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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
- Banyuls: The fortified sweet wines made in this region have become among the most famous of the Languedoc-Roussillon. Right on the southern border of Spain, Banyuls makes porty wines that showcase unusual raisiny tastes. Made mostly from Grenache, including its "Blanc" and "Gris" mutations, the wines are generally drunk as an áperitif. Grand Cru designations exist for more fancy styles.
- Cabardès: Unpopular but often good blends of Rhône grapes and Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, these odd wines are often sold for very reasonable prices where they can be found. Despite having existed since the 1200s as a distinct wine region, the AOC was only created in 1999, and producers have been slow to market the wines. Château de Pennautier and especially Château Jouclary are meritable producers.
- Collioure: From the exact same geographical limitations as the AOC Banyuls, the Collioure appellation makes the dry, "normal" wines unsuited for Banyuls production. This gives it something of a downmarket image, but GSMs from here can be very similar to, and far cheaper than, those from the Rhône. Powerful and spicy, the wines can also be aged for more than a decade.
- Corbières: There are 88 villages that make up this famed AOC, together adding up to an impressive 33,000 acres of vineyard space. The idiosyncratic soil and growing conditions vary greatly, but generally are dry and arid with most of the best vineyards located on high hillsides. Specific regulations mandate the proportion of grapes which can be used, but generally the blend is a Rhône-like GSM, with local grapes blended in from time to time. Generously fruited but full-bodied, with unmistakable notions of herbs, the wines could easily be from the Rhône, but their strange dry spiciness makes them distinctive. These are the Languedoc's best wines, but only a few examples ever exceed $30 in price. Whites are outright uncommon but can be delicious.
- Coteaux du Languedoc: Usually, "Côtes" or "Coteaux" AOCs are generic and the more specific AOCs make better wine. This has been the history of Coteaux du Languedoc, but in recent years the varying offerings have improved significantly. This region makes all kinds of wines, the best ones generally from GSM blends or Chardonnay for white wines. Most importantly, this region has its own subregions, that of Pic St-Loup being the most important.
- Côtes du Roussillon: Côtes du Roussillon is the appellation for ambitious wines from the Roussillon part of the Languedoc-Roussillon area that do not happen to fall into a specifically designated appellation. Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut, Carignan, and "local" grapes are common for the reds and rosés, with Marsanne and Roussanne being interesting for whites, as well as the Italian Vermentino. This page also discusses the solely-red, higher-quality Côtes du Roussillon-Villages AOC.
- Faugères: The Faugères appellation includes seven communes of the northeastern Languedoc, with the Faugères village itself of course being the most important of them. In 1982, the former VDQS became an AOC, with GSM, Carignan, and Cinsaut playing an important part for the reds. Whites are altogether uncommon; they are usually made up of Marsanne and Roussanne. The hot, arid climate leads to smooth wines of dark spice and great balance.
- Fitou: A generally obscure Languedoc appellation, Fitou is large and many of the powerful wines tend to lack balance or sophistication. However, these Carignan-based wines often are unusual and have character, despite being obscure and generally unmarketed in the USA. Mont Tauch is one of the better producers.
- Frontignan: Frontignan is basically known for its Muscat de Frontignan, coming from the Muscat Blanc de Petits Grains grape. The appellation itself is beautifully located, with some vines right on the Mediterranean coast. Warm and powerfully sweet, the wines are known for being a little too liquor-like but the best have good honeyed fruit. They are very similar to Muscat de Lunel and Muscat de Mireval.
- Limoux: The most important AOC for sparkling wine of the Languedoc-Roussillon, the cavernous Limoux appellation includes even more important subregions Blanquette de Limoux and Crémant de Limoux, as well as the Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale for Blanquette bubblies made in a traditional Languedoc style. Mauzac, known locally as Blanquette, is the main grape for the sparklers, but Chardonnay and to a tiny degree Chenin Blanc are also blended into the wines.
- Maury: Maury is one of the Roussillon's specific appellations; Grenache is the main grape, used for an exorbitantly strong, porty fortified sweet style. The idiosyncratic wines are made either as "vintage", which are similar to conventional Port, or a style called rancio (rancid) which has an exotic, out-of-this-world smell and flavor. Neither are particularly common in the USA, but from producers like Coume de Roy and especially Mas Amiel they can be memorable.
- Minervois: The large, scenic village of Minerve is the heart of the Minervois appellation, which makes wines of all shapes and sizes. By the odd rules of the appellation, all must be blends; the reds use the typical Languedoc grapes, while whites can include stranger choices such as Muscat and Viognier. Although the area pumps out millions of bottles each year, even the cheaper wines are original. The best can age for several years.
- Rivesaltes: The Rivesaltes is a Roussillon appellation, most known for its Muscat de Rivesaltes subregion. Muscat de Rivesaltes itself is made up of either Muscat de Petits Grains or Muscat of Alexandria (or a blend of the two) and has at least 15% alcohol. Sweet and powerful, the wines are considered low-quality, like most Muscats, but from top producers can have powerful grapy fruit and additional complexity. Château la Casenove and Mas Amiel are considered good producers in Muscat de Rivesaltes AOC and also the basic Rivesaltes area.
- St-Chinian: Named for the large village, this appellation actually encompasses a total of 20 different communes in the western Languedoc. The wines were some of the first to be produced in the Languedoc, and St-Chinian wines have had lower production and higher quality since prehistoric times. The red wines have typical hill flavors of red fruit and spicy herbs, and a warm, almost cooked character. Due to their strength they are able to age 5+ years, unlike most of Languedoc's other reds. A few rosés are also produced.