Despite perfect weather and the freedom to produce any style of wine, the Languedoc is not an easy place to start a winery. CATHARINE LOWE talks to the Bordelais and Australians about why they ventured into southern France.

We have Bordelais varieties… non, non, pas Bordelais, Atlantic varieties… Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc et Merlot…’ So went the conversation on more than one occasion, as the newly established vignerons in the Languedoc – none other than Baron Philippe de Rothschild (BPR) – tripped over nicely heeled Médocain shoes so as not to upset the locals.A step wrong and they could have found themselves issued with the Mondavi one-way ticket home. Last year, Mondavi pulled out a proposed vineyard in the region after fierce local opposition. That unsuccessful American foray is an episode that crystallises the potentially fatal attraction of this area: long, sunny summers, coastal hills, lots of inexpensive land and relative AC freedom – alongside militant coops, rioting vignerons and a history of high-volume, basic wines. ’We are three hours from Bordeaux, but we could be in a different country,’ says BPR’s director/supervising winemaker Patrick Léon. ‘We are learning about wine growing with different personalities, different varieties, and different conditions. We are sure of the potential of this area, of the vines. But it is also a challenge.’ The same awareness, expressed differently, is only too apparent from the Australians. ‘It is quite an effort being here. We aren’t totally sure of our support from the region,’ says Ashley Huntingdon, BRL Hardy’s winery manager at La Baume in Béziers. ‘But we’ve got to believe that the region is coming round to us.’ And this is after 10 years.

Limoux, where BPR has set up, is in the eastern Pyrenean foothills, and has some of the coolest vineyards in the Languedoc at 200–450m altitude, where the influence of the Atlantic tempers that of the Mediterranean. BPR has a three-tier strategy: the first, its varietal range, in the £5.99 bracket, launched in 1995, with grapes grown under contract and transported to its winery in Médoc. Top of the BPR tree is Domaine de Lambert at Saint Polycarpe between Limoux and Carcassonne, chosen ‘as a lovely piece of terroir’. This will be premium château wine, ‘a Mouton Rothschild in Limoux’, released in the next few years. The château will be restored, and a visitor centre set up – with ownership in the baroness’ hands, it’s safe to assume that no expense will be spared. Occupying the middle tier is Baron’Arques, launched in 1998, a joint venture with Sieur d’Arques. This wine is a blend of six varieties – Cabernets, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache and Malbec, in the £19 bracket. ‘We are looking for complexity, elegance and balance, a grand vin rouge,’ says Léon of Baron’Arques. ‘The first quality is that it must be able to age, and show elegance and complexity. Not a Bordeaux wine, not totally Mediterranean.’

Fifteen wine growers contribute to Baron’Arques. The parcels are selected by Léon, with growers given a 27-point quality charter. ‘Using a small basket caused some consternation among the growers at first, but now they accept that that is what we want,’ says general manager Vincent Montigaud.There is also an acceptance that these ‘foreigners’ can be beneficial to the region. ‘BPR is 20 years ahead of us in red winemaking,’ said Sieur’s vineyard director, Regisse Caston. ‘It’s a benefit to the area. For red wine it is giving something, a quality, to aspire to. A lot of people would never have thought you could make a £20 red wine here.’Baron’Arques is not a wine for the faint hearted. The first vintage, 1998, has a nose of spice, perfume and roasted coffee which moves on to rich, dark fruit, roasted coffee, highish acidity and tannins. The 1999 is similarly strong, but smoother, more knitted, and the 2000 (still in barrel) shows dense wood and perfume, liquorice and chewy black cherry fruit – spicy and strong, powerful and elegant. Such structure will benefit from being laid aside for a few years. It comes with a certain amount of hype (considering its older siblings such as California’s Opus One and Chile’s Almaviva), a lot of support and a hefty £20 price tag.

The Languedoc is particularly attracting attention and excitement as the one vaguely liberal region in a country tied to appellation laws, yet surprisingly (or not, they are Médocain after all), BPR is keen to establish AC status for its Baron’Arques which currently goes under ‘Vin de pays de la Haute Vallée de l’Aude’. As Montigaud says: ‘It is a commercial decision, our clients would prefer us to have AC.’ But if the Bordelais had to tread gently, what about the Australians? ‘Initially they looked on us as if we were from Mars,’ explains Huntingdon, on the reaction to Hardy’s implementing night harvesting. The Aussies are also credited with bringing in speed of movement of grapes, temperature control and refrigeration of white juices. ‘None of these were in vogue when we arrived,’ said Huntingdon. ‘We knew we could grow quality grapes here, but they were not being grown in that way or being handled in a quality way.’

In return, Huntingdon suggests the venture had helped Australians to understand French wine. ‘Australians are as parochial as the French. But we’ve learned that finesse and deliciousness of structure are as important as ripe fruit and forward flavour. We have learned about restraint, concentration and elegance.’La Baume estate has a three-tier range: its Varietal, Selection, and most recently, premium Domaine de la Baume, with 1998 as the first vintage. Attention has focused on these new premium wines; the Domaine de la Baume white (70% Viognier, 30% Chardonnay) is in a powerful style, with lots of characteristic Viognier apricot and peach kernel flavours, a certain spiciness and a creamy, weighty body due to the dose of Chardonnay. (Its Varietal Viognier featured in Decanter’s Top 50 Whites under £10, November 2001).

Hardy’s bought into the Languedoc because it feared that with the EU, the European market would close down to it. In 1997, La Baume formed a relationship with Les Vignerons de l’Occitane, a substantial winery group in the region, which took a 10% stake, to help with source and supply.For the Australians, the relative freedom of the vins de pays was one of the attractions. ‘This area has the potential to be the most dynamic winemaking region in Europe. The wine style from here has greater diversity than any other area of France,’ says Huntingdon, who gave short shrift to the current move to introduce a superior vin de pays – Grand d’Oc. ‘It is such a confusing label. In France you have to be something, someone… that doesn’t matter to us. We are just intent on making the best wine.’

Written by CATHARINE LOWE