World’s “largest vineyard”

The world’s biggest wine-growing region has been celebrating Terroirs et Millesimes en Languedoc. For publication in the week of 1 May 2017.

Xavier de Volontat, president of the group that represents the highest-quality wines in Languedoc-Roussillon, describes his region in southern France as the “world’s largest vineyard”. He is not exaggerating. The region produces more than a third of all France’s wine and about 40 per cent of all French exports.

Volontat’s Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc (CIVL) represents AOC wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, which produces about 1,800 million bottles a year, or about 5 per cent of all the world’s wine. That is more than the output of entire countries like Chile or Australia.

One in three bottles from the region is sold overseas. Wines are exported to 135 countries and AOC sales have doubled in the past six years, to be worth 185 million Euros last year. The biggest customers by volume are China, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany and the United States. A third of all French vineyards that have embraced organic practices can be found in the Languedoc. Last year sales of organic wines surged 13 per cent.

The region has 36 AOCs, or designated wine-growing areas. Because of the huge size – about 224,000 hectares of vines – and the high number of AOCs people sometimes struggle to understand the wines. To make it easier for consumers, the CIVL has organised wines into a three-tier pyramid.

At the top are the seven Crus du Languedoc — what Jerome Villaret, director general of CIVL, called “the most complex and iconic wines of the region”. These are aimed at connoisseurs or wine buffs and represent about 11.5 per cent of the AOCs. The middle tier consists of 23 Grand Vins du Languedoc, which is 69 per cent of the AOCs. “These are premium wines that reflect the diversity of the region,” Villaret said via a translator. He described the bottom tier of AOC Languedoc as the “flag bearers” of the region.

Some vineyards have wines at all levels. Villaret admitted the most difficult issue was how to define the top level “because everyone wanted to be there”. “This question is a work in progress,” he said. “Things are evolving, so expect more changes in coming months.” Over time the region should be able to sell wines at higher prices “once reputations have been established”.

Languedoc AOC wines sell for about 4-5 Euros a bottle in France, with an export price of USD 10-12. Grand Vins du Languedoc retail for between 5 and 10 Euros domestically, with an export price somewhere between USD 15 and 75. Crus du Languedoc wines sell for more than 10 Euros in France and at least USD 25 when exported, though prices can reach several hundred Euros depending on reputation.

In places like Burgundy the ranking system took 500 years to be resolved, so we should not expect clarity overnight. “The quality of the wines will convince the consumer,” Villaret said. The INAO, the national body that regulates and approves wine specifications, must approve future changes. Villaret said the key questions to answer were: Where was the highest potential in the region and how could the Languedoc align itself to what the INAO sought.

The seven Crus du Langedoc in the new structure are Corbieres-Boutenac AOC, Faugeres AOC, La Clape AOC, Minervois-La Liviniere AOC, Pic Saint Loup AOC, Saint-Chinian Berlou AOC and Saint Chinian Roquebrun AOC.

The Greeks are believed to have planted the first vineyards along the coast near Narbonne about 2,500 years ago. These are said to be the oldest vineyards in France, along with parts of Provence. The region of Languedoc has belonged to France since the thirteenth century. France acquired Roussillon from Spain in the mid seventeenth century. The two regions became one administrative region in the late 1980s.

UK Wine Society buyer Marcel Orford-Williams describes Languedoc-Roussillon as France’s “answer to the New World”. He was alluding to a combination of designated regions and IGP wines – the latter are outside government AOC regulations – combined with the distinctive character of the region. “In the duality of Appellation Contrôlée and Vin de Pays [an earlier term for IGP], the conformism of Parisian bureaucracy goes hand in hand with the creative spirit of pure liberalism. So in terms of grape variety, almost anything goes.”

Carignan is the main red grape, and typically represents between 30 and 50 per cent of blends. It tends towards high yields that give low quality grapes. When yields are controlled and the vines planted on appropriate sites the wines can be “much more interesting,” Orford-Williams said.

Some Carignan vines more than 100 years old managed to avoid a mass eradication program a few decades ago. This grape can deal with hot conditions when others die or struggle.

Grenache is another of the main red grapes. Grenache and Carignan are often vinified at the same time because Carignan softens the herbaceous notes of Grenache. As Sabine Bertrand of Domaine Bertrand-Berge explained, if wines are meant to be blends “the earlier you can get them together the better”. Cinsault is also widely grown and adds fragrance and lightness of touch to blends. Syrah from the Rhone was introduced to boost quality. In some areas such as Pic Saint Loup AOC, Syrah is a major component of the blend, upwards of 80 per cent in some cases.

Some Languedoc winemakers employ a technique called “carbonic maceration” that originated in the Beaujolais region. Carbon dioxide gas is pumped into a sealed container filled with whole bunches. The gas stimulates fermentation in individual grapes. The method ferments most of the juice while it is still inside each grape, though grapes at the bottom of the vessel are crushed by gravity and undergo conventional fermentation. The main benefit of this technique is soft tannins and wines that are easy to drink when young.

Three in four bottles produced in the Languedoc are red, but the region also makes some fine rose and white wines, 14 and 10 per cent of the total respectively.

The main white grapes are Roussanne, Marsanne and Bourbelenc, the first two having been imported from the Rhône to add flavours and finesse to Mediterranean blends. Bourbelenc is the main grape in Coteaux du Languedoc AOC whites, where it must be at least 40 per cent of the blend. Some white blends also use Vermentino, which originated in Corsica, and Viognier. The Languedoc makes some splendid whites that pair majestically with the local seafood. Future columns will elaborate on specific AOCs in the region.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of CIVL, who provided accommodation and transport. The 9th Terroirs et Millesimes en Languedoc celebration ran from April 23-28.

Words: 1,062

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