Andrew Jefford gets to grips with France's IGP Pays d’Oc, which accounts for more wine than the whole of New Zealand, and recommends several wines to try.

And so to the Big One.  A single French IGP accounts for 14 per cent of all French wine.  That same single French IGP produces more wine each year than New Zealand.  Its 6.5 million annual hl (2.5 million hl of which is exported annually to 170 different countries) is equivalent to half of Australia’s total production, or about one-third of that of the USA.  IGP Pays d’Oc is France’s whopper.

Why so big?  ‘Varietal wine’ is the answer.  Pays d’Oc accounts for 92 per cent of all French varietal wine, and varietal wine is what most of the world’s wine drinkers find easiest to understand (66 per cent of the wine sold in the UK, for example, is varietal wine).  If any overseas purchaser wants varietal wine from France, Pays d’Oc is where they search.  Its two principal producing departéments  are my home territory of Hérault (45 per cent of the total) and Aude (33 per cent).  The Gard, which officially lies in Languedoc-Roussillon but whose AOP wines tend to be bracketed with the Southern Rhône, contributes another 21 per cent.

Colossal volumes will of course mean modest ambitions (83 per cent of all Pays d’Oc leaves its birth cellar as bulk wine), but at its best the varietal wines of Vins de Pays d’Oc have a subtlety and restraint to them which gives them truly durable commercial appeal within this category.  Every year, Pays d’Oc asks an independent jury to taste 50 or so wines from a shortlist of over 200 in order to come up with an annual ‘Trophy Collection’ of 20 outstanding examples of Pays d’Oc excellence.  Having tasted the Collections both last year and this, I’ve picked out ten wines for which tasting notes are given below.  There’s exciting value there.

A quick look at the statistics for 2015 to 2016 reveals that the most popular Pays d’Oc grape is not, as I’d expected, either Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon – but Merlot.  Rosé, intriguingly, is on the slide; it outsold white in the previous campaign, but not in 2015-2016 (26 per cent white compared to 22 per cent rosé, with 52 per cent red).  If you want diversity, Pays d’Oc offers 58 authorised grape varieties, with Albariño and Caladoc (a Grenache-Malbec cross) the latest to join a club which already includes Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Carmenère. I was surprised to see that Pinot Noir is the fourth most widely grown red in Pays d’Oc, ahead of Grenache (117,018 hl compared to 97,103 hl), with the Cabernet-Grenache cross Marselan becoming more significant annually.  Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Marsanne are all on the increase, too.

A chat with Florence Barthès, the Director General of Pays d’Oc, also revealed (to my surprise) that every commercial sample of Pays d’Oc wine is tasted for approval – which means around 900 samples a week, a pool of around 450 accredited tasters, and a colossal amount of administration.  Even more surprisingly, Mme Barthès told me that the rejection rate varies between 9 and 20 per cent (20 per cent of 6.5 million hl would be 1.3 million hl: tough love).  Blends are allowed – and are on the rise, though from a small base (they now represent 7 per cent of Pays d’Oc, up from just two per cent a decade ago).  The biggest problem the Pays d’Oc faces is generational succession: 65 per cent of growers are now over 55.

Shortly before Christmas, the Pays d’Oc held its AGM in the surreal surroundings of La Grande Motte’s casino – and the mood was dark, despite what should be good news.  “The 2016 harvest was smaller than last year, but quality is exceptional,” explained Jacques Gravegeal, the Pays d’Oc president.  “The national crop is down, we have no excess stocks, so we should be able to sell everything.  And yet the merchants are offering us lower prices.  Why?”

Gravegeal cited a number of different factors, not least France’s disastrous 2016 tourism year and the fact that grape variety names can now be used on ‘Vin de France’ wines, eroding the Pays d’Oc’s USP.  (He might, looking forwards, have mentioned Brexit – certain to hurt Pays d’Oc growers as British supermarket buyers hunt for suppliers prepared to absorb the pain of the shredded pound on their behalf.)

Gravegeal’s chief ire, though, was directed at some of France’s supermarkets for what he claimed was mendacious labelling of their own-label varietal wine for the bag-in-box trade, and in particular the use of cheap Spanish varietal wine in brands which were formerly French, and whose visual identity was unchanged.

That, I guess, is one of the drawbacks of being a giant: you have to compete at the bottom just as you do at the top, since livelihoods depend on it.  From the export perspective, though, my advice to Pays d’Oc growers would be to look on the bright side — of which, once you settle down with the wines, there is plenty.

Pick of the Pays d’Oc Trophy Collection 2016

I mention ‘the indicative retail price’ for these wines (and have ranged them in price order and scored them with price in mind) since price comprehensively influences quality expectations at this level: a five euro Pays d’Oc is a very different proposition to a 15 euro Pays d’Oc.

White wines

Chardonnay

Pays d’Oc Chardonnay strikes me as being far more successful than Pays d’Oc Sauvignon Blanc: Burgundy’s great white variety can perform with grace and poise here, at both ambitious and commercial levels.

Beauvignac Chardonnay, Costières de Pomerols 2015

This inexpensive (5 euro) Chardonnay from Picpoul country is warm, soft, rich and generous: ripe without being overweight or vulgar, and with a lovely glugging balance and clean, vinous finish.  88

Le Prestige Chardonnay, Collines de Bourdic 2015

We’re up in the Gard’s Duché d’Uzès country with this Chardonnay at a negotiable price (8 to 15 euros), and it’s clearly an oaked wine — but remember that for some drinkers, Chardonnay without oak is like Epiphany without the Three Kings.  Within that oaky warmth, you’ll find a clean, fresh, classy wine marked by fresh apricot and peach.  89

Peyroli Chardonnay, Mas la Chevalière 2013

Step back two years for this (13.50 euro) Chardonnay from the Advini-owned Laroche: creamy finesse on the nose and admirable restraint and elegance on the palate, no doubt helped by the cool vintage.  89

Chenin Blanc

As well as putting nerve and sinew into blends, Chenin Blanc can work well in the Languedoc on its own, especially as you head towards Limoux.

Figure Libre Chenin Blanc, Domaine Gayda 2014

The unoaked Chenin Blanc from Brugairolles to the northwest of Limoux (priced at 16 euros) would be the ultimate wine-exam challenge: that teasing pineapple almost suggests Petit Manseng and the Pyrenees, while the orange hints aren’t too far from warmer climate Chardonnay.  On the palate, though, it is vinous, structured, sappy, stony and mouthwatering: a fine gastronomic white which eludes simple varietal expression.  Complex and long, amply justifying its price.  90

Grenache Blanc

A variety which unquestionably belongs in Oc: the big challenge is to give it aromatic shape, form and focus without sacrificing the pleasures of its soft, chewy richness.

Mas de Tannes Grenache Blanc, Domaines Paul Mas 2015

The ripeness in this 11.65 euro wine is neither repressed nor overwrought: hot-house blossoms and unfamiliar spices tease, while on the palate the wine is sweet-edged, full, lush and textured with apricot-banana flavours, gardenia scents and some toast and truffle afterwards.  Unapologetically southern, but balanced and refined, too.  89

Red wines

Syrah

For uncomplicated fruit pleasure, Syrah is pretty much the perfect Languedoc playmate.

Le Versant Syrah, Foncalieu 2015

Unoaked Syrah (at 6.05 euros) from limestone soils just outside Béziers: purple colours; plush plum fruits, informed by soft tannins and juicy acids.  Drink as soon as possible to enjoy all of that exuberant youthfulness.  89

La Jeunesse Syrah, Domaine la Baume 2015

The extra 55 cents (it’s 6.60 euros) brings you and extra degree of alcohol and a heavier bottle – but what I like is the alluring citrus-grove scents, so typical of Languedoc Syrah, and the density and persistence of the palate.  90

Blends

It was noticeable that the 20 wines in the Trophy Collection  included nine blends, or 45 per cent of the Collection – a colossally greater percentage of blends than the 7 per cent they represent in Pays d’Oc as a whole.  There’s surely a lesson here.

Cuvée JMF, Domaine du Grand Chemin 2014

This elegantly labelled wine grown on limestone soils from the Gard village of Savignargues is an intriguing blend of Cinsault and Pinot Noir (9.20 euros) which, like Gayda’s Figure Libre, is best enjoyed as a harmonious reflection of its vineyards rather than as varietal performance.  It has floral touches and shapely red fruit supported by firm tannins: poised and classy. 91

Cuvée Nicole, Domaine Aigues Belles 2013

Another wine from the Gard, this time grown just north of the Pic St Loup zone; the blend here is Syrah with Grenache and Merlot, and again the elegance of its labelling is admirable (12.8 euros).  One sniff of the wine shows how much benefit its drawn from the three years’ ageing: ripe fruits, underbrush and some truffley richness, too, with the oak influence perfectly judged.  It’s both elegant yet rich and resonant, too; perfect mealtime drinking. 91

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