French wine guide part 7 - Languedoc winesIn 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:

The mountains

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.

The coast

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.

The south

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.

The centre

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.

The west

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).

Perfect pairing

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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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.

Route des Grand CrusThe Route des Grands Crus, one of the oldest and most celebrated wine routes in France, takes in the best of Burgundy wines and landscapes. Running north-south between Dijon and Santenay, it gives you the chance to try some of the best wines in the world and experience life and culture within the vineyards. Read on to discover the best spots on a journey across this ancient wine-growing land and the festivals celebrated along its way.

Route des Grands Crus – fast facts

Distance – the Route des Grands Crus runs for 60km. Some 150km of footpaths crisscross the area. The width of the area included in the route is never more than 2km wide and sometimes barely 300m.

History – founded in 1937, this is the oldest wine route in France.

Geography – rolling countryside with a patchwork of fields, woods and vineyards dotted with picturesque historic villages.

Vineyards – 1,247 climats make up the route and produce the best Burgundy wines 

Population centres – the route takes in 37 villages and 2 major towns (Dijon and Beaune).

Logo – the Route des Grands Crus is marked with brown signs showing a white bunch of grapes.

Time taken to visit – allow at least two days by car, longer if you’re travelling on foot or by bike.

Vineyards on the Route des Grands Crus

Made up of the Côte de Nuits in the north and the Côte de Beaune in the south, the wine route meanders through acres and acres of vineyards. Situated on marlstone and limestone, the vines mostly grow Pinot Noir grapes in the north and Chardonnay in the south.

In Burgundy, a plot of land growing vines is known as a climat and each has its own geographical and climatic characteristics, often surprisingly different to the one just next door. Many are enclosed within dry stone walls or hedges and they often boast an impressive gateway or arch emblazoned with the owner’s name. The Burgundy climats received UNESCO world heritage status in 2015.

Don’t miss the cabotes. These traditional limestone huts on many climats are used by the vineyard workers to store tools or take shelter.

Wines on the Route des Grands Crus

As part of France’s premier wine-growing region, the Route des Grands Crus takes in the very best of the area’s wine. Côte de Nuits wines are exclusively red and the Pinot Noir vineyards give the area’s wines intense red fruit flavours with a touch of oak and earth. They’re full-bodied, bold wines that count among the finest in the world. Not for nothing is this part of Burgundy known as the Champs-Elysées of the wine world. No less than 24 of Burgundy’s 33 Grands Crus come from here.

In the southern Côte de Beaune, it’s all about white wine. Like their red wine cousins, they too rank among the best. These dry wines carry fruity notes – think apple and orange – with more than a hint of oak and are creamy on the palette.

Highlights on the Route de Grands Crus

If you’re a fan of lovely countryside and fine wines, the entire route is a feast for your senses. But among the stunning sights, several stand out and are worth looking out for as you meander along.

Beaune – the small town of Beaune packs in the historic monuments. As well as the Hôtel Dieu (or Hospices of Beaune), the Notre Dame church, wine merchants’ houses and wine cellars are also worth a visit. And along with prime wine, Beaune does food with a capital F. The town hosts six Michelin-starred restaurant including the triple star Maison Lameloise.

Château de Meursault – in the midst of vineyards producing one of the best Burgundy whites, this 12th century château is one of the finest in the area.

Chenôve – don’t miss the 14th century wine presses, once the property of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Clos de Vougeot – the château built by Cistercian monks sits on the vineyards that produce Romanée Conti, one of the most prestigious and expensive Burgundy wines. Along with the 12th century oak presses, admire the chamber, home to the knights of the Tastevin society whose motto is ‘Jamais en vain, toujours en vin’ (Never in vain, always in wine).

Dijon – seat of the Dukes of Burgundy, this fine city offers a long list of cultural and historical heritage. Known as the city with a 100 steeples, must-sees include the medieval old quarter, the fine 15th century townhouses and the sumptuous city hall.

Hôtel Dieu – the hospice built for the poor in 1443 has some of the most impressive glazed tile roofs in the area. Their bright colours gleam in the sunlight. The building is also home to the world-famous Burgundy wine auction that takes place on the third Sunday in November and sets the gauge for wine prices for the forthcoming year.

Patriarche wine cellars – worth a visit to get an idea of the scale and scope of Burgundy wine, this cellar in Beaune goes back to the 13th century and is the largest in the area. Its labyrinthine 5km contain millions of bottles, many of which have seriously huge price tags.  

Wine events on the Route des Grands Crus

Events in Burgundy naturally centre around wine with a year-round calendar of celebrations and festivities all with a vin theme. The main events on the Route des Grands Crus are:

Le Mois des Climats – a full month of celebrating the vineyards with walks, guided tours, tastings, exhibitions… From 8 June to 8 July. 

Musique et Vin – this week-long festival during the last week of June brings wine and classical music together. Now in its 11th edition, events have their base in Clos Vougeot and include choral recitals with wine tastings and chamber music followed by a gala dinner.

Jazz à Couches – centred around the tiny village of Couches, the 4-day festival brings together some of the world’s best jazz musicians who play against a backdrop of vineyards. 4 to 7 July. 

Grape harvest – actual dates vary from year to year depending on the weather, but the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune generally bring their grapes in during the first two weeks of September. If you’re in the area during this time, ask at the local tourist office for details of specific events.

Hospices de Beaune Wine Auction – this year’s auction (the 158th edition) takes place on Sunday 18 November 2018 at the Hôtel Dieu in Beaune. Christie’s runs the auction, attended by the world’s top wine connoisseurs who bid for their own cellars and for charity. Proceeds from the Hospices de Beaune ‘lot’ (300 bottles) go to a local charity. Festivities – street performances, crafts markets, live music, wine tastings and a half-marathon – take place in the town from 16 to 18 November.

Fête des Grands Vins – coinciding with the Hospices de Beaune Wine Auction, this giant wine fair showcases the best of the region’s produce. And there is a lot: more than 3,000 Burgundy wines vie for centre stage in Beaune from 16 to 18 November.

Dijon International Gastronomy Fair – celebrating Burgundy food and wine, this giant food fair is now in its 88th year and ranks among the biggest in France. This year’s edition runs from 1 to 12 November 2018.

See the best of Burgundy from the water

Hire boating in Burgundy presents a feast of fabulous food and wine, impossibly pretty valley and charming historic towns to devour.

Another great way to explore Burgundy is by hotel barge, likened to a floating boutique hotel, it’s a holiday that allows you to take in the best of local wines and scenery, all from the comfort of a luxury craft and hospitality. Soak up the sights and the vin as you cruise the region’s pretty and diverse waterways and enjoy the ultimate Burgundy experience. Discover yours now

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Route des Grands Crus - take a walk on the side in Burgundy. The Route des Grand Crus is one of the biggest and best wine trails that wends its way from Dijon to Santenay through world renowned vineyards.