Volume and value in the Languedoc
As well as being one of the world’s biggest producers of wine, the Languedoc region also offers some outstanding value, writes JOHN WILSON
WE MAY SEE THE picturesque Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France as a place to go on holiday, but a century and a half ago, it played a vital role in the French industrial revolution. Back then, the thousands of workers toiling in steel mills and coalmines further north slaked their thirst on inexpensive “gros rouge”. They drank massive amounts too; annual consumption in France reached 120 litres per head in the late 19th century (compared to our current measly 19 litres). It should be said that much of this was considerably lighter than today’s wine, probably around 8-10 per cent alcohol. Water was often unsafe to drink, and wine the preferred national beverage.
As demand for cheap red wine increased, the growers and producers of the Languedoc were ideally placed to increase production. Land was inexpensive, there was plenty of sun, and the only real competition came from Algeria, then a French colony. In fact, wines from the two regions were often blended together. This system worked reasonably well for a century. There were occasional riots when grape prices fell too low, but for many farmers it provided a reasonable income, and many wine brokers made a fortune.
The only ones to suffer were the better producers, and there had been plenty, who were no longer able to compete. Their vines, usually located on the hillsides, produced superior wine, but in much smaller quantities. Many ceased production entirely. But the Languedoc became one of the largest producers of wine in the world, a position it still holds today.
However, throughout the 20th century and the early part of this century, French wine consumption decreased rapidly. While increased exports helped alleviate matters a little, over-production was a constant problem. As French and European subsidies of the wine lake were partially withdrawn, it was obvious something would have to be done.
The French government stepped in with an imaginative scheme to modernise and improve production. The large co-operatives, which dominated production, were given grants to build modern facilities. Many of the vines located on the valley floor were ripped up, concentrating production on the more interesting hillside vineyards.
Over the past two decades the wines of the Languedoc have changed beyond recognition. There are still plenty of inexpensive gluggers around, but for a few euro more, the region offers a bewildering but exciting range of individual handcrafted wines with genuine character. Compared to better-known areas such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, land here is still relatively cheap.
As a result the Languedoc has become a melting pot, with every conceivable grape being grown, sometimes by locals with a history going back centuries, or more often by enthusiastic young outsiders, both French and foreigner, chasing their dream.
In the early days of the revival, many planted grape varieties most in demand such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Some of these produce excellent wine. However it is the local red grape varieties such as Grenache, Carignan and Cinsault that have shown that they can produce great wines if treated with respect, alongside Syrah and Mourvèdre from the neighbouring Rhône Valley.
In the not too distant past, virtually all of the wines produced here were vins de table or from one or two appellation contrôlée regions. As the region has developed, a plethora of new demarcations has sprung up. The names are too numerous to list here; Corbières and Minervois are probably the most widely recognised. Many others have their own name under the Languedoc or Côteaux du Languedoc umbrella. The soil and climate varies greatly, and so therefore do the wines. The cooler Limoux, just north of Carcassonne, produces crisp white wines. Elsewhere it is generally warmer, and red wines predominate.
The neighbouring Roussillon is invariably lumped in with the Languedoc, which is a little unfair. This is Catalan country. The mountains tend to be even higher, the slopes sometimes more dramatic. The climate can be even hotter than that of the Languedoc, and wines such as Collioure and Côtes du Roussillon can reach heady proportions. The Roussillon also produces most of France’s answer to Port, Vin Doux Naturel. The best of this can be very good.
These days the Languedoc plays a dual role in the French wine firmament. At a basic level, it can comfortably compete with the inexpensive wines of Chile and Australia. Above that, it can boast some of the most creative and idiosyncratic producers making wines that dazzle and intrigue.
If asked to name my best-value wine-producing region in the world, I would unhesitatingly plump for the Languedoc. There are plenty of decent drinkable wines in the €6-10 range, alongside the distinctly average. But pay a little more, between €10 and €15, and you find a massive choice of genuinely interesting wines to choose from.
BOTTLES OF THE WEEK
Domaine Lafage Côté Sud 2010 Côtes Catalanes, 14%, €13.99Medium to full-bodied with layers of warming, ripe, dark fruits and a touch of spice, too. Smooth, with a touch of elegance, this over-delivers at the price. I suspect it would go very nicely with most red meat dishes. Stockists: Martin’s Fairview; Morton’s of Ranelagh; D-Six, Harold’s Cross.
Domaine Ollier Taillefer Les Collines 2009, Faugères, 13%, €11.85This is great value for under €12; nicely concentrated, medium-bodied wine with piquant red fruits and a lovely savoury, liquorice tang on the finish. Stockist: Wines Direct, 1890 579 579, winesdirect.ie.
Carignan 2011, Marie-Claude and Jean-Louis Poudou, Coteaux de Peyriac, 13.5%, €10.99-€11.99Often dismissed by wine-lovers, Carignan can produce some very good wines, such as this deliciously light, refreshing wine, which has just the right amount of ripe, red fruits. Stockists: Deveney’s, Dundrum; The Grapevine, Dublin 9; Red Island Wine, Skerries, Sweeney’s, Dublin 9; The Vintry, Dublin 6; O’Leary’s, Cootehill.
Château de la Negly, La Côte 2009, Coteaux du Languedoc, 14.5%, €13.95/£10.58Languedoc in its full-bodied glory; rich powerful spicy wine with ripe, savoury, dark fruits, and some swarthy tannins. One to drink with grilled red meats; steak would fit the bill perfectly. Stockist: James Nicholson, Crossgar, jnwine.com.