Languedoc-Roussillon: wine identity under construction

When you order a glass or open a bottle of wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, what should you expect from the drinking experience?

That’s a question I’m still trying to answer, following a whirlwind trip through the region. I’m having trouble summarizing the qualities of the various local wines—whites, rosés and reds—I sampled there.

38 - Domaine Ollier Taillefer Allegro

In general, they seemed good values. Purchasing locally, you can pay as little as €5 to €8 a bottle for decent everyday-drinking wines; the highest price we paid (it was in a restaurant) was €23 for a half-bottle of Domaine Ollier Taillefer “Allegro” 2011, a nice white from Faugères. (BTW, another “in general” rule for the region is: stay away from its whites. And I agree, in general, because the Rousanne-Marsanne blends that are common here are not acidic and crisp the way I prefer my whites. In this case, however, the Allegro—a Rolle (aka Vermentino)-Roussanne blend—had enough minerality to satisfy my palate.)

Another sweeping statement you can safely make about these wines is they rely on grapes that do well in warmer climates; not a Pinot Noir vine in sight.

Beyond that, thanks to a diversity of vineyard altitudes and microclimates, grape varietals and blend combinations, and levels of quality, the wines of Languedoc-Roussillon—one of France’s 27 regions and a southernmost one—need more finely-grained parsing to try to figure them out.

Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson do just that: in their World Atlas of Wine they subdivide the region into thirds: western and eastern Languedoc and Roussillon. A bit of shorthand to help in understanding the wines from these sub-regions:

Eastern Languedoc – appellations include (but are not limited to) Faugères, Coteaux de Languedoc, Costières de Nîmes; mostly reds, may remind you of southern Rhône or Provençal reds; grapes include Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre.

Western Languedoc – among its appellations, Corbières, Minervois, Limoux, Fitou; reds from the northern part can be Bordeaux-like while those made farther south (e.g., Corbières) are typically rougher; varietals grown include Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and now even Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Roussillon – primary appellations Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon-Villages; Carignan the traditional red grape here but Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault now common as well; some decent whites made here, from grape varieties including Malvoisie, Maccabeu, Roussanne, Marsanne and Rolle; also known for its sweet wines, Vins Doux Naturels (VDNs), including Muscat.

I’ll have more to say about the Languedoc-Roussillon wines I drank there and what I thought about them; stay tuned.

Vineyards, vineyards everywhere

Such is the landscape of Languedoc-Roussillon, from which I have just returned. It was my first, and a whirlwind, circuit of the southernmost part of this ever-more-booming French wine region.

Abbaie de Fontfroide vineyard, near Narbonne

Abbaie de Fontfroide vineyard, near Narbonne

The grapes had just been harvested the week or two before, one of the later harvests of recent memory, people told me, so what was on view to travelers like me and my trip companion Marsha as we whirred by on the well-maintained (no matter how remote and narrow) roads were the de-fruited vines, leaves turning to autumn-yellow and orange.

You read that Languedoc-Roussillon is the world’s largest wine region, with more than 700,000 acres under production, but it takes the physical experience of seeing its vineyards stretching to the horizon in all directions, across all terrains, flat and hilly, to comprehend this fact.

Such concentration of grape production is not necessarily a good thing, however, in terms of wine quality and price. The area’s historic high production of juice translated into wines that were not just thin; many were outright bad, France’s black-sheep wines. To address the downward price pressure Languedoc-Roussillon’s overproduction was exerting on European wines in general, E.U. incentives in recent years have prompted growers to rip out vines.

So the region’s wine-making practices have been changing: yields are down, the ratio of grapes to extracted juice has risen over the past decade. Younger winemakers are being drawn to the area, in some cases shunning AOC rules in order to experiment with grape varietals and production techniques.

Our circuit of the area extended up the coast from the Spanish border to Perpignan, straight north from there into Hérault, then meandering southwest through the Minervois and Corbières areas of Aude, to end in the lower reaches of Roussillon’s Pyrénées-Orientales  department. We drank a bit of white, rosé and red, and enjoyed several fabulous meals.

Stay tuned: more on my Languedoc-Roussillon experience in the days to come.