Hitting the high notes
High achievers in the Languedoc region are sending out some very classy wines
LAST WEEK I looked at some of the less expensive wines coming out of the Languedoc, a region noted for the value it offers. However, at the other end of the price scale, a few ambitious individuals there have managed to carve out a reputation for producing wines out of the very top drawer, wines that compare favourably with those from better-known regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy. The one glaring difference is price; those from the Languedoc are considerably cheaper: €50 or less buys you the very best the region can produce. In Bordeaux, you will taste only combinations of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot with a few minor grapes; in Burgundy all great reds are made from Pinot Noir, the whites from Chardonnay. The Languedoc by contrast features virtually every grape variety going. The wines of the Languedoc have an amazing intensity and character.
Experiments abound, and sometimes fail, but the will to succeed is strong. Those that have succeeded in pulling away from the pack have done so by looking for finesse rather than brute force. Whilst some of the top wines, such as Mas de Daumas Gassac, rely on Cabernet Sauvignon, most have come to the conclusion that some sort of combination of southern varieties, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Carignan and Cinsault works best. Interestingly, while a few still use the Vin de Pays designation, almost all of the top wines now come under the appellation contrôlée umbrella. Generally speaking, the best vineyards are to be found in a broad semi-circular sweep in the mountains behind Montpellier and Narbonne. Many fall under the general Coteaux du Languedoc appellation, sometimes with their own region as an appendage. The French are a competitive nation, and a number of appellations vie for supremacy. La Clape has a number of great estates, including Château de la Négley, there is Domaine de l’Hortus in Pic Saint Loup, Canet Valette in St Chinian, Alquier in Faugères, Borie de Maurel in Minervois, not forgetting Clos des Fées, Gauby and others in Roussillon.
However, one sub-region of the Coteaux du Languedoc, Terraces du Larzac, seems to be the name on everybody’s lips. Not only does it include two established superstars, Mas de Daumas Gassac and Granges des Pères (although neither of which use the term Terraces du Larzac), this area also has the greatest concentration of both great and very promising estates in the Languedoc.
The Terraces du Larzac is a large v-shaped area, covering 32 villages, with varying soils, although the two most important sub-soils are schist and limestone, generally a good indicator for quality wine. Based along the foot of the Larzac plateau, the vineyards have the advantage of good drainage, a cooler climate, and – of real importance – greater fluctuation of temperature between day and night. This happy combination seems to be ideal for growing grapes that ripen fully, but retain acidity. The resulting wines are therefore medium- to full-bodied, but refreshing, with an elegance not always found elsewhere in the region. It is fascinating to see a group of vignerons, many inexperienced, replanting the hillside vineyards of the Languedoc that fell into disrepair during the 20th century. I suspect in years to come, other sub-regions will be discovered. One thing is sure, the future for the Languedoc is both intriguing and bright.