We meet three of the 23 AOCs classified as Grand Vins du Languedoc, the middle level in the three-tier pyramid of the region’s wines. For publication 27 May 2017.
AOC Languedoc Sommieres consists of a ring of vineyards around the market town of Sommieres, northwest of Nimes, in the extreme north-east of the Languedoc. It is small – only 131 hectares of vines – and not well known but the wines have unique qualities. Sommieres has been an AOC since 2011. Prior to then it was part of AOC Coteaux du Languedoc.
The soils are calcerous, argile and silex because millions of years ago the area was a sea. Now it is between 28 and 119 metres above sea level. In many places the soil is red because of the amount of iron, plus lots of flint stone (known as galets) smoothed by the sea. Locals maintain that a special stone from the area, when powdered and put into a washing machine, can remove red wine stains.
Sommieres only makes red wine – from Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. All wines are blends, with Syrah and Grenache the main components. AOC rules stipulate minimum percentages for each in the blends.
The chapel of Saint Julian is the emblem of the region, and shepherds’ huts built from limestone are common in the area. Local records show wine being made around Pezenas about seven centuries before the birth of Jesus Chris.
Truffle oaks, pines, olives and “garrigue” surround the vines. In the Languedoc garrigue refers to a sentiment as much as it describes the low-growing vegetation: A combination of sunshine, “joie de vivre” and the aromas of the thyme, rosemary, lavender and juniper that grow wild in the hills.
The famous Mistral wind, which blows from the north, and the nearby Mediterranean, create a special meso-climate between the foothills of the Cevennes ranges and the sea.
AOC laws limit yields and last year the 18 private cellars and three co-operatives in the AOC only made about 120,000 bottles. Not everyone is part of the AOC and some people make white wine that is labelled IGP. All wines tasted seemed very fresh and the garrigue was very noticeable.
Sommieres has always been a major market town. Local people have a reputation for being self sufficient — “headstrong” is often used to describe them — and they are keen to preserve the environment. More than half the vineyards are organic, and locals have agreed not to sell wines for less than 10 Euros a bottle.
The town of Pezenas, an economic centre of the Languedoc, is strongly associated with the great writer Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière. Though born in Paris in 1622, he spent a lot of time in the region. A square and statue in the centre of Pezenas honour a writer considered one of the masters of comic drama in Western literature.
Wines in the region are classified as Languedoc AOC – Pezenas. As with Sommieres, AOC regulations only permit red wines made from the specified grapes (the same as Sommieres AOC). But the different soils produce very different flavours. Locals say the originality of Pezenas reds comes from the basalt lava that formed at least a million years ago, and which has broken down into a range of schist or calcerous soils.
Three cooperatives and 33 independent producers make an average of about 673,000 bottles a year. As with Sommieres, AOC rules limit yields to 45 Hectolitres a hectare, or about 5,600 750ml bottles a hectare. The region celebrated its tenth anniversary of becoming an AOC in April 2017.
Picpoul de Pinet is listed as an Appellation d’Origine Protegee (AOP). The European Commission coined the term in 1992 to define agricultural products with a distinct regional character. It is equivalent to an AOC and is included in the Grand Vins du Langudoc. Wines are made with only one grape variety, Piquepoul.
The locals describe Piquepoul as a party grape, a white ideal for pairing with the majestic local oysters and mussels or for drinking as an aperitif with friends. The region is noted for its wine fair held every May, a jazz festival (held every July since 1992), and its bullfights (Feria de Beziers) held each August.
About three in five of the approximately 10 to 12 million bottles made each year are exported, mostly to the UK, the US and Belgium and a range of Asian countries. The region has 25 independent estates and four co-operatives.
This is another visually splendid part of the world, with the Mediterranean Sea forming its western edge and Pezenas the southern border. Oysters grow in profusion in a huge lagoon known as Bassin de Thau just inland from the Mediterranean, and about a dozen chateaux dominate the landscape.
Picpoul de Pinet is a broad expanse of pretty countryside filled with pine and olive trees and the ever-present garrigue. These combine to make the air sweet with the perfumes of the land, plus the music of birdsong and sunshine.
Guy Bascon is president of the local growers’ group, the Syndicate for the Defence of AOP Picpoul de Pinet, and the owner and winemaker at Domaine la Condamine l’Eveque. He said the region received its current AOC in 2013, but locals had been making wine since 1902 when production was at least a third more than currently recorded. He said dinosaur eggs were recently excavated in the area.
Jerome Villaret, director general of CIVL, noted what he called 11 “promising regions” that had the potential to move to the top tier, to become Crus du Languedoc. He included the Sommieres and Pezanas AOCs in that group.
Some winemakers were using grapes outside the AOC regulations, and their wines fall into the “liberté d’expression” sector of the chart the CIVL uses to describe the entire region. Wines are labeled IGP and Villaret said about 20 vineyards fell into this category. Some IGP wines use a single grape variety and some sell for more than 100 Euros a bottle, an indication that IGP areas can produce excellence.
Other IGP wines from the Languedoc compete with low-cost Italian wines and are grouped into a category known as “IGP de Terres du Midi”. The aim here was to supply good value for money wines, Villaret said.