Languedoc made easy
- Monday 7 December 2009
If you land at Perpignan, drive to Maury, then head east, you wind through the Corbières mountains – great piles of weathered rock blotched with scrub – and descend to the plain around Béziers. In the distance are the Cévennes mountains. Near the coast, and for a long way back, all is flat, hot and fertile; in the hills the temperature is cooler, the land poorer. Until recently it was a land where existence was ground out against the odds. From the wine lover’s point of view all of it, from Banyuls to Nîmes and beyond, is one place: Languedoc-Roussillon.
Absurd, isn’t it? How can somewhere so disparate, where the exposure changes with every bend in the road, where the colour of the soil changes from this slope to that, where the plain spreads unimpeded to the sea, be one place? Ah, you will say, but it’s not: there are hundreds of different appellations – not to mention the Vin de Pays areas. It’s immensely nuanced and growing more so all the time.
But how many of those ACs and Vin de Pays can you name? Minervois, Corbières, Fitou, Faugères, St-Chinian, Côtes de Roussillon? And all those Muscats: Frontignan, Lunel, Mireval. And Banyuls. Or Collioure? Perhaps you could name whole strings of appellations, from Vin de Pays du Côtes de Thongue to La Livinière. In which case, congratulations.
But for most of us, navigating our way through Languedoc-Roussillon, trying to sort out good wines from mediocre is a journey attempted in the dark with few signs. Faced with six bottles from different appellations, all from producers you’ve never heard of, how do you judge? What is the style of St-Chinian compared to Minervois? Both are so varied, so immune to any definition beyond the basic requirements of grape variety, that they help the consumer not one jot.
No wonder we fall back on big brands. With appellation names carrying so little meaning for outsiders it’s a free-for-all, with small producers and big brands fighting for our recognition.
‘This part of France is the main region where the battle between big industrial companies and small, terroir-focused wineries is being played out,’ says Philippe Joncquères d’Oriola of Château de Corneilla, south of Perpignan. And big brands have promotional budgets that small producers can’t match.
‘The competition here used to be global,’ says Catherine Bodkin of Les Terroiristes du Midi. ‘Now it’s coming from big local producers, who are buying up smaller companies so they can offer a range of appellations.’ The small producers that remain must become increasingly niche, which usually means they focus on a unique terroir. So here too, appellation is of little help to them. Or us.
Languedoc-Roussillon either has too many appellations, or too few. On the one hand, the big appellations can be too big, too disparate, to have any meaning. Maury, a valley 18km long set between the Corbières mountains and the foothills of the Pyrenees is, according to Aurélie Péreira of La Préceptorie de Centernach, so varied it could be divided into 15 appellations.
The dry reds of Maury have to be sold as Côtes de Roussillon, when Maury Sec would surely tell us more about them. St-Chinian, which one might suppose to be a pretty specific appellation, in fact has soil that varies from chalky clay to sandstone to schist. The wines can be almost anything, from light and elegant to beefy and muscular.
On the other hand, small appellations continue to multiply without end. But what is the real difference in style between St-Chinian-Berlou (schist soil) and St-Chinian-Roquebrun (also schist soil)? Are two appellations really necessary? The boundaries of many small ACs may be defined because of politics rather than terroir: La Livinière, says one grower, was originally intended by INAO, the French appellations body, to be just one village.
Local politics dictated that it should be extended to five. How many individual ACs are the result of local rivalries, and how many reflect genuine, intrinsic differences of wine style? How often is it simply a case of wanting our own appellation because the people across the valley wouldn’t let us in theirs?
The French are obsessed with subdivision, says Christian Seely, of Mas Belles Eaux near Pézenas. And it doesn’t help anybody outside France. ‘Appellations seem terribly important when you’re there, but if you’re trying to export, it’s an illusion to suppose that consumers have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.
These appellations were created because the main market was France, and everyone in France knows Faugères, Corbières and Fitou.’ But France doesn’t drink as much as it used to. And as Joncquères d’Oriola notes, ‘Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée was introduced to protect growers, but now growers may feel they’re better off without it.’ For consumers, there seems little alternative to memorising a raft of producer names – or buying brands.
The big brands are doing an efficient job. Even their dullest wines are drinkable (just), and when they make better wines they can offer stiff competition to small growers. They’ve been effective in associating the name of Vin de Pays d’Oc with inexpensive, modern, varietal wines, which can be a problem for anybody wanting to make any other style under this designation; for a small producer to find that all-important niche is not easy.
Small companies may band together to gain more weight: there’s one called Les Terroiristes du Midi, which comprises 24 producers scattered from Banyuls in the west to Aigues-Mortes in the east. Such organisations, if they take off, can be very useful to consumers: back in the dark days of German wine, the initials VDP on a bottle, signifying that the producer belonged to a growers’ group called the Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter, was a pretty safe recommendation. Languedoc-Roussillon is not in the same boat that German wine was then, but if producers group together they can help both themselves and us.
Growers also have to hone their operations as finely as possible: they have to decide what is their ideal size for profitability – which will depend on their terroir, and on how many family members of how many generations are involved. Typically, says Bodkin, such a company comprises a couple aged in their 50s or 60s, who inherited it from the previous generation and left the local co-op to develop sales in bottle. Now their children are working with them.
They might shed some vineyards to arrive at the ideal size, or they may focus on domaine wines from a certain number of hectares and sell the rest in bulk. But all, in the end, must focus on a terroir. When Seely was looking for a site for AXA Millèsimes to buy, he started looking at large estates, ‘but the interesting terroirs were not on big properties, and most of them had uninteresting terroir.’ It was when he started looking at 20ha estates, not 100ha ones, that he found what he wanted.
Like the most interesting producers, if we are to focus on terroir, we might start in Faugères. Here the Vidals of Château la Liquière can at least boast they come from a homogenous appellation. ‘It’s the smallest in Languedoc-Roussillon,’ says Bernard Vidal, ‘and it’s defined by its soil. If it’s not schist, it’s not Faugères.’ But how does La Liquière differentiate itself from other producers?
‘Each year it’s necessary to rethink the way we work, to question everything,’ he says. Sophie Vidal, his daughter, says that if they were planting everything from scratch they’d probably plant half on north-facing slopes, for silky tannins and freshness, and half on south-facing slopes, for power: ‘We need to revalue the old grapes of Faugères; there’s a danger of standardisation. We need to get back to Carignan, Grenache and Cinsault. What you find everywhere is Syrah and Mourvèdre.’
Over in Côtes de Thongue, Louis-Marie Teisserenc of Domaine de l’Arjolle favours not just Syrah but also Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and the like. He has experimental hectares of Carmenère and Zinfandel which, at 17 years old, must be one of France’s oldest experimental plots. (Both make pretty successful Vin de Pays d’Oc wines.) And Jérôme Roger at Château du Prieuré des Mourgues in St-Chinian has an experimental hectare of Sangiovese.
But to really reflect the terroir, maybe we should look at Grenache. Marc Parcé of La Préceptorie de Centernach in Maury calls it ‘the midwife of terroir’; it can’t lie about it, he says. And François Vidal, Sophie’s brother, believes Grenache has more finesse than Carignan, Syrah or Mourvèdre. ‘The idea it is a rustic grape is a old one. It’s a question of work in the vineyard, and controlling the yield.’ I’d single out wines from Château d’Espérite, Domaine de Fontieulle and Domaine Pujol for individuality and silky sleekness. And their appellations? Vin de Pays d’Oc for the first two, Minervois for the third. But it doesn’t matter; the appellations tell you nothing about the wines.
At Terrasses de Larzac, maybe the AC is relevant. Its full name is Coteaux du Languedoc-Terrasses de Larzac, and it consists in part of open plateaux of fossil-laden soil high up to the south of Mont Larzac, a huge lump of chalk that dominates the landscape. There are 100 producers in this remote area and some are very fancy: Mas Julien, for example, and Mas de l’Ecriture – a pocket-sized estate working on a most detailed scale, with great focus in both vineyard and winery. Could this new appellation, created in 2004, buck the Languedoc-Roussillon pattern by being a true guide to style, an AC that means something? It’s geologically varied but the rules are strict and quality seems high.
We could do with a bit of help in getting round Languedoc-Roussillon. ‘When you sell a bottle of wine, you sell dreams as well; you sell yourself,’ says Joncquères d’Oriola of Château de Corneilla. But how many dreams can you recall without an aide-mémoire?