Samuel Johnson so memorably said “This is one of the disadvantages of wine, it makes a man mistake words for thoughts.” I have a glass of wine in my hand, so here are some words. Please do not confuse them with thoughts.
We’re heading to the South of France for August, via bottle rather than plane, train or car, so no masks required!
Once known largely for vast volumes of pretty dull wine, the South is arguably now the region of the most diversity and innovation in France, the huge range of terroirs and climates producing countless very individual wines.
It’s a huge area, and still a source of a lot of wine, most of it red. The greater Languedoc-Roussillon region is the largest vineyard area in the world with a geographic identity. It contributes 5% of the world’s wine, more than Australia, more than South Africa and more than Chile. It produces over a quarter of France’s wines. But quality and individuality is now the key, rather than volume.
The sheer scale and variety can make it confusing, so let’s break it down a little, by designation, by grapes, and by geography and climate.
The term Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), or Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP) which is gradually replacing it, designates what is nominally the “highest” tier of French wines. Only some 11-15% of Languedoc-Roussillon wines are AOC, but there are more than 35 different protected names (I think, it’s hard to keep up….).
Just to add confusion, the base AOC Languedoc can include Roussillon wines as well.
Then in Languedoc there are sub-regional appellations including
Corbières (red, white, rosé)
Limoux (still wines; red, white)
Minervois (red, white, rosé)
Picpoul de Pinet (white)
Pic Saint-Loup (red, rosé)
Saint-Chinian (red, white, rosé)
Terrasses du Larzac (red).
plus commune or village appellations including
Faugères (red, white, rosé)
La Clape (red, white)
Minervois la Livinière (red)
and sparkling wine appellations:
Blanquette de Limoux (white)
Crémant de Limoux (white, rosé)
Alongside these there are also 14 designations or vineyard sites who have filed an application with the INAO for specific recognition, including debatably the best,
In Roussillon, the prominent dry wine sub-regions are
AOC Collioure (white, rosé, red)
AOC Côtes du Roussillon (white, rosé, red), and
AOC Côtes du Roussillon Villages (red).
Roussillon is of course also known for its “vin doux naturel“ sweet wines, from Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes.
But here in the south especially, the best growers are as likely to spurn the official labels and do their own thing without being constrained by official rules. The next level, Indication Géographique Protégée or IGP, covers by far the greater geographic area, but can definitely not always be assumed to be of lower quality.
Geography and Climate
The region has a mainly Mediterranean climate, with hot summers and mild springs, autumns, and winters. But there are variations:
Mountain: in the north, the climate is more continental, similar to that of the nearby Rhône
Coastal: the Mediterranean exerts a strong influence, and it’s generally sunnier
South: the southern Languedoc and Roussillon is probably France’s driest and hottest region: the summers are hot, and autumns and winters tend to be mild. Rain comes mainly in the autumn and early spring
Centre: a classically Mediterranean climate
West: a mix of continental and Atlantic influences, which help create ideal conditions for Languedoc’s sparkling wines.
Languedoc-Roussillon wines are predominantly red blends made with Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault. Their flavour is dominated by red fruit and spices and is often associated with herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender, and juniper, the “garrigue” that is typical of the region.
There are though many other grapes in the region, both red and white. Reds include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec (Côt), Merlot and Pinot Noir. Important whites are Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Macabeu, Marsanne, Mauzac, Muscat, Piquepoul, Rolle (Vermentino), Roussanne and Viognier. Slightly further west in neighbouring Gascony, Tannat is an important red grape, and Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu important for whites.
The south of France is an endlessly fascinating source of good value wines with real character. It’s also evolving quickly through the ministrations of passionate committed growers, sometimes in spite of officialdom. Dull and predictable it is not.
I’ll let Samuel Johnson finish:
“Wine gives great pleasure; and every pleasure is of itself a good.”