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The European Journal
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Guy Chatfield

Looking towards the Languedoc

There’s great quality wine to be found in an unexpected quarter

In the world of wine there are some names that are instantly recognisable - so evocative are they of affluence and status. Due to their role in the evolution of what we drink, I am talking - especially - of the wines of France. As ever, we flock to buy Chablis and Sancerre, revere the “poise” of Burgundy, the “elegance” of Bordeaux and the “muscularity” of the Rhone.

But while there are wines from those regions that are world class, others - as the old Stella Artois advertising strap line used to say - are just “reassuringly expensive” and that does not mean you are getting value for your hard earned money.

The traditional model of planting high volume vines and producing low profit wine has become increasingly unattractive.

In the current climate, frittering away cash on what no longer justifies the price tag is insane. That said, the wines of France can offer you a huge amount of satisfaction, diversity and value if your curiosity allows you to venture beyond the biggest names of the well known regions. There is still a great deal else in this marvellous country that can beguile, mesmerise and delight, you just need to know where to look.

So, where should you venture in France for a wine that can deliver the proverbial bang-for-your-buck over the next twelve months? I would recommend heading for the south…

The southern half of France, even if you exclude the Bordeaux production areas around the Gironde and Dordogne rivers, has a rich history of viticulture and some seriously good winemakers. In the Languedoc, Greeks planted the first vines in France. Winemaking on a commercial scale was brought to the area by the Roman army.

In the modern era, its reputation has been tarnished by the ubiquity of the wines of Languedoc-Roussillon at the cheaper end of the scale. Since the arrival of the railways, these regions regularly sacrificed quality to produce high quantities of light reds to satiate the thirst of the newly industrialised north. To give you some sense of scale, last year Languedoc-Roussillon produced more wine than the USA.

Although the origin of winemaking in the region is demonstrably Roman, its outlook is much less traditional than its cohort of wine producing regions. This part of France has always had a much more laissez-faire attitude to the regulations than their northern neighbours and this rebellious approach has assisted their ability to innovate. The producers in Burgundy would be run out of town if they deviated in any way from planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, while in the Languedoc-Roussillon they have been able to experiment widely with the different strains of wine grapes. Here you will find grapes such as Marselan, a cross between Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon that exist nowhere else; the fruits of experimentation that would not have been sanctioned anywhere else in France.

To give you some sense of scale, last year Languedoc-Roussillon produced more wine than the USA.

The winemakers of this area have also innovated on the production front in recent years. The traditional model of planting high volume vines and producing low profit wine has become increasingly unattractive. As in so many markets, French producers are under increased pressure from rising costs. This is a great thing in my view because it is changing the outlook and direction of Languedoc-Roussillon winemakers. They are hanging onto and developing better commercially viable grape varieties that still suit the region. Fresh and bright styles of whites like Picpoul de Pinet have grown in reputation as they satisfy the international desire for wines with zip to replace the omnipresent Sauvignon Blanc.

Another exciting trend developing at pace is the focus on the marketing and international recognition for their sub-regions. In recent times the profile of areas such as Saint-Chinian, Corbières and Pic Saint-Loup have grown dramatically. Increasingly, sommeliers and wine lovers are investing the time to discover and promote these wines. When you next dine out I recommend seeking them out. Undoubtedly, they will prove superb value on the wine lists of reputable restaurants.

While the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon may not yet be hitting the levels of recognition that their cousins to the north can command, there is nowhere else that offers the full card of styles at such reasonable prices – not only reds, whites and rosés but also the original French fizz in Blanquette de Limoux.

With a great selection of multiple styles and affordability, the south is rising and will continue to do so for a good while yet.