wines with substance and body, today its very old vines can make much sleeker, rapturously aromatic reds.
One of the better-performing regions here is the appellation of Corbieres. Soon to come to market will be the crisp and refreshing pink wines of Domaine Ste. Eugenie, although the domaine's reds are amazing values too ($12-$18).
You will find many wines from Languedoc labeled simply Vin de Pays d'Oc or Coteaux du Languedoc. These are regional appellations. Many are excellent values in solid table wine.
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.