A Search for the Elusive, Slumbering Wine Giant of France
Listen. I want to tell you about a journey on which I recently embarked. I'm looking for the giant I've heard people call Languedoc-Roussillon. I've been tracking it for some time through the phosphorescent corners of local supermarkets, into the cavernous interiors of specialty wine stores, between the lines of haughty wine journals, amid the dusty folds of restaurant management wine guides from the local university library, in the back rooms of Francophiles' houses. Some sources I've met along the way refer to this beast as the mythical Midi. Some say it's actually two different beasts -- Languedoc and Roussillon; that it has four individual serpentine heads -- Hérault, Aude, Gard and Pyrénées-Orientales. Worse, some call Languedoc-Roussillon by its myriad subnames -- St. Chinian, La Clape, Coteaux du Languedoc, Corbiéres, Minervois and so on.
All around me the names of Languedoc-Roussillon swirl. Yet I catch only glimpses, see only a heap of broken images. Every time I think I have a grip, the rascal morphs. Aptly so, more out of frustration than wisdom, this piece has become the annals of my hits, misses, brief encounters and obsessiveness with the giant some call Languedoc-Roussillon.
Myth holds that Languedoc-Roussillon, the gargantuan region of Southern France, was born to Roman parents. Currently it sprawls from the Spanish border to the Rhône River and is responsible for over a third of all wine produced in France. Languedoc-Roussillon is also considered by many to be the origin of French wine, predating such perennial faves as Burgundy and Bordeaux. With impressive history and statistics like these, one would think it easy to spot the beast. Surely close to 40 percent of French wine can't keep quiet and stay out of sight that long.
True: Languedoc-Roussillon is responsible for over a third of all wine produced in France. However, most of that was, until recently, mediocre, nondescript and marginally tolerable. Languedoc-Roussillon was the breeding ground for massive hordes of vin ordinnaire -- oodles of dull vines half-raising their bloated shoots in the name of cheap swill. Producers prostituted whore varietals, such as the red carignan or the white clairette, for thirsty Northern France and Eastern Europe. Watery and savagely uninteresting, these wines stacked up in cases by the hundreds of thousands waiting for their uneventful blending and consumption.
Fade to the 1960s, when another slumbering wine giant awoke in California. The rise of the wine industry in the New World began to make France's age-old reign as wine kingpin seem precarious. Soon, vines were popping up everywhere to challenge France's position. Much of Europe was caught in frightfully watching the level rise incrementally on their vast wine lake. Nightmarish proportions of Languedoc-Roussillon wine was left to stagnate in Southern France. All the while, like some scene from Modern Times, Languedoc-Roussillon kept pumping out its vin très ordinnaire as the world heckled, "We can make wine just as good, if not better, than you."
But lo! Surely some revelation was at hand. For Languedoc-Roussillon would rise from the depths of that wide, vinegary sea to darken the doorsteps of wine lovers. French producers and legislation sought to kill two figurative birds with one stone: replant the region, and tighten the reigns on quantity. Producers in every corner of Languedoc-Roussillon started to disinter the sleeper varietals and replace them with aromatic grapes -- mourvèdre, cinsaut, cabernet sauvignon and syrah to name a few. At the same time they limited the quantities producers could legally harvest to give the region the reputation of an up-and-comer with competitive pricing. Producers could have all these advantages while aiding in the decrease of surplus shmuck wine.
Sounds fairytailish, right? The French, being astute, realize the error of their ways -- that it's high time they concentrate on quality rather than quantity in Languedoc-Roussillon. They implement the change, and the area thrives as yet another global wine power competing with the New World on the more economical tiers.
So why am I still searching for Languedoc-Roussillon? Why can't I find a vast array of Languedoc-Roussillon wines blanketing the local stores? Because most Languedoc-Roussillon wines don't have "Languedoc" or "Roussillon" anywhere on the label. It's much more likely to say "Vin de Pays," "Vin de Pays d'Oc," "VDQS" or, worse, merely an obscure appellation given to some tenth of an acre on the south-facing slope of the second hill outside Narbonne. What's more, the French, in their ultimate wisdom ("wisdom" defined here as "knowledge intended to make outsiders and novices feel stupid"), have invented what seem to be elaborate ways of confusing us. Familiar with California practice, Americans now easily fall into a mental state of complete anxiety when looking at any wine that doesn't plaster the grape name on the label front and center. And perhaps just when we think we semi-understand the French way of order, they further confuse us by reversing our system of naming wines by the constituent grape. Many Languedoc-Roussillon wines are now varietal-specific on the label.
And so I quest to understand the plethora of names, quality titles and regional appellations of Languedoc-Roussillon. I yearn to understand Languedoc-Roussillon whose wine, I hear, is the best bargain in France.
Anatomy of a Giant
So far, this is what I've found. Languedoc and Roussillon (collectively known as the Midi) have been inextricably tied by that demon of democratization -- the hyphen. And while these two areas, for the most part, share common philosophy and practice in winemaking, they remain two separate entities. Languedoc -- so named for the inhabitants who once called the region home and who spoke Occitan -- is composed of three subregions or départements: Gard, Hérault and Aude. Roussillon is classified by its sole département: Pyrénées-Orientales. Together these four départements run respectively from the Rhône River west to the Spanish border.
Eighty percent of the wine produced in Languedoc-Roussillon is what the French refer to as "Vin de Pays," or country wine. Vin de Pays is usually higher quality and has tighter restrictions than "Vin de Table" or table wine. Hérault and Aude are much more devoted, whether by will or complacency, to the production of Vin de Pays. For the most part, wine under this classification remains simple and light. Red wines are dominant, while sweet and dry styles of whites are growing in popularity and planting space. However, since there's little governing of the origin of the grapes used, Vin de Pays, though not bad wine, will usually lack individuality.
Within this category, though, there are tiers. For instance, "Vin de Pays d'Oc" refers specifically to the Languedoc region -- hence the name, "d'Oc." There are also subregional Vin de Pays wines, such as Vin de Pays du Gard. As a general rule, the more regional information that follows a quality title in France, the better the wine.
But pockets of terrain inside Hérault and Aude, as well as larger parts of Pyrénées-Orientales and Gard, are gathering momentum in their enterprise to make regional wines of more character. A tier above Vin de Pays is "VDQS," (Vin Délimité Qualité Superiéure). VDQS ranges from mid- to premium-quality. Above that title is, of course, the French gift to the wine world, AOC: Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. Wine under this title is more specifically regional, meaning that the government tightly controls the grapes grown, the area used, the amounts harvested and the alcohol percentage in the finished wine.
For example, last night I tried Chateau de Campuget Cuvée Prestige. Underneath the cute little chateau's picture, the label states Appellation Costiéres de Nîmes Contrôlée. That sent me to the books. With minimal hassle, though, I found that Costiéres de Nîmes is a zone inside Gard, which is, in turn, a part of Languedoc. With this wine, the title alone was much more specific. Because of that tight control, AOC wines usually retain more local character and so range from mid to the highest quality. By current French legislation, about 10 percent of Languedoc-Roussillon wine is categorized as AOC with another 10 percent being VDQS.
Hunting and Gathering
Still seem fairly straightforward? It might be if the French followed the legislation. Imagine a government hundreds of kilometers away in Paris telling vintners to grow certain grapes, do this, do that, in order to place a silly AOC label on the bottle. Loyalty to lethargic legislation in Paris runs thin in most parts of Languedoc-Roussillon.
The inevitable conclusion is what I call "the Italy Syndrome": great people making great wine while ignoring their government's legislative masturbation. What does all this mean? It means that in Languedoc-Roussillon, sometimes-great wine can come in nondescript packages.
But I find this depressing. Wine is confusing enough, right? Now we have to worry about knowing the individual producers of Languedoc-Roussillon? We can't trust the French legislative branch? I can barely remember how to spell "Languedoc-Roussillon," let alone know what rebellious farmer is eking out great and inexpensive wine in the midst of government bureaucracy. Consequently, as I try to familiarize myself with Languedoc-Roussillon, I keep stumbling into the "buts," the "howevers," the "usuallys," the "general rules" that make wine seem so vague.
Oddly enough, what all this bickering over titles and jockeying for AOC rights gives to us is a plethora of decent inexpensive wine. Huge California-style cooperatives have already moved, or are in the massive process of moving, into Languedoc-Roussillon. These cooperatives are busy educating age-old producers, helping the many varied vintners produce a single beautiful wine at low cost. There's experimentation; the Beaujolais method of macerating grapes is now in full swing in Languedoc-Roussillon. This technique lends fruitiness and quality to otherwise harsher wines. Things are happening. And for all the hassle of understanding the labels, we're ultimately rewarded with a taste of France for a fraction of the cost of Bordeaux, Burgundy or most other French wine.
What's more, Languedoc-Roussillon is not devoid of its own great wines. Remember, 10 percent of Midi wine is AOC and reasonably priced. Lots of syrah, grenache, even cabernet sauvignon is creeping into the best vineyards. Sightings are multiplying. The beast awakes from slumber.
I've concluded, however, that Languedoc-Roussillon is not a savage beast. Rather, it's a gentle creature, even benevolent. Given time, I think we may all feel quite comfortable with a Languedoc-Roussillon in our own home, in our wine glass. So, if you think you've spotted a Languedoc-Roussillon, don't be afraid. Don't panic, for Languedoc-Roussillon will sense it. Instead, look first for the identifiable markings: "Vin de Pays," "VDQS" or "AOC." Next, attempt to move closer to the animal in order to view the regional markings. These will be place names -- parts of Languedoc-Roussillon. After successful identification, check the price tag. In most cases, it won't disappoint. Finally, take the little creature home and see how well it adapts to you, or you to it.
If you have trouble spotting Languedoc-Roussillon like I did, have faith. It's out there, and it's gaining ground. If not today, tomorrow. If not tomorrow, next week. Keep checking those bottles. Languedoc-Roussillon is far too large, far too elemental to stay hidden from us for long. I conclude it needs us as badly as we need it. I want to