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Languedoc-Roussillon


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Languedoc vineyards

Scenic view of Languedoc vineyards. Photo by Mick Stephenson. License: Creative Commons SA 3.0 Unported.

The Languedoc-Roussillon of France produces more wine than any other geographic region in the world. Its 700,000 acres make for around 250 million cases of wine produced annually, or around three billion bottles. This trumps much larger regions like Napa Valley. Unsurprisingly, the region is considered generally low-quality due to overproduction, but enterprising new producers have harnessed the viticultural strengths of the land and given the region new possibilities.

However, only 16% of these wines are actually made as AOCs, with the remainder falling under the Vin de pays d'Oc designation. There are now 29 AOCs in the Languedoc-Roussillon for producers to label their wines under; although a pittance in comparison with Burgundy's 106 or the Loire's 93, the list nevertheless is an impressive display of wine regions.

Not surprisingly, the wines themselves are amazingly diverse. International grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon make some of their bargain examples here; though excellent values, they rarely are the objective best wines. Due to the region's geographical similarities to the Rhône, the best wines often come from Rhône grapes such as Mourvèdre, Cinsaut, and especially Grenache and Syrah for reds, and Marsanne, Roussanne, and sometimes even Viognier for the white wines.

Though not as high-quality as some of the more elite French regions, the Languedoc nonetheless plays a tremendously important part in winemaking. The region produces just about every type of wine known to man, from light sparkling wines to nervy rosés to hearty, high-alcohol fortified examples. In addition, their conventional styles are growing in quality and popularity as inexpensive alternatives to Rhône wine.

History

Between 500 B.C. and the early A.D.s, the ancient Greeks were planting grapes in the Languedoc-Roussillon. At that time, the Languedoc and Roussillon regions were separate. The Languedoc's reputation was far superior; St-Chinian was already well-known for their reds. In fact, as Bordeaux and Burgundy were just beginning to get planted with grapes, the Languedoc had established its reputation as one of the best winemaking areas in the world. The empire grew and grew, spreading to other regions of the Languedoc, and soon its mountainous hillsides were full of vineyards. Demand was high, as were prices.

The Languedoc remained an appellation of impressively high quality through war and famine until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when production began to exceed demand. The phylloxera epidemic wiped out high-quality grapes in the Languedoc, and the international grapes brought in from America failed to do as well as they had in other French regions. Algerian and Rhône grapes were imported en masse, and the regions' producers initially failed to get a handle on the nuances of the new grapes.

By the early 1900s, other regions had pulled ahead significantly, with Bordeaux getting great attention for the 1855 classification of its wines, and the Languedoc largely considered a lower-level appellation. By midcentury, the Languedoc-Roussillon was considered a declassé region, and even the implementation of AOC regulations failed to help.

However, in recent years there has been a pickup in quality here; within AOCs, some committed producers have begun to make impressive wines that are not mass-produced. In addition, a rejuvenated interest in inexpensive, good-value wines (especially reds) in the world markets has helped to bring the region back into popularity.

Climate and Viticulture

Although talking about climate and viticulture for such a large and diverse area seems silly, there are a few general rules that can apply to production in the Languedoc-Roussillon. The region is similar to the Rhône in particular, with the gravelly stone soils resembling Châteauneuf-du-Pape in many places. There are a few limestone hills, but the soil is generally a low-quality mixture of chalk and small stones.

Grape Varieties

The grapes of the Rhône tend to thrive in the Languedoc-Roussillon: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Cinsaut for red wines, and Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier for white wines. Some local grapes also exist, most of them unheard of outside the Languedoc. As in many of the less significant regions, international grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot are usually used for rather anonymous, usually inexpensive and low-quality types of wine. These wines are not necessarily terrible, but what they always fail to do is convey the region's unique terroir, which makes them interchangeable with Cabernets and Merlots from other regions.

Chardonnay doesn't typically make great still wines here, but their sparkling Crémant de Limoux examples are impressive. Muscat, another international grape, makes highly interesting styles, ranging from sweet to dry, that rival Alsace's renowned Muscats.

Major Producers

Surprisingly for an area of such a large size, the Languedoc-Roussillon has few producers that dominate production. Local co-ops are commonly seen, and many producers limit themselves to only one appellation, attempting to master its unique terroir without branching out towards others. And in any case, the larger producers tend to be less qualitative, making international wines of anonymous style rather than specifically made wines that epitomize the quirky appeal of the Languedoc.

Another factor limiting big producers is that undercutting the prices of the generally inexpensive wines is difficult, forcing big producers to charge as much as their competitors and relinquish their competitive advantage. As a result, few big producers in the Languedoc are given much attention, and localized merchants that focus hard on quality are even more important than they are in other regions.

Subregions

Due to its large size, the Languedoc-Roussillon region has a number of distinct subregions, many of which have several AOCs of their own due to the large variance in the styles of wines produced. All the important appellations, out of the 29, will be discussed throughout these pages; here, we list the regions that are considered most important for Languedoc wine production. A basic description of the wines they make and their sub-appellations is also included. (Note: a few famous appellations are contained within others, such as Pic St-Loup within Coteaux du Languedoc.)