I wanted to share this article by Andrew Jefford from Decanter magazine on the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon. More specifically, the IGP or Vin de Pays of the region, here called Pays d’Oc.
The Languedoc-Roussillon is one of my favorite wine regions for so many reasons: the breadth of selection of wines; beautiful scenery; the history; the food; the charming towns and villages. I could go on and on. But one aspect I’ve been telling folks about for years is the affordability of the wines. And I’m talking really good wines at ridiculously reasonable prices.
Pays d’Oc fit into the middle of the quality pyramid of French wines. There are rules that need to be followed in order to make the wines. But the winemaker has much more leeway when it comes to available grapes and wine making techniques among other things. In the Languedoc-Roussillon this means that there are over 50 grapes at the winemaker’s disposal and just about anything goes when it comes to turning those grapes into wine. The winemaker can source grapes from anywhere within the region and blend them together to make his wine. With so much being grown here this is beneficial to the grower, the winemaker and finally the consumer because it keeps prices low.
As Andrew points out, the vast majority of the wines are single varietal. And, more importantly, the name of the grape can appear on the label. This is important because the next level up the pyramid (AOC wines) requires the place-name of the wine. So, a Pays d’Oc wine might read ‘Laurent Miquel Syrah’. While an AOC wine from the same producer might read ‘Laurent Miquel St. Chinian’. With the first wine you know what you are getting, Syrah. But what are the grapes in the second wine? You may not know unless you are a student of the region. Pays d’Oc wines are easier to understand for the average consumer, are reasonably priced and are, mostly, well-made. Enjoy the article. (By the way a St. Chinian is a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and other grapes and they are delicious!)
Being in the wine business I get asked this question a lot. And it’s really hard to answer. You may as well ask me what my favorite song is. Or how about my favorite movie? How can one possibly pick their favorite? One day it may be The Godfather Part II and the next it’s Raising Arizona. Two great movies that I can watch over and over again but completely different from one another.
And so it’s the same for wine. It really depends on a number of factors. What is the weather like? What season is it? What am I really excited about right now? These change all the time and so do my favorite wines. I think a better question to ask someone is this: If you could only drink wines from one region for the rest of your life, what would it be? Now that’s a great question that requires a bit of thought.
There are some expected answers such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa and others. But not me. There is a bit too much sameness in Burgundy. (I know that Burghounds are getting ready to stone me right now!). Sure, there is a difference between the spicy, structured wines from Nuits-Saint-Georges and the more fleshy, softer wines of Beaune or Pommard but at the end of the day it’s still Pinot Noir. The same goes for the whites. Yes a Macon is not nearly as concentrated, complex and powerful as a Meursault but they are both Chardonnay (don’t throw the stones just yet). And Burgundy does not offer the range of styles (white, red, rose, sparkling, sweet, fortified) that other regions can. Oh, and did I mention price?
Bordeaux would seem a good bet but there is some sameness there as well. The reds, for the most part, are Cabernet and Merlot based and the whites are Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon based. Yes, I know the different soil types – gravelly on the Left Bank and clay on the Right Bank – yield different wines in terms of structure, power and elegance. But there is not enough of a difference for me. And the price thing again. Yes, there are inexpensive wines but the best are really expensive. And, once again, we run into the lack of style diversity issue again.
I could go on and on detailing why this or that region would not suffice but I won’t. Let’s start to look at some regions that might do the trick. For me, it would have to be a region that offers up a wide range of styles using a wide range of grapes at reasonable prices for even the icon wines.
The Loire Valley you ask? There is a wide range of styles. You can drink sparkling, white, red, rose and sweet wines. Not so fast. The Loire does offer an array of styles to choose from but the grapes are limited to Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Melon Blanc (Muscadet). Not enough variety for me.
What about Spain? We haven’t visited there yet. There must be a region or two that offers all I want. Well….close but no cigar. Although I love the wines of Spain and love the cuisine and everything about the country it just would not cut it for me. Basically the whole country, not just regions, are tied to a handful of grapes. Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Monastrell (Mouvedre) are the main red grapes. Viura, Verdejo and Albarino are the main white grapes. Not enough diversity. And, I can’t think of one region that covers all the styles I want.
Shifting our focus back to the USA brings us to California, Oregon and Washington, the major players. Let’s get rid of Oregon right away for obvious reasons. Washington does not last long on observation for lack of styles. That lands us in Cali. Can you think of a region that gives you red, white, rose, sparkling, sweet and fortified at a reasonable price point? I can’t either.
So, what region would I pick? It’s obvious. The Languedoc-Roussillon.
Languedoc-Roussillon is the only single region, not country, that I can think of that offers all the styles of wine. The region is the birthplace of sparkling wine in Limoux in 1531. Mutage, adding alcohol to wine to fortify it, was first practiced here 400 years before it was adopted in Portugal. White, red, rose, sparkling, sweet and fortified are all made here. And made well I might add. And the price to quality ratio is off the charts. Even the icon wines are reasonably priced and offer some of the best bargains in the world.
Not only are all the styles represented but within those categories the styles are endless. The number of grapes allowed is, almost, endless. Think of a grape and there is an extremely good chance that someone is making wine with it here.
The region is vast at over 600,000 acres which makes for numerous macro and micro-climates. There are different soils and elevations strewn throughout the area as well. This all gives rise to the plethora of appellations in the region. And within each appellation there are different styles of wine. It makes the drinking fun, exciting and never boring.
There are too many wines and producers to list. Here are some of my favorite appellation to try:
Pays d’Oc. This is a Vin de Pays or IGP category of wines that opened up the region to countless wine drinkers. There are less stringent rules here and the wines often have the grape(s) on the label. These are inexpensive wines made from local and international grapes that offer great value. The whites are clean and crisp and the reds juicy and easy.
Cremant de Limoux. Excellent, traditionally made sparkling wines based on the Mauzac grape with some Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. These are not as complex as Champagne but they are not meant to be. These, original, sparklers are fruity with ripe, crushed red apple and bright acidity.
Corbieres. This is the regions largest AOC both in terms of production and acreage. The area is old and vast with many micro-climates so there is no one style of Corbieres. That being said the wines tend to be on the rustic side with plenty of the hallmark garrigue (aromas and flavors of thyme, rosemary, lavender, pine) the region offers.
Minervois. Another large AOC size wise. This is probably my favorite of all but it’s hard to say as it depends on what I am looking for (see first paragraph). The wines are powerful blends based on Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. The AOC lies at the foothills of the Black Mountains on limestone soils, perfect for quality wine production. There is an elegance to the wines to go along with great texture. Try to find wines labeled – Minervois La Liviniere. This is a better sub-region considered a Cru of the Languedoc.
Rivesaltes. Fortified wines made in Roussillon from either Muscat (fresh, fruit forward) or Grenache (red, slightly oxidised or fresh and fruity).
So there you have it, the one region I would drink for the rest of my life. Let me know what region you would pick.