The wines of Languedoc-Roussillon

Gèrard Bertrand, in one of his oak barrel aging rooms, is one of Languedoc-Roussillon’s most prominent and successful wine producers.
WAG’s resident oenophile Doug Paulding visits a region in southern France where winemaking is truly an art.

Growing grapes for wine is a relatively easy venture.

Plant the cut shoots, known as canes, either purchased or from pruning another vineyard. Add water and some trellising, train the vines along the wires, wait for the third harvest and you can make wine. And it’s a predictable and reliable annuity … until something goes wrong.

Early and late frosts or hailstorms can devastate a crop, reducing yields by upward of 70 percent and having a significantly adverse affect on the next vintage’s harvest.

Big rains approaching harvest time will bloat grapes, diluting their flavors and will wash off natural yeasts on the skins, affecting fermentation.

Insect attacks, fungal and bacterial blooms and even wild turkeys or boars scavenging can decimate the vineyard and fruit, seriously affecting the bottom line. I often wonder how regions like Burgundy, which relies almost exclusively on pinot noir for its reds and Chardonnay for its whites, recovers from some serious natural assault.

The Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France along the Mediterranean Sea, stretches from the Pyrenees Mountains straddling the Spanish and French border to just north and east of Montpellier. The region has until relatively recently made uninteresting wines, often sold in carafes or in bulk. But as other regions and their wines have increased in value, producers and winemakers from these areas have bought interests or holdings in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, or have up and moved, buying up or planting vineyards on their personal estates. It is the largest wine-producing area in France and one of the biggest worldwide. 

The area ranges from sea level to quite mountainous elevations, with vineyards at many areas, altitudes and orientations. The hot summers and strong, predictable winds make it a wonderful region for farming sustainably, organically and/or biodynamically, minimizing or eliminating the need for chemical intervention. And as producers reduce each vine’s yield and vinify the grapes with better methods, the wines have improved radically and are now worthy and well-priced. 

The region is still in a state of organizational flux, however, with many big and small producers publicly debating how best to market their wines and lifestyles.  New rules have been established for regulating which properties and subregions receive qualitative designations. Look on the label for AOC Languedoc, Grand Vin de Languedoc or Crus de Languedoc, each successive designation indicating better terroir, technique and wine. Several other local subregions that have produced wines for centuries are well into the process of qualifying for and attaining AOC status (Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée, a French certification).

There are dozens of varietals of grapes grown here and many types of wines produced. Some are instantly recognizable noble varietals, as in Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, while others, such as Picpoul and Bourboulenc, are rather unknown and somewhat specific to the region. With all the varied vineyard sites, producers are capable of making quality wines in any weather conditions they are likely to see. There are a few single varietal bottles in the region, but in Languedoc-Roussillon, blending is the norm. Each specific varietal offers up its own personality. A winemaker always has the option to enhance the wine by adding accents from other grapes to incorporate other taste profiles.

On a recent trip to the region, I had an engaging and informative interview with Jérôme Villaret, managing director of Languedoc AOC wines. He told me, “Some grapes of our region are used for flavor, some for acidity, texture and/or mouthfeel. Adding small amounts of Mourvèdre to Syrah, for example, will add a velvety, textural feel in the mouth. Carignan will add freshness and acidity, contributing to a lengthy finish. 

“And it’s the same for the white wines,” he continued. “A wine that’s short on acidity, as Grenache blanc sometimes can be improved by adding a touch of high acid wine like Vermentino. Syrah tends to make a dark cherry flavor with pepper and spice notes. Grenache offers up more red cherry fruit flavors leaning toward strawberry. Cinsault makes a light and very fruity wine. Marsanne makes a white wine with a lovely balance of dry acidity. Roussanne will give off floral flavors tending toward white flowers with a rich mouthfeel.” 

In the world of wine, the palate is all important. It is where all the flavors and textures of the wine are sensed and interpreted by taste, smell and feel. In the Languedoc-Roussillon region, winemakers are like artists, painting a picture with a palette of wines, each contributing flavor, fruit, acid, mouthfeel and texture. Each winemaker, in every vintage, can realize and create almost the perfect vision of his wine. Most of these wines will tell you on the bottle the grapes used and the percentages. Pick up a few bottles and take some simple notes about which grapes interest you. Soon you will have a sense of which producers and which grapes produce wines of sufficient flavor, body and accent, and which subregion will maintain your interest. In the Languedoc-Roussillon, there is a wine for any palate. 

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