‘The DNA of the IGP Pays d’Oc is to make quality, expressive varietal wines,’ says Florence Barthés, General Director of the designation. ‘And this allows multiple, different readings of the same variety, from our different vineyards and talented winemakers.’
It was indeed at the crossroads of tradition and innovation that IGP Pays d’Oc was forged 35 years ago, building upon more than 26 centuries of local winemaking tradition. It is armed with this incredible accumulation of ancestral knowledge and, simultaneously, state-of-the-art research facilities that decided to push the boundaries of the local appellation wines, by investing in variety-led expressions that could compete in the international markets with their international counterparts. The ultimate test being their performance on the world stage and the response from consumers and wine professionals.
‘We are privileged – we have a predominantly Mediterranean climate with a great diversity of soils,’ explains Christophe Felez, resident sommelier of the designation. ‘This means we can basically find a good way to grow almost any given grape successfully. This is the perfect place to experiment and find balance.’ Such sense of possibility has animated producers to plant and experiment with different varieties, responding to both consumer demand and their own creative urge. Beyond the region’s indigenous and long-established grapes – including the international ‘usual suspects’ such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, many of which are surprising for their quality and purity when tasted alongside some of their better-known counterparts – there’s been a growing interest in unlikely maverick grapes. Northern imports such as Riesling or Gewürztraminer have flourished alongside the Iberian Alvarinho and Tempranillo. From elsewhere in France,Chenin and Sémillon have found interesting ways to express themselves between the Mediterranean and Languedoc-Roussillon’s inland mountain ranges.
‘They will of course express themselves differently. You will not have the same acidity or minerality from the classical northern varieties for example; but you can discover an amazing aromatic complexity and richness,’ Christophe Felez continues. ‘This has also meant a lot of investment in research and development. With flexibility comes the need to learn and research. The growers need to find the specific way to treat these varieties here. And it all begins with finding the right place to plant. But it also has to do with crucial decisions about harvest date and winemaking.’ The investment in practices tailored to each variety has paid off, with the wines showing a different focus without ever losing balance. Or indeed a sense of place – far from losing regional identity, the introduction of ‘foreign’ grape varieties has allowed for a better, deeper understanding of the vineyards of Languedoc-Roussillon and their potential to yield fruit of incredible complexity.
The fact that the wines produced are then able to compete on the international stage against renowned siblings (often at much better value) only adds to the interest and intrigue of these experiments.
A daring shift from regional to a varietal focus, has paved the way to a better appreciation of the exciting diversity and singularity of the Pays d’Oc vineyards and the talent of local growers. It has also given wine lovers the opportunity to (re)discover both familiar and lesser-known grapes, through the kaleidoscopic angle of a diverse territory where a vibrant community of winemakers has both reinterpreted the classics and developed new approaches. ‘We have immense flexibility with this incredible range of 58 varieties. It has allowed producers to really experiment and reach new audiences. Take the red wines for example: in the early 2000s everyone was focused on structure and matter, producing wines for traditional drinkers and restaurant settings. Now there’s an increased demand for fresh, lighter wines that can be drunk by a younger audience in bistrots and wine bars,’ concludes Florence Barthés.
Pays d’Oc embodies a quintessential Southern French way of drinking, eating and enjoying life, rooted in creativity, exploration and sophisticated simplicity. Each grape that has found a new home in this unique corner of the world is testament to that.
Maverick varieties in the IGP Pays d’Oc
A group of varieties from around the world have found a new home in Pays d’Oc’s Languedoc-Roussillon, where they express themselves in new, idiosyncratic ways, producing niche, surprising wines.
From its original home in northwestern Portugal, as Alvarinho, the grape crossed the border to Galicia where it has become the queen variety. In the Pays d’Oc IGP Alvarinho finds a Mediterranean depth and width, without the salinity of its Atlantic expressions, but with a unique textural and spicy appeal.
Alicante Bouschet (Garnacha Tintorera)
After seeing its vineyard area decline to almost zero in its homeland France, Alicante Bouschet was enthusiastically adopted in the Iberian Peninsula where it provides the raw material for Alentejo smokey and Almansa’s juicy reds. It now has a comeback in the Pays d’Oc with producers taking advantage of its teinturier characteristics to produce wines with little extraction but still bursting with colour.
Many love mineral precision Chenin finds in the Loire; others the luscious texture of the top South African examples. In the Mediterranean Pays d’Oc vineyards, the two extremes meet for Chenin Blancs that are precise in structure yet generous in the mouth. In one word: delicious.
The Central European grape, known for its trademark floral aromas, deep exotic fruit and exotic touches, finds a fleshier, more textural side in the Pays d’Oc. With more sunlight hours, its pink-hued skin grows thicker, producing wines with more phenolic content, able to carry the intense flavours of peach, pineapple, mango and papaya with robust elegance. Winemakers are making good use of this potential for texture and aromatic complexity in sweet but also characterful dry white wines.
Careful canopy management, precise decisions on picking times and light-handed winemaking are producing excellent results, revealing a more casual side of the Spanish powerhouse. Christophe Felez mentions that partial or complete carbonic maceration has been a key technique to produce freshness-driven wines much loved in wine bars and for everyday drinking.
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