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Midi the total picture: Southern France

The wines of the Midi have always been eclipsed by their northern neighbours. Stephen Brook believes that it's time for a serious re-evaluation of the Southern France
  • The vast Languedoc is well on the way to defining its best terroirs.
  • Many growers in Southern France have wrenched themselves away from the cooperatives and are now bottling their own wines.
  • The large, westerly regions of Corbières and Minervois are not yet at their full potential.
  • Roussillon, still dominated by powerful cooperatives, seems to doze on, while its neighbours in Languedoc gain in vigour and persuasiveness.

The south of France wines

Twenty years ago southern France was, as far as its wines were concerned, a joke. True, there were a few pockets of excellence such as Bandol or Banyuls, but in general the Midi was rightly pilloried as a major conduit into the European ‘wine lake’. The region was dominated by cooperatives, many of them grubby and ill equipped.

Eventually it dawned on growers and producers alike that there was no future in bad wine. It was obvious that the region was ideally suited to viticulture. After all, the Romans had planted vines here, as had the Phœnicians before them. The climate was benign, the soils varied, the varietal blend had potential. Some regions were encumbered with a surplus of grape varieties such as Carignan and Cinsaut (or the dreaded Aramon), but there was ample Grenache and pockets of Syrah and Mourvèdre.

The different wine regions

The most dynamic of the southern regions has proved to be the Languedoc, although Provence would seem to have as much potential for good-quality wines. Within the most exciting Provençal region, Bandol, there are still too many wines that are tough as boots, but the high quality level established by domaines such as Tempier and Pradeaux has been matched by many excellent wines from Pibarnon, Vivonne, La Rouvière, Terrebrune and Tour de Bon.

Sadly, the Côtes de Provence has lagged behind. Dogged by a reputation for dull rosé, it has been slow to exploit the undoubted potential of the region. Rosé still sells easily to an undemanding market on the Côte d’Azur, so many producers see little reason to improve the quality of the reds and whites. Decent wines are emerging from domaines such as Gavoty and Richeaume, but other ambitious estates, such as La Roseline, La Bernarde and the impressive Dom de la Courtade on the island of Porquerolles, with its Mourvèdre-dominated reds, are demanding excessively high prices. There is greater consistency in the Côteaux d’Aix, with sound wines from châteaux Bas, Beaupré, Calissanne, Revellette and Vignelaure, and a handful of exceptional reds from Dom Les Bastides and the Chapoutiers’ Domaine des Béates.

The vast Languedoc is well on the way to defining its best terroirs: some have their own appellation, others are subdivisions of the catch-all Côteaux de Languedoc. Some 10 years ago only a handful of estates were showing what could be done in the Languedoc: Prieuré de St Jean de Bébian, Daumas Gassac, Mas Jullien, Château Estanilles in Faugères and, from 1992, Domaine de la Grange des Pères. Their days of splendid isolation are over, as new estates spring up like forest mushrooms. Many growers have wrenched themselves away from the cooperatives that used to buy their total production and are now bottling their own wines. In addition, outside investors, whether BRL Hardy’s from Australia, Michel Laroche from Chablis or Jacques Seysses and Aubert de Villaine from the Côte d’Or, have been moving in and have begun to produce sound and very attractively priced wines. Abbot Sneyd Anderson and Comte Cathare, both British consortia, have joined established French companies such as Skalli and Bessière in specialising in well-packaged wines sourced from throughout the region.

Some domaines remain attached to the traditional southern varieties, such as Grenache and Cinsaut, bolstered with more fashionable varieties such as Syrah, Mourvèdre, Viognier and Roussanne. Other estates have jettisoned the traditional appellations and varieties and opted for crowd-pleasing varietal wines from Chardonnay, Merlot, Viognier, or anything else they think they can sell. There are some excellent varietal wines under the Pays d’Oc appellation (and quite a few DOC wines turn out to be predominantly Syrah) but, by and large, the DOC blends show far more complexity and depth of flavour.

Within each sub-region of the Languedoc, a handful of estates are setting a lead for the appellation as a whole. The wines of Faugères are distinctive, and three estates – Alquier, Estanilles and La Liquière – show how consistent and delicious they can be. Saint Chinian seems to be lagging behind slightly, but good wines emerge from the cooperative at Roquebrun and properties such as Château Maurel Fonsalade. Many wines from the late 1990s, especially the 1998, are being over-extracted and over-oaked, still a regional tendency.

Within the Côteaux de Languedoc, Pic Saint Loup has been attracting some well-deserved attention. Domaine de l’Hortus remains the best estate, producing sophisticated, elegant wines that are skilfully oaked. In Pic Saint Loup one is spoiled for choice, with excellent wines also coming from Mas Bruguière, Château de Lascaux and Château La Roque, and the heavily oaked Château de Valflaunes. Montpeyroux is another up-and-coming region. Sylvain Fadat’s Domaine d’Aupilhac has been the best estate for some years, but there are challengers at his heels.

La Clape, planted on a coastal range near Narbonne, has proved an excellent source of white wines. Some of the best-established estates are Pech-Celéyran and Capitoul, but newcomers such as Château de Camplazens are also making terrific wines. Elsewhere within the Côteaux it is easy to become confused as new properties set up shop all over the place. La Prieuré de Saint Jean de Bébian, near Montpellier, has been revitalised under Chantal Lecouty, but prices have zoomed up too. The rich South African, Adrian Buhrer, has been doing wonders at Dom Capion in Gignac, especially since 1998. Domaine Terre Magere is now well established and Domaine Clavel at La Méjanelle shows great promise, as does Domaine de Tabatau at Assignan.

The large, westerly regions of Corbières and Minervois are not yet at their full potential, although the creation of a new appellation at La Livinière in Minervois will boost the best estates. Despite the success of domaines such as Clos des Centeilles and Villerambert Julien, too many estates are churning out insipid wines.

Corbières is hampered by the vast acreage of Carignan in the region. Old Carignan can be excellent and properties such as Château Lastours routinely show how good Carignan-based wines can be. There are bargains to be found here, both at individual estates such as châteaux St Auriol and Voulte Gasparets, and at the first-rate Mont-Tauch cooperative. Château Mansenoble, sleekly packaged with barrique-aged delicious wines, is scarcely typical.

Moving further to the west, from the Languedoc into Roussillon, we enter a different landscape, more extreme in its aridity, more brutal in the combat between vine and stoney soil. Roussillon should be producing great red wines, yet it continues to disappoint. Gérard Gauby, almost alone in the region, has shown what can be done, not only with red wines but with extraordinary and flamboyant whites. The Cazes brothers also go from strength to strength with a large range of consistent wines. It’s true that much of the viticultural resources of the Roussillon are devoted to fortified wines: the rich, sweet peppery reds from Maury, the silky, amber, wood-aged wines of Rivesaltes and Banyuls, the potent Muscats. And in Collioure a few growers produce impressive if earthy reds.

Yet Roussillon, still dominated by powerful cooperatives, seems to doze on, while its neighbours in Languedoc gain in vigour and persuasiveness. Things are stirring here, too. At Domaine du Clos des Fées, Hervé Bizeul has burst onto the scene with a range of powerful oaky wines from traditional varieties. They are very good, finely structured expensive wines that deserve to succeed.

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