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 As French and European subsidies of the wine lake were partially withdrawn, it was obvious something would have to be done.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.