The following article was graciously written by British wine expert and award-winning author, Rosemary George. Click here to find out more about Rosemary.
AN OVERVIEW OF THE LANGUEDOC
There’s a large sign at Montpellier airport welcoming you to the largest vineyard in the world. This is no exaggeration; the Languedoc is larger than Bordeaux and much larger than the whole of Australia. Vines are a vital part of the landscape; they grow on the wild hillsides, where little else other than olive trees and the shrubs and herbs of the garrigue will survive. And if you are cycling past vineyards, what better than to enjoy their produce. The diversity of the Languedoc is enormous; you can find every style of wine you might enjoy, from sparkling wine to dessert wine, with a whole range of reds, whites and pinks in between.
Grape varieties determine the flavour of every wine, and the Languedoc boasts an enormous choice of grape varieties. You will find single varietal wines as well as intriguing blends from as many as seven different grape varieties.
The key red varieties are Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir, Cinsaut and Carignan. Most of them feature in the various appellations, usually in a blend, according to the wine grower’s preference. The so-called international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, are not usually allowed in the appellations – the exceptions being Limoux, Malepère and Cabardès, and usually only appear in vin de pays.
The same applies for white wine – the grape varieties of the appellations are Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Rolle. You might also find Viognier – but more often as a varietal, as it packs too much of a punch of flavour in a blend. The same goes for Muscat, which is usually a dessert wine. But if you are looking for Sauvignon or Chardonnay, it will be a vin de pays.
The appellations of the Languedoc are in a state of flux, but like all French appellations they are determined by place. They take their names from villages and hillsides and with one exception never from a grape variety. Think of a pyramid. The base is quite simply Languedoc, which also covers the vineyards of Roussillon, the department of the Pyrénées-Orientales, as well as the Aude, Hérault and Gard. And on top of that base are numerous crus, of varying importance in the hierarchy.
Limoux – Known for its sparkling wine, which claims an even older history than Champagne, and made in the same way. Blanquette de Limoux is based on Mauzac; Crémant de Limoux is more elegant with a greater proportion of Chenin blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Limoux tout court is the appellation for still wine, both red and white. The white Chardonnay is always oak aged.
Cabardès – to the west of Carcassonne; this is where the grape varieties of the Midi, Syrah Grenache etc. meet those of south west France, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Malepère – similar to Cabardès, in that it is another meeting of Midi and Bordeaux grape varieties. Vineyards around the Massif de la Malepère.
Corbières – One of the largest appellations of France. Mainly red. Grown in the hills to the south of Aude valley; wonderful wild warm rugged flavours. Boutenac is a cru of Corbières.
Minervois – Mainly red, but also some white and pink. On the northern side of the Aude valley; smaller than Corbières but not dissimilar in style. Warm and rugged, with firm tannins and warm spice. La Livinière is the best area and a cru.
St. Chinian – Mainly red, but also some white and pink. Warm spicy reds, with less tannins than Minervois.
Faugères – The epitome of the Languedoc. Again mainly red, but with a little white and pink. A small, but growing appellation with some rich spicy wines.
Coteaux du Languedoc – This AC is set to disappear but for the moment it covers vineyards from Narbonne to Nimes, with a variety of different crus and terroirs, of varying importance, such as Pic St. Loup and la Clape.
La Clape – Vineyards on the Massif of la Clape outside Narbonne. One of the sunniest parts of France. Reds with structure and spice; whites with a salty tang from the sea.
Picpoul de Pinet – The white wine of the Languedoc. Picpoul is the grape; Pinet the village. Delicate tangy whites; perfect with an oyster.
Pic St. Loup – Comes from around the dramatic Pic St. Loup and the neighbouring Montagne de l’Hortus. Some of the most northern vineyards of the Languedoc, making cooler, more elegant wines. Red only; whites are Coteaux du Languedoc or vin de pays.
St. Georges d’Orques – Part of the Coteaux du Languedoc, nearly Montpellier. Spicey reds.
Côtes du Roussillon and smaller Côtes du Roussillon Villages – the main appellations of the department of the Pyrenées-Orientales. Often based on Grenache, with warm,rich flavours.
Banyuls and Collioure – Collioure is the table wine, or vin sec, and only red, while Banyuls is the fortified vin doux naturel. Collioure is rich and warming; the best Banyuls has been aged in cask for years.
Maury – Another Vin doux naturel, similar to Banyuls. Wonderful dramatic vineyards.
Costières de Nimes – Red, white and pink, but mainly red. Vineyards on the edge of the Camargue; the reds are light and fruity – the Midi’s answer to Beaujolais, and none the worse for that.
The Muscat appellations – Frontignan, Lunel, Mireval and St. Jean de Minervois. These are all very small, producing what is called a Vin Doux Naturel. The fermentation is stopped by the addition of alcohol, so that there is a lovely natural sweetness and grapiness in the wine. Drink the youngest possible.
And you might come across other names like Terrasses du Larzac, Grès de Montpellier, Pézenas, which are regional delimitations with the AC of Languedoc..
And then there is the vast swathe of vins de pays, now starting to called IGP or Identité Géographique Protégée. There is no difference between the two, just a bureaucratic change in the name. The biggest, covering the whole region, is IGP Pays d’Oc, which allows for numerous different varietal wines. The Pays d’Oc are France’s riposte to the varietal wines of the New World. Several smaller vins de pays cover particular areas with a geographical unity such as Côtes de Thongue , near Pézenas, or the Haute Vallée de l’Orb, covering the Orb valley north of Bédarieux. The vins de pays can vary enormously in quality; they may be a wine grower’s simplest wine, or if he does not produce an appellation, it will be his best wine.
Of course the final key factor in the choice of a wine is the estate or wine producer. If 30 growers make Faugères, you will not find two alike. And often they make more than one wine – a Cuvée Tradition or Cuvée Classique is usually the basic unoaked wine while élevé en fût de chêne indicates some time in a barrel. So that choice there depends on whether you like the underlying flavour of oak, or not.
Vintages do vary in the Languedoc, but less dramatically than in some parts of France. Generally the harvests of the last few years have been pretty successful.
And on a bicycle you are ideally placed to enjoy the wonderful vineyard scenery and it is easy so stop as you pass a cellar offering a tasting or dégustation.
Rosemary George / November 2010
If you enjoy great food paired with local wines in a unique location near Carcassonne, then join Heather Hayes at Cooking by the Canal du Midi for classic French cooking lessons (+33 651 63 29 04).
Click on the colored areas to see where you should ride to taste the great wines mentioned in the article above!
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