In this instalment of the French Waterways Guide to French Wine we go as far south as you can on the mainland. Languedoc wines are the product of the largest wine producing area in France, the Languedoc. Once a land where the only thing that mattered in wine was quantity, Languedoc now creates some of the best wines in the country particularly when it comes to value.
The vast area also produces some of the most innovative labels in France – Languedoc wines have the advantage of carrying little historic weight and responsibility. As a result, you’ll find experimental wines at the top of their class. In this piece, we take a look at the history behind Languedoc wines, examine their grapes and sample their bouquet before pairing these fine vins with their perfect match à table.
A bit of Languedoc wines history
A look at the history behind Languedoc wines reveals something of a paradox: they’re both the oldest and the youngest in France. Vine cultivation started in this part of France when the Greeks arrived in the 5th century BC. Etruscans and Romans then took up the trade in earnest, making the most of the area’s sunny and dry climate.
Wine production reached its heyday in the 17th century when the Canal du Midi opened up the rest of France to this previously isolated area. The advantages of the climate again played their hand in 1709 when a bitter run of weather in the rest of France ensured that Languedoc wines had a monopoly. Railway construction during the 19th century further aided the wine’s expansion.
Like the rest of Europe’s vineyards, those in Languedoc were hit hard by the dreaded phylloxera in the mid-19th century. Farmers, in their bid to reconstruct the area’s wine industry, relied on the sole criteria of quantity and in the following decades Languedoc produced eye-boggling amounts of vin de table. Once supply flooded the market and consumers started to acquire more discerning tastes, Languedoc wine fell out of favour.
In the 1980s, a group of smaller wine producers shifted the emphasis from quantity to quality. They planted grapes more suited to the Mediterranean climate with Grenache noir, Mourvèdre and Syrah at the top of their planting priorities. As late as 2007, the area received AOC status and was granted its own appellation régionale. Just a decade later, Languedoc wines have a reputation for innovation and excellent value for money.
Did you know? Some 183 million bottles of Languedoc wines are produced every year with an annual turnover of €450 million.
Five unique terroirs
The overriding characteristic of Languedoc wines is that they’re all very different. More than 30 AOCs all produce varied wines with none quite like any other. The reason behind this huge diversity comes from the geography and the climate.
The vast Languedoc region stretches from the Spanish border, high up in the Pyrenees, to the city of Nîmes in the east. Much of it lies on the Mediterranean coast, although some parts lie inland in mountainous areas with a strong influence from the Atlantic. Within this variety there are five main growing areas or terroirs:
Located in the east of the region, this area produces the Pic Saint Loup, Terrasses du Larzac and Faugères AOCs. The Pic Saint Loup with its dramatic profile is just one of the mountains sheltering the area where Grenache noir grapes come into their own. The continental climate with mild winters and scorching summers offer some of the best vine-growing conditions in the book. The finest Languedoc wines for ageing hail from these peaks.
Centred around the city of Montpellier, the AOCs here include Picpoul de Pinet, La Clape and Grès de Montpellier. The dry and very sunny Mediterranean climate produces softer wines made from Mourvèdre grapes that thrive on warmth.
Also mostly on the Mediterranean, this area lies slightly north of Perpignan and enjoys a mild year-round climate. AOCs here include Corbières, Corbières-Boutenac and Fitou, all of which grow local, indigenous grapes.
Inland from the Mediterranean and east of the Pyrenees, the main AOCs in this part of Languedoc come with a Minervois or Saint-Chinian label. The Mediterranean climate predominates but proximity to the Atlantic on the other side of the Pyrenees means winters are cooler and summers have fewer hours of sunshine.
On the border with Spain and in the Pyrenees themselves, this is the land of the Limoux, Malepère and Cabardès AOCs. The mix of continental and Mediterranean climates make ideal growing conditions for the Syrah grape and this is the only area of Languedoc that produces sparkling wines.
Did you know? Languedoc wine production is 76% red with rosé and white wines accounting for much smaller percentages.
Main types of Languedoc wine
Languedoc wines are overwhelmingly red. The main grapes that go into red wine production are Grenache noir, Mourvèdre and Syrah, and between them they produce two very different types of wine.
The red wine from the AOCs of Minervois, Faugères and Saint-Chinian, for example, has a dark purple, almost black, hue. Its bouquet rivals a Burgundy in intensity and the tannin taste is powerful. These are wines that need decanting several hours before drinking.
In complete contrast, the reds from Languedoc and Cabardès come ruby red with a fruity bouquet. Their taste is much fresher on the palate. Languedoc rosés too have a fresh taste with a floral bouquet and their shiny pink colour is quite distinctive.
White wines come mainly from Grenache blanc, Maccabou and Piquepou grapes, which produce two very different colours – pale or golden. The bouquet combines floral tones with ripe fruit and the taste is fresh.
Did you know? The new wave of Languedoc wines is most appreciated outside France where the wines still suffer from their vin de table reputation. Since 2009, exports to the US have risen by 300%.
Best Languedoc vintages
Given their relative youth – in 2017, Languedoc wines celebrated just a decade of AOC status – these wines don’t have a rich history of vintages. 2010 was a good year all-round while 2013 was an exceptional year for whites. The most recent good vintage was 2015 when red and white wines from the area exceeded all expectations.
Did you know? In 2018 there were five Crus du Languedoc: Corbières-Boutenac (red), La Clape (red and white), Minervois La Livinière (red), Pic Saint Loup (red and rosé) and Terrasses du Larzac (red).
As any visitor to this part of France knows the local cuisine relies on traditional, often hearty recipes. In the land of bouillabaisse, pélardon goat’s cheese, ratatouille and mountain stews, it’s easy to find the perfect wine to match anything on the table.
Bold Languedoc reds go magnificently with roast meats and game, blue cheese and anything with dark chocolate in it. Lighter reds make the perfect partner for salads (Niçoise of course), seafood and ratatouille, local or neighbouring Provence-style. Languedoc rosés pair well with aperitifs such as local olives, white meat, seafood and pizzas. While whites go down well with bouillabaisse and pélardon cheese.
Did you know? Languedoc reds should be served at 14-16°C while rosés and whites are best at between 8 and 10°C.
Taste Languedoc wines for yourself
Discover the immense variety in local vins for yourself as you cruise the Canal du Midi on a luxury floating hotel barge. Soak up the sun-drenched charm of the South of France along the historic canal and see for yourself why Languedoc wines really are such good value.
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