Languedoc and its ambitious crus
What do I know about Languedoc wines? Well, I know I like Languedoc wines. I know it is the largest wine region in the world – 223,000 ha. I know the region is the largest producer of IGP wines in all of France. I know that quality has increased in the past 30 years and many premium wines/AOCs are making an impact on global markets. I know that there is a myriad of appellations and styles – everything from dry white to dry red to sparkling to sweet is produced. I know it is considered France’s New World wine region thanks to a Mediterranean climate. I know it is considered France’s value region due to the combination of quality and quantity said climate provides. I know I have had numerous Languedoc wines during my career, especially having grown up in Montreal where these wines are prolific. So, when the invitation came to visit the region, albeit for two days, I jumped at the opportunity.
Languedoc’s first vines were planted by the Greeks back in 5th century BC, near the town of Narbonne, making them the oldest plantings in all of France. Fast forward to the 19th century, Languedoc was considered a premium wine producing region and the wines were highly respected. This all changed with the arrival of the industrial revolution, when the area shifted into high production in order to quench the thirst of the rapidly expanding work force. Adding to its downturn, post-phylloxera, the region was replanted with high yielding vines such as Carignan and Alicante-Bouschet, which helped to create its infamous wine lake status of the 20th century.
With its reputation diminished, the phoenix started rising from the ashes in the 70s and 80s. A handful of producers started to adopt a quality mantra by concentrating on lower yields and premium grapes/wines. Investment also trickled in from other parts of France, as well as globally, helping to modernize the vineyards and wineries. With this transformation under way, many regions received their AOC status – a trend that continues to this very day.
Of course, like most wine regions, looking to increase their stature abroad, it was only natural that the Languedoc would create a special designation for their best appellations. Enter “Crus du Languedoc,” which was recently rebranded as “Terroirs d ’Ambition,” of which there are now six. These wines are meant to represent the crème de la crème.
There are two main caveats to remember with this category. The first is this is that it is an internal classification and marketing-tool of the Languedoc. Other areas that use Cru (Premier/Grand) such as Burgundy and Alsace have it entrenched in their law and overseen by the INAO (Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité). This is probably why rebranding occurred. Also, one of the criteria for promotion to Ambition level is price. If the producers of a specific appellation band together to increase quality, and if said quality translates to higher bottle prices, then the appellation can petition for the higher status.
Is it a perfect system? No. But as one Languedoc producer told me, “our region is young and still evolving. The Languedoc is still pursuing the quest of its own identity. We’re getting there!”
This village, located in the larger Corbières appellation, is 181 hectares. Its heart is pure red with a mandate that all wines are a blend with Carignan Noir, the main grape, being 30 to 50 percent. Now, you might say, “hold on Evan, you just slighted Carignan in your introduction”. True. But what Carignan needs is time. As the vines mature, yields naturally diminish and quality increases. Such is the case here, as well as in Chile, where producers in the Maule have made a name for themselves with old bush-vine Carignan under the VIGNO banner.
Other grapes include Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah. Stylistically, look for high-alcohol wines that retain balance with flavours of dark fruit and garrigue/herbs.
With close to 2,000 hectares, it is one of the best-known Crus. Here, red, white and rosé are produced. The appellation covers the southern slopes of a range of hills just a few miles inland from the Mediterranean coast. This slope also provides protection from cold northerly winds. It is said that the vines on the higher parts make the best wines. The defining geology is the schist soil, which is easily recognizable by its orange/yellow colour. These soils are deep and free draining, allowing them to absorb and retain warmth to aid ripening. Coupled with low fertility, it creates low yields and concentrated fruit. Mourvèdre, which loves heat and a long hang time, does well here alongside GSC (Grenache, Syrah and Carignan). Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Vermentino are the main whites. A deep minerality is the hallmark of these wines.
The Languedoc’s newest AOC was ordained in June of 2015. Its location is 10 kms from the Mediterranean Sea and because of this it is one of France’s driest and warmest regions. Draught is the norm here these days as rain/moisture has decreased 50 percent since the early 2000s. The highly reputed red wines are primarily GSM blends. Whites are based on the singular Bourboulenc, which must be a minimum of 40 percent of the assemblage. It is worth mentioning that La Clape is the epicentre of the global (read: not much) Bourboulenc production. Its thick skin, late-ripening nature and ability to retain acidity while producing moderate alcohols (13 to 13.5 percent) is proof positive that it has adapted to the environment.
The vineyards here are planted at higher elevations on a backbone of limestone. MLL is red wine only and the first ever Cru of Languedoc. Historically, Carignan and Cinsault were the dominant grapes. Today, the trio of GSM have taken the lead, but C&C are still found in the blends. The daytime heat is tempered by the cool air flowing down from the limestone plateaus, helping to provide freshness, elegance and a marked minerality to the wines.
Saint-Chinian Berlou and Saint-Chinian Roquebrun
Post WW2 until the 70s, the wines of Saint Chinian were primarily light and fruity, carbonic maceration (think Nouveau) vinified Carignan. Today, the wines are more substantial GSM blends (with some Carignan) vinified via traditional methods.
Both these Crus are located within Saint-Chinian proper. Twenty years ago, the powers that be decided to classify the best terroirs and these two were isolated, studied and promoted to Cru status on February 4, 2005. Berlou is a small enclave of 61 hectares planted between 150 and 400 meters on a south tangent of well-drained soils. The diurnal shift provided by altitude from warm days to cool-nights helps to produce concentrated and balanced wines with fresh acidity and a distinct roasted-coffee-bean aroma with silky tannins. Roquebrun is a plot of 155 hectares and the dominant soil is schist as it buttresses Faugères. Altitude is also lower than in Berlou, so the wines tend to be heavier, but they still possess refinement.
The plan of premiumization will only continue as markets have shown that there is a willingness to purchase up-scale products form the Languedoc. In turn, this will cause more producers to re-think and re-tool towards higher quality. For consumers, price is extremely attractive especially when compared to the more northerly (and expensive) French regions. Add in a trio of great vintages – 2015, 2016 and 2017 – that are now in the Canadian market and the sun is surely radiating on the region. Personally, I have a marginal affinity towards the 2016s because of lower yields and the 2015s, which benefited from a long and even growing season.