Getting to grips with the Languedoc

Simon Field MW

Simon Field MW

07 January 2020

Château Jonquières has a typical Gallic charm. It attempts to hide its pre-revolutionary turreted splendour behind a guise of utilitarianism, and to make ends meet serves as not only a winery, but also a complex of gîtes and a conference centre, and early in the Autumn of 2019, as the host for the first grand tasting of one of Languedoc’s most celebrated crus, Les Terrasses du Larzac.

Hard to define

Despite the quality of the wines, their burgeoning reputation amongst the cognoscenti, and their extraordinary value for money, these wines are relatively unknown outside of this corner of the south of France. Their lack of notoriety serves neatly to encapsulate the dilemma facing the Languedoc as a whole; there seems to be so much going on, so much localised excitement and so many well-meaning events such as this, that somehow the potential ultimately gets over-looked. How does one go about unlocking it?

Well, it's not an easy task; the Languedoc and Roussillon combined make over 5% of the entire volume of still wine in the world, that is to say more than Chile, more than Australia, more than Argentina and more than South Africa. Yet its surface area, at 218,000ha is only half what is was a century ago, when the region served as the engine room of the trade, or more appropriately, of the industry.

As with all industrial behemoths, there was strife, anarchism and competing voices, manifested over the years through riots and the tearing up of vines, through wine lakes being filled and emptied and through a bureaucratic web which, whilst trying to impose structural order on a widely diverse region, only served to complicate how it was perceived by the outside world.

The complexity is underlined by the sheer diversity of styles and geographical framework. Unlike Burgundy there is no ordered monastic heritage, and unlike, say Chile, there is no clear definition panned out by the logic of lines of latitude. The Languedoc, on the contrary is one great swathe running across the south of France, from the west of Carcassonne to the east of Montpellier, its landscape punctuated by semi-familiar names such as Fitou or St Chinian, its style roughly defined in terms of ripeness with a certain twist of garrigue, yet beyond that very hard to define, with no clear narrative. So many characters in search of an author.

Just to make things even worse

Matters are categorically compounded by the complexity of the very moving target of taxonomy; so today we have Vin de France, we have IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) wine and wine without IGP, and we have AOP (Appellation D’Origine Protegée).

This in itself is a huge simplification.

Within the AOP bracket, for example, there is a subcategory of crus, including the appellations which are seen as the most important (such as Pic Saint Loup, Minervois la Livinière and La Clape). Then, one step down, the so-called Grands Vins de Languedoc, which include Saint Chinian, Limoux and Cabardès AOPs, and finally the wider, generic AOP Languedoc.

The idea is clearly to build a pyramid of quality, therefore the key sectors within Saint Chinian (Berlou and Roquebrun) are included in the top tier (cru) but the rest of the enclave is part of the second tier (ie Grand Vin). The same applies to Minervois.

Got a headache yet?

Laudable this may be, it is also fraught with risk and often seems anomalous. Les Terrasses du Larzac is seen by many as the most significant AOP, and yet it only makes it into the lesser tier. Then we have the on-going dilemma where several of the most famous names, think Mas de Daumas Gassac and Grange des Pères, shun the categorisation altogether.

Such glittering exceptions only really hold water where the overall rules are cleaner in their definition; even Italy seems stronger in this regard, which is definitely saying something!

In the Languedoc it seems that the more there are attempts to impose structure and order, the more the vestigial anarchic inclinations bubble to the surface. This is a shame; nature has been benevolent, and both the infrastructure and the will are present.

The thrill and privilege of tasting the wines presented by 60 Terrasses du Larzac growers at Jonquières underlines in triplicate the fact that these products should be better known on the international stage; Mas Jullien, La Peira en Damaisela, Mas des Brousses, Montcalmes  Mas Cal Demoura... one could go on and on.

Ironically one of the best new producers in the Terrasses du Larzac gives his wine the most appropriate name of all, Les Vignes Oubliées (The Forgotten Vines)… it really is high time to remember, to rediscover and, most probably, to discover for the first time. It will certainly repay the effort.

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