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Top Pays d’Oc wines to try

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With 120,000 ha under vine and around 800 million bottles produced every year, the Pays d’Oc IGP is France’s most significant single varietal wine category, says Andrew Jefford.

It’s four times the area and produces more than twice as much wine as Champagne (33,843 ha and 362 million bottles), for example; indeed it has a larger growing area and produces more bottles of wine than Bordeaux (119,000 ha and 700 million bottles per year).

More significantly still, it’s the home of French wine-making freedom. With no fewer than 58 varieties to choose from (plus, more recently, five new ‘innovative’ varieties), every grower can give full rein to her or his creative instincts – or the particular demands of their soils and sites. Varietal wines, blends, sweet wines – you’ll find Pays d’Oc IGP examples of all of these wine types, and wines at all price points, too, from bargain territory all the way up to prices that reward the highest wine-making ambitions.

A last point worth stressing is consistency. Amazingly enough for such a huge production volume, every wine is tasted by a panel of experts before the wine is put on sale – that means around 900 samples a week, assessed by 450 accredited tasters. The rejection rate is not insignificant – between nine and 20 per cent.

The result is a set of wines that combines value with drinkability and classic French subtlety, too. Here’s my selection from the 53 ‘Ambassador Wines’ to represent the essence of Pays d’Oc IGP picked for 2019 by an international jury of sommeliers, consultants and journalists.

Pays d’Oc white wines

Cantalric, Sentiers du Sud, Colombard 2018
This bright gold wine will come as a contrast to those familiar with Colombard wines in the Côtes de Gascogne. The aromas have a sweetness to them – but it’s honey and soft citrus; there’s nothing grassy or grapey here. On the palate, too, this Colombard is dry, fresh, clean and pungent: a clear contrast to off-dry Gascogne. It’s vinous and sappy, too, with bright southern lemon flavours: that pungent freshness would be great with food. 88

Domaine les Yeuses, Vermentino 2018
The Dardé family’s Domaine les Yeuses, sited close to the lagoon of Thau, proves that it isn’t just Picpoul that can offer classy whites from this sea-breeze location. Here it’s Vermentino, the Ligurian and Sardinian favourite, which steps into the limelight with an acacia-and-almond scented white with plenty of brimming peach and apricot fruit on the palate. It’s crisp and fresh even though the acids are low: those sea breezes again. 90

Domaine d’Aigues Belles, Premier Rolle 2018
Rolle is the local French name for Vermentino – but this version from Gilles Palatan’s and Gilles Pelletier’s Aigues Belles is very different to the Domaine les Yeuses rendition. We’re further inland here, not far from cool Pic St Loup, and this wine is much fresher and leafier to smell. In place of yellow summer fruits, look out for apple-freshened celery, marrow and agave. A subtle lees richness from partial barrel-fermentation on the finish adds further class. 90

Vignobles Foncalieu, Griset 2018
The increasingly planted and now-fashionable Sauvignon Gris (Fié in the Loire) has a much less flamboyant character than Sauvignon Blanc, and this impeccably vinified example from the Foncalieu team summarises its poised tautness. It’s blended from fruit grown on two sites, one luminous and warm, the other cooler and more wind-exposed. Very delicate citrus and pear provide the discreet fruit notes. If you like Pinot Grigio, you’ll love this. 88

Les Vignerons de Florensac, Chardonnay 2018
Here’s an out-and-out winner grown close to the Picpoul de Pinet zone – and a perfect example of the stunning value that Pays d’Oc IGP can offer. (It was so good I begged to take it home to drink after the tasting.) You’ll find the best of Chardonnay on the nose: the subtle infusing milk-and-oatflake closeness. On the palate, too, this wine is gentle, nutty, close-grained yet fresh, with poised, enticing drinkability. Hard to think of a better simple, unpretentious Chardonnay than this. 90

Maison Castel, Grande Réserve Chardonnay 2018
Castel’s skilled chief winemaker Cédric Jenin is working with some promising Chardonnay parcels here. In contrast to the Florensac wine this has been lightly oaked, and the result is superb: sculpted and elegant fruit lent a teasing richness and the very faintest hint of buttery fullness in the glass. A classic fine-dining choice, underscoring how happy Chardonnay can be in well-chosen Languedoc locations. 90

Laroche, L’Art des Sens Chardonnay Réserve 2018
Craft counts for a lot with Chardonnay, and the Laroche team’s Chablis experience looks well to the fore in this superb Pays d’Oc IGP interpretation of the variety, grown on the coolest limestones at La Chevalière. Low yields and discreet oak help create a beguiling cream-and-hazel scent plumped out with softly peachy fruits; the palate combines teasingly southern honeysuckle and melon with a lemony, vivacious freshness. 91

Paul Mas, Grenache de Grenache 2018
No pussyfooting here: Paul Mas has blended 70 per cent of Grenache Blanc with 30 per cent of Grenache Gris, and he’s gone all out to give those varieties, very much at home in the Languedoc, full expression. Look out for malted barley grains, anis and marzipan in the aromas, while the soft, sweet, gentle, mellow palate is daringly characterful: glycerous and supple, a soft-focus synthesis of melon and marrow, anis and summer hay. A tender glance out at the Mediterranean and an excellent white both for sipping and taking to table. 90

Domaine les Salices, Viognier 2018
Trust François Lurton, with his global experience yet very French soul, to get this Viognier as laser-focussed as it is. The aromas are totally convincing: a shy but unmistakeable mixture of ginger and honeysuckle, cream and apricot — altogether the real deal. The palate is a little brisker than those aromas might suggest: lean, long, almost savoury, just swinging round to peach and apricot right at the end. The bright focus will set you up for that second glass. 89

Domaine les Yeuses, Viognier 2018
The Yeuses team are back again with another convincing white wine offering amazing value. Just how good those vineyards close to Pinet and the Thau lagoon are is underscored by the fact that this Viognier is made from grapes grown with almost double the yield of the Salices version – yet it’s just as concentrated and characterful. Apricot, honeysuckle and candied lemon, with spoonfuls of cream: lively, sappy and well-gauged throughout. Relax and enjoy. 90

Laurent Miquel, Solas Albariño 2018
I remember visiting Laurent Miquel as he was getting the first results from his newly planted Albariño, and noting his enthusiasm. Now I understand why. Grown on clay-limestone soils near to St Chinian, this is aromatically finely judged, with its pretty perfumes of blossom, apple and zesty nectarine. The palate is zesty and pungent, a cascade of apple, nectarine and grape: taut flavours and all the aromatic finesse you might wish for. 89

Serre de Guéry, Conseil Gewurztraminer 2018
Honestly, I didn’t expect this: an aromatically exact, sensually gratifying Gewurztraminer in the middle of a Pays d’Oc IGP tasting. But here it is: cold cream, rose, lychee and jasmine, as enticing as you like. You’ll find lychee and jasmine on the palate of this wine grown close to Minervois, as well as ample juicy orange fruit in the moderately creamy palate. Another terrific varietal effort from evidently propitious Languedoc clay-limestone soils and breeze-freshened hill sites. 90

Domaine de Cigalus, Cigalus Blanc 2018
Not a varietal wine, this time, but a low-yielding, biodynamically-grown blend of Chardonnay with Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc from the Gérard Bertrand-owned Domaine de Cigalus. It’s crafted in the rich and lavish Bertrand style which has been such a hit around the world: ample peach, honey and toast. Kick back and sink in. 88

Pays d’Oc pink wine

Les Jamelles, Cépage Rare Mourvèdre Rosé 2018
Rosé wines from Languedoc are a mixed bag at present, with few as yet realising what a challenging wine style this is to make successfully. Badet Clément has got it right, though, with this personable and vivacious pure-Mourvèdre rosé: a pretty pale pink, with a plum, strawberry and gingerbread scent. It’s peppery and vinous on the palate, with enough acidity for freshness but not so much as to dominate the discreet, supportive fruit. 89

Pay d'Oc IGP

Pays d’Oc red wines

Olivier Coste, Cinsault 2018
Do you know Cinsault? Once you’ve tried this, you will! A deep clear garnet in colour with pretty strawberry scents, and a fruit fiesta on the palate: lively, bright, tangy, smooth, perfect for chilling. This large-graped variety customarily puts the flesh into blends … so enjoy that flesh on its own here. The Languedoc hallmark of a faint finishing herbal bitterness ensures it leaves the mouth clean and fresh. 88

Vignobles Foncalieu, Le Versant Pinot Noir 2018
It can’t quite match Chardonnay, but hunt about a bit and you will definitely find some good (and great value) Pinot Noir from Pays d’Oc IGP. Here’s an example. It’s a clear bright red in colour, with exuberantly fruity aromas: plums scattered with the odd raisin. The palate is deep, pure and primary: juicy plum with a little tannic squeeze. Exuberant yet genuinely varietal wine with some knife-and-fork seriousness to it. 88

Calmel & Joseph, Villa Blanche Malbec 2018
This Malbec, grown on clay-limestone soils, has attractively sweet, spicy, earthy and pungent aromas of warm plum and blackberry. The palate is no less exuberant, with shovelfuls of fruit in gutsy, exuberant style; ample shaping tannins, too. It might even benefit from a year or two’s cellar calm. 88

Vignobles Foncalieu, Le Versant Syrah 2018
This dark Syrah is unoaked, but the smoky side of the variety is still evident, as is as an alluring sandalwood spice note. The emphasis is very much on fruit purity on the palate, with little detaining tannin: deep, plummy, resonant. 89

Fortant de France, Terroir d’Altitude Syrah 2017
Vinfied from Syrah grown in selected hillside sides and given a four-day cold soak, this wine also benefits from a week’s post-fermentation maceration followed by four months on lees. You’ll see some use of oak in the warm, expansive aromas, while on the palate the wine is bright, expressive and pungent, its black fruits now softened by an extra year’s storage. 89

Domaines Paul Mas, Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
This dark wine has deftly drawn red and black fruit aromas (cherry and blackcurrant) with pure, long, soft and resonant fruits on the palate, too. There is some tannic support, and the classic fragrant Languedoc thyme is apparent, too; look out for liquorice on the finish. It is very reasonably priced in the global context: fruity red wine with true French complexity and subtlety. 90

Domaine de la Jasse, Tête de Cuvée de la Jasse, Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
This is the prestige cuvée from Pays d’Oc IGP specialist la Jasse, and it’s now had over two years’ maturation. That’s paid dividends in terms of aromatic harmony and resolution, with enticing plum, bramble and Christmas spice. On the palate, this sweet-fruited, very gently oaked wine is deep, concentrated, earthy, close-grained and long: soundly satisfying, yet with the supple tannins to carry it a year or two further. 91

Domaine Gayda, Figure Libre, Cabernet Franc 2017
From tragically tiny yields in this frost-hit vintage (just 10 hl/ha), yet singing with cherry fruit of great purity, and a little raspberry too. The palate gives you a fresh fruit cascade, packed with crunchy raspberry of impressive gathered force; the barrels in which the wine aged have shaped that fruit but left it entirely unoaky. This is exciting Cabernet Franc from the vineyards near Atlantic-influenced Malpère zone: the Languedoc’s breezy back door. 91

Bruno Andreu, Pure Petit-Verdot 2017
This is very much a Béziers take on Petit Verdot rather than a Bordeaux one. In place of the tight, almost inky-peppery style typical of this variety when grown in the Médoc communes, this is dark but sweetly smouldering and bubbling with blackberry fruits. It’s mellow, soft and mouthfilling on the palate, again rich with blackberry lent a little complexity by anis and gentian. 90

Domaine Picaro’s, Eclosion Carignan 2018
‘Eclosion’ means ‘hatching’, and this gloriously unoaked Carignan (vinified with 10 per cent whole bunch) has hatched in darker form than Carignan wines often do from Languedoc, with eye-catching cherry balsam, almond and meadow-straw aromas. On the palate it is rich, sweet, pure, tender and true with some supporting tannin, unobtrusive acidity and little bitterness. 91

Maison Ventenac, Pierre 2018
Pierre is a blend of the two Cabernets (80 per cent Sauvignon and 20 per cent Franc) grown in the fresh air and limestone soils of the Atlantic-influenced Cabardès zone. Cold soaking and a lengthy fermentation before ageing without oak result in an exquisitely pure-fruited, shapely and captivating wine with hints of crushed stone, honey, pollen and thyme behind the currant and cherry fruits. A total charmer. 91

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