A wave of high-profile investments in the Languedoc has brought the region to the wine world’s attention. NicHOLas Faith introduces the major new players and discovers a new breed of exciting, quality wines.

Languedoc needs all the help it can get. Restoring the region to its former glories requires serious money, equally serious marketing skills, and above all the right terroir. Despite continuous uprooting since 1962, it is still the biggest vineyard in France, and one of the biggest in the world, producing more than 2,000 million bottles a year.

The area’s most recent period of prosperity came after 1945, when its wines were blended with the strong stuff imported from Algeria. Then in 1962 came Algerian independence and the collapse of the market for ‘gros rouge’.

The drivers of the recent renaissance rely on native varieties to produce GSM, the blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, and a little old-vine Carignan. But Aimé Guibert, the first outsider to aim high at Mas de Daumas Gassac, produced Bordeaux-style wine, not relying purely on local varieties.

The best hope for most of the region today lies in brands, a strategy pursued by Robert Skalli with his Fortant range – the removal of ‘de France’ from the label showing an awareness of the country’s declining image. Another smaller-scale example is the Mas family; its eyes are fixed on foreign markets, but its wines remain good-value, bourgeois products. Newcomers like Robert Herrick – whose vineyard is now owned by Southcorp and Gallo – are also recognising the value of the Languedoc.

Key newcomers from outside the region include two prestigious names from Bordeaux: Jean-Michel Cazes from Lynch-Bages (Decanter Man of the Year in 2003), and Christian Seely of AXA Millésimes, the winemaking subsidiary of the AXA insurance giant. Both have joined the tiny band of growers aiming at what might be called ‘classed growth’ status.

Cazes, for one, is puzzled that he had not recognised the potential earlier. He blames the tendency to become star-struck by the glamour of the New World though, as he points out, ‘the Australians showed the way’ in terms of establishing the potential of GSM wines.

Unsurprisingly, the newcomers obey some basic rules. They never over-produce (30–50hl/ha seems the rule). They pick by hand, avoid over-extraction and go easy on the wood, rarely using 100% new oak. Moreover, by picking at exactly the right moment, and by treating the fermenting juice very carefully, they generally manage to make good wine, even in the heat of 2003.

They all offer a range of wines, starting with a basic blend. Then comes a reputable brand which can be produced in large quantities and, topping the range, the flagship wine. This category of producer is likely to grow in importance because the newcomers are finding locals willing to sell, albeit after all the hesitations and haggling that are inevitable with peasants whose families have often owned the land for generations.

The two most prominent ‘hot-spots’ are around Pézenas, to the west of Montpellier, and La Lavinière, an upmarket cru within the Minervois appellation hoping to carve out its own AC in the not-too-distant future.

All the Pézenas wines are AC Coteaux de Languedoc, so they rely on the names of the estates – and the owners’ reputation. The vineyard with the most historic form is that of the Prieuré de St-Jean de Bébian a couple of kilometres north of Pézenas. The Prieuré was successively a Roman villa and a 12th-century priory, and was rescued in 1975 by Alain Roux, who had worked with Gérald Chave. Roux took one look at the stony terroir and immediately saw the resemblance to Châteauneuf-du-Pape – hence the recent soubriquet ‘Châteauneuf Ouest’. He promptly planted most of the appellation’s 13 permitted varieties. In 1994 financial problems forced him to sell, to Chantal Lecouty and Jean-Claude le Brun, the former owners of France’s leading wine publication, Revue des Vins de France.

Rapid Growth

Chantal Lecouty has enlarged the vineyard area to 32ha (hectares) by acquiring a number of promising plots within five miles of the Prieuré – there are now 48 in all. She has ensured that the vines are planted at a density of 6,250 vines/ha, well above the regional average. Although she insists, quite rightly, that her grand vin is a vin de garde – it really needs at least eight years to fulfill its promise – she uses a maximum of one third new oak. By then it combines considerable power, depth and complexity with a lovely herbal, spicy freshness. By contrast the second wine, La Chapelle de Bébian, where she has gone easy on the wood, is from younger vines, and is dangerously easy to drink within three years. But possibly her greatest triumph is the white – this is made from classic southern varieties and retains excellent freshness as well as the rich fruitiness characteristic of wines from the south.

Not surprisingly she has neighbours – including John Goellet, the owner of Clos du Val – to provide competition, and in 2002 she was joined by AXA. For a couple of years

Seely had been looking for ‘unexploited great terroir’ and found it on the 30ha Ste-Hélène plot, on the gravelly slopes at Caux to the west of the town. The following year AXA was lucky enough to acquire Belles Eaux, a 60ha estate next door named after the numerous freshwater springs round the property. It already had excellent winemaking facilities in place, and a property dating back to the 16th century.

As so often, the new owners have gone in for replanting – including Cinsault. They also retrained the vines to reduce yields, and took such basic precautions as fermenting each variety and plot of vines separately. AXA, however, will be going in for a little Merlot as well as a lot of Mourvèdre. The aim of the director, Cédric Loiseau – who knows the region well, following a two-year stint as director of a local coop – is to bring out the typicity of the region and its native varieties. Though it is rather early to judge what they call ‘Caux regional wines’ their basic range includes a deliciously crisp and fruity rosé as well as a fresh spicy red. Top of the range is the Cuvée Ste-Hélène, classic Pézenas, the 2003 combining elegance and a suitable complexity and concentration.

La Lavinière, at the heart of Minervois, was first confirmed as a separate cru in 1998 thanks to Maurice Piccinini, the former director of a local coop, and Roger Piquet, a Burgundian winemaker. It’s a ‘boutique cru’, which is now becoming known as ‘the Pomerol of the Languedoc’ covering 600ha within the 4,000ha of vines now entitled to the Minervois AC.

The first newcomer was Robert Eden, grandson of the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden. From his eyrie high above La Lavinière, which he originally bought as a holiday home, he acts, as he says, ‘like one of those improving 18th-century landlords’. It’s not easy to make wine in a breathtakingly mountainous countryside where, as he says, ‘it is cheap to buy, and expensive to run, what with the steep and relatively tiny vineyards and their low yields.’ But, he says: ‘You want terroir, we’ve got it in spades.’

Helped by some years’ experience working with Len Evans at Rothbury and financial support from a couple of banker friends, Eden has created three separate vineyards since 1990 – as well as selling a superbly crisp, floral Muscat de St-Jean de Minervois. Bottom of the range is La Bégude, an Australian-style Chardonnay from a 20ha plot in Limoux. In 2000 Combebelle, from the tiny vineyards round his house, produced a blend of 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache, which is spicy and smoky but still very young.

Eden’s pride and joy, however, is the Domaine Maris from the vineyards below his house. It’s biodynamic, a discipline first imposed to clean up vineyards polluted by heavy doses of chemicals. The (unoaked) 2001 Maris Syrah is rich and fruity, while the Vieilles Vignes from subsequent vintages are rather tight, because of the use of new wood, and yields of just 25hl/ha.

Eden has now been joined in La Lavinière by Jean-Claude Boisset and, two years ago, Jean-Michel Cazes. Like AXA, Cazes was lucky to be offered another property after he had bought La Gardicole, a 30ha estate that had been built up by a local. Soon afterwards Cazes snapped up the Domaine de Viper nearby, with 25ha of vines and another 10ha of olive trees. He was also able to buy a superb historic winery that Eden had built soon after the first purchase. The whole property – 150ha, 60ha of which is planted – is now called l’Ostal Cazes.

Fabien d’Ardarmaillacq, a young winemaker who had worked at Lynch-Bages, has arrived too recently for any final judgment on his wines, but they show promise. The range includes a Vin de Pays d’Oc called Circus (according to Cazes because it is based on ‘cheerfulness, conviviality and sharing’). It’s a delicious unwooded Syrah, ideal as a picnic wine. More substantial is the Circus Parade – made from Syrah, Grenache and Carignan – the 2002 light like the whole vintage. Top of the range is l’Ostal Cazes, two-thirds Syrah, oak aged for 15 months – the minimum to comply with the regulations covering La Lavinière. This is deep and spicy, and needs years to develop, although it is elegant and far lighter than its 14% strength implies.

Languedoc’s terroir showed its class in the difficult 2003 vintage – the Grenache was picked at 17%. But the restless, imaginative Cazes is also hoping to produce great olive oil – rare in a region colonised by the vine.’ But what excites Cazes, like all the newcomers, is that, ‘it’s a new world. That’s what’s so marvellous.’

Prieuré de St Jean de Bébian 2000 (white)

Excellent fruity freshness plus typical rich fruitiness. Drink now.

n Prieuré de St Jean de Bébian 2001 HHHH

Still young, but promise of great power, depth and complexity, combined with a lovely herby/ spicy freshness. 2005–7.

La Chapelle de Bébian 2001

Elegant, fruity drinking. 2004–7.

N/A UK; +33 4 67 98 13 60

Belles Eaux, Rosé 2003

Deliciously crisp and fruity. Drink now. £5.99; Pgn

Belles Eaux, Tradition 2002

Fresh spicy red. 2004–6.

£6.99; Amp, Pgn, TFW

Cuvée Ste-Hélène 2003

Combines elegance, complexity and concentration. 2006–8.

N/A UK; +33 4 67 09 30 96

Domaine Maris, La Touge, Syrah, La Lavinière 2000

Very fresh, fruity. 2005–8. £8.65 (2002); BBR

Domaine Maris, red 2001

Rich and fruity. 2005–8.

£6.79; Odd

Les Vieilles Vignes de Château Maris, Syrah 2002/2003

Naturally still rather tight but great depth and promise. 2008–10. £13.86; Rei

Muscat de St-Jean de Minervois 2003

Combines floraity and crispness. 2005–6. £8.99 (50cl); Odd

Domaine Bégude,

Limoux Chardonnay 2002

Well-made, not overly rich, Australian-style Chardonnay. 2005–7. £7.99; Wai

Domaine Combebelle, St-Chinian 2000

70% Syrah and 30% Grenache, spicy and smoky but still very young. 2007–12. £6.89; Odd

L’Ostal Cazes, La Lavinière, Minervois 2002

Two-thirds Syrah, deep, spicy, needing years to develop, but elegant and far lighter than its 14% strength would imply. 2008–10. £13.99; Men

Circus, Parade, Syrah-Grenache-Carignan Minervois 2002

Light like the vintage as a whole. 2004–6. £7.99; Men

Circus, Vin de Pays d’Oc 2002

Delicious, unwooded Syrah. Fresh, easy drinking. Ideal picnic wine. 2005–6. £5.99; Men

For UK stockists, see p114.

The third edition of Nichola Faith’s book, The Winemasters of Bordeaux, will be published by Carlton Books in April, £12.99

Written by Nicholas Faith