Languedoc–Roussillon wants to produce red wine as good as any Bordeaux
The region of Languedoc–Roussillon in the South-East of France is not only one of the largest wine regions in the world, but also one of the oldest. Languedoc–Roussillon’s history of growing vines dates way back to the 5th century BC. Even today one can still find the berries of the wild Vitis Labrusca vines, the berries our ancestors ate. Settlers, probably originating from the area around Greece, introduced the culture of the wine and olive production in the region. Languedoc–Roussillon’s sunshine, rich, complex soils (limestone, schist, clay, marl, sandstone and alluvial soils), favourable climate and cooling winds proved to be ideal territory to grow grapes, vegetables and fruits.
Grape varieties like Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Cencibel (Tempranillo), Mourvedre and also Aramon and Alicante Bouchet were planted to make wine. The planting of “Spanish” grape varieties must come as no surprise, as from the 12th century on Languedoc-Roussillon was part of the kingdom of Catalunya-Aragon and ruled from Barcelona. In 1659 Roussillon became part of France.
Plonk versus premium
In the 20th century Languedoc–Roussillon had acquired a reputation for producing large quantities of table wine -some would say plonk- using high yielding varieties of poor quality grapes. One of them the workhorse Carignan. Where quantity rules, quality often suffers. You just never knew what you were going to get in the glass. Although Languedoc-Roussillon’s sun and heat make grapes grow and mature rapidly, it actually achieves the opposite goal of quality: grapes with little acidity and lack of concentration. With competition growing and wine prices plummeting Languedoc-Roussillon had to get its act together. Under pressure of the EU rootstocks in less suitable viticulture areas were ripped out. The existing 292,000 ha in 2005 diminished to 229,000 ha in 2014. Of the 229,000 ha only 38,000 ha are under the flag of the AOP (former AOC) system. In hindsight, the pulling of many the old Carignan vines could proof to be a mistake. If one prunes the Carignan rigorously and keeps its yields low, it can add concentration, complex fruit flavours and a distinctive smell of fresh and dried figs to a blend.
An impressive range
The wines of the Languedoc–Roussillon region have an impressive range: red, white, rosé, sparkling. There are 36 AOPs, 29 AOPs for still wines, 4 for Vin Doux Naturel and 3 for sparkling; 69% of the yearly production is red wine. Tying it all together is very typical natural phenomenon in the region: the scent of of Garrigue, the fragrant wild herbs (mainly found on limestone soils) that grow wild, such as juniper, thyme, rosemary and lavender, often mentioned as an aroma component in wines too. Languedoc–Roussillon‘s climate promotes maturation in most grape varieties. The best way to achieve the right balance between acidity and maturity is blending different varieties. Through blending Grenache and Syrah with Mouvedre, Cinsault or Carignan winemakers can achieve a wine that is much better than sum of its parts.
Most important black grape varieties in Languedoc–Roussillon
The five most important black grape varieties in Languedoc–Roussillon are the three traditional grape varieties Grenache noir, Carignan, Cinsault. In the 1980s Syrah and Mouvèdre were added. In smaller quantities Lladoner Pelut, Counoise, Terret and Picpoul Noir are planted.
Grenache noir is often used in Languedoc–Roussillon and produces strong wines with deep colour with a lovely fruity raspberry and black-current flavour. This wine is low in tannin and acidity and can blend well with higher tannin varieties or grapes with higher acid content. Grenache noir has a strong tendency to develop botrytis and is susceptible to spring frost, because of early budding. During vinification the risk of oxidation,to which Grenache Noir is particularly prone, has to be avoided. The development of rosé wines made of Grenache Noir with cold maceration and bleeding gives fruity wines that can blend well with aromatic varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
Carignan is one of the most widely planted grape varieties in Languedoc–Roussillon. Carignan gives the best quality results in dry, relatively arid soil (especially schist, sandstone and stony hillside terraces). It is drought resistant and has good acidity, but is highly susceptible to oidium (powdery mildew). Wines with Carignan are high in alcohol, deep coloured, full bodied with lots of tannin. They need time to develop, when they are developed they becoming gamey, spicy and rich in flavour. Blending gives the wine structure and body. When produced at low yields and picked at optimal maturity it is well suited to carbonic maceration and brings out young, characteristic aromas, with a good acid structure and rounded, balanced tannins.
Cinsault is not an easy grape; it is a large, plump grape with a thin skin (not deep in colour )that is sensitive to humidity and several vineyard pests and also suffers from irregular bud development. Cinsault has a good production potential in hot and dry areas, it requires planting in dry soils with low fertility. Cinsault‘s performance depends on how it is cultivated. In case of low yields it adds finesse to assemblages with traditional grape varieties; it adds notes of plum, mulberry and liquorice when picked late. Cinsault is not particularly suited to ageing; its lack of acidity makes it not appropriate for use with carbonic maceration too.
Mouvèdre, planted since the 16th century, produces a full bodied, spicy, slightly gamey wine with a lovely deep ruby colour. When young it has plenty of tannin, the rich very good quality tannins contribute greatly to the wines’ structure and adds to its maturing potential. It can develop very interesting aromas as it ages. It needs time to develop and goes very well with Grenache. Heat is paramount for this grape, especially during the period between budding and maturity, as well as short pruning to prevent weakening of the vine through high, long shoots.
Syrah has been cultivated since Roman times. Syrah produces a wine with the intense smell of violets, spices, green pepper and tar, excellent colour intensity and an interesting tannin
structure. It resists oxidation and ages well but needs several years to develop. Syrah brings aroma and finesse to the blend, but the winemaker needs to avoid exceeding the optimal maturity level, too ripe could imply the loss of a large part of the grape’s aromatic potential. The Syrah is sensitive to spring frosts, drought and doesn’t like too much humidity.
The Atlantic Corridor
In more recent years also international grape varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec were added to the mix, helped by innovations in the vineyards and winery and the Atlantic Corridor. The Atlantic Corridor channels the drying and cooling winds from the Atlantic through the mountain valleys making it possible to grow cooler climate grapes in relatively hot areas. Cabernet Sauvignon can only be planted in those cooler areas, which generally means higher altitude planting or vineyards with a good ratio warm days and cool nights and extra help from cooling wind effects. In contrast, the Carignan grape is quite sensitive to cooler temperatures. The best vineyards are often located on hills (with specific micro climates and soil types), where Atlantic and Mediterranean (Cers, Tramontana, Autan, Marin & Scirocco) winds cool the arid climate and help cultivate flavour and aroma components in the wines.
Independent AOPs within Languedoc-Roussillon
The best known appellations are Corbières, Faugères, Minervois, Saint-Chinian or the generic AOP Languedoc (formerly Coteaux du Languedoc). Sub-appellations like Pic St-Loup, La Clape, Grés de Montpellier, Pézenas and Terrasses du Larzac. are fighting to become independent AOPs under the condition that the amount of Carignan and Cinsault in the blend is reduced to a maximum of 40% in favour of more fashionable varieties like Syrah and Mourvèdre. The most striking improvements have been seen in Minervois La Livinière and Pic Saint Loup, not far behind are the wines of St. Chinian and Cabardes.
In the last 30 years Languedoc-Roussillon has undergone a most extraordinary transformation. Will the reds ever be as good as Bordeaux? Quality seems to be booming. Languedoc-Roussillon’s wines are more exciting and diverse when it comes to wine styles and grape varieties, while at the same time well-priced. Let’s just hope that the past has taught us something and quality does come first. And, will continue to flourish for some time yet in this region so truly blessed by nature.