What is the world’s largest wine-producing region? California’s Central Valley? Bordeaux? Tuscany? Actually, it’s Languedoc-Roussillon in Southern France. The region borders Spain in the west and runs along France’s southern coast to the point where the Rhône empties into the Mediterranean Sea. This warm region with varied soil types and pockets of microclimates is responsible for more than a third of France’s total wine production and this one region of France produces nearly as much wine as all of the United States combined. But unlike some of France’s more famous regions such as the Loire Valley or Champagne, Languedoc-Roussillon has yet to become a household name for many American wine drinkers. What it may lack in notoriety, however, it certainly makes up for in good values if you know where to look – and you don’t mind being a little adventurous. It’s time then, to taste the South of France with a wide range of wines at great prices.
From Greatness to Bulk
Although not as highly respected now, Languedoc-Roussillon (pronounced most closely to “long dok ROO see yon” or “long eh dok ROO see yon” – in Northern France especially, the first pronunciation is used) isn’t without wine history. In fact, the oldest planted vineyards in France are in the Languedoc and it’s regionally known that Crémant de Limoux, the region’s sparkling wine, is older than the sparkling wine of Champagne. The reputation for cheap, bulk wine came as a result of the phylloxera outbreak of the late 1800s which resulted in replantings of inferior grape varietals. The region then played host to producing cheap wines for the Armed Forces in the early 1900s and the reputation stuck.
Languedoc-Roussillon also lacks well-known Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) vineyards that have produced the prestigious wines in regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy. The AOC sets strict guidelines for wine production, including labeling rules and the grape varietals used. A red wine from Burgundy, for example, will most likely be pinot noir, while a white wine from Burgundy will be chardonnay. It’s not that another region cannot use chardonnay, but if a varietal used falls outside of AOC rules for the region, the wine cannot be labeled as AOC. For this reason, white wines from Bordeaux will not use chardonnay, but sauvignon blanc or sémillon, the white grapes approved for Bordeaux. AOC rules can be complex for those outside of France and even more confusing, the varietals are typically not listed on the label, only the region. A wine drinker then must know the grapes from that region in order to determine what’s in the wine.
The Advantages of Vin de Pays
While AOC is the highest designation for French wines (to confuse American consumers even more, AOC is being replaced by Appellation d’Origine Protégée or AOP as new wines are released), winemakers outside of the AOC can release wines under the mid-level vin de pays (“wine of the country” or “country wine”) designation or the low-level vin de table (table wine, although used differently in Europe than it is in the United States). These lower levels do not allow for the same specificity of origin on the label as AOC wines, but the vin de pays wines of France can include some very enjoyable wines and it’s typically what is used in Languedoc-Roussillon.
If it sounds like a handicap not to follow AOC rules, there is a distinct advantage. By working in the vin de pays designation, winemakers are free to experiment with a wider range of grape varietals and are also permitted to label their wines differently – most notably by putting the varietals on the labels (similar to New World wines) instead of a region. Languedoc-Roussillon then grows Bordeaux’s merlot and cabernet sauvignon, Burgundy’s chardonnay, and Rhône’s syrah, grenache, viognier, and mourvèdre. This extreme variance of grape varietals makes Languedoc-Roussillon much more like California, Australia or Chile in its recent approach to winemaking, and indeed, the cheaper land prices have meant that winemakers from other parts of the world have moved into the region to produce wine. There’s an eagerness for discovering what will work and trying new techniques; a spirit of experimentation. The region has at times been called “The California of France” for just these reasons.
What to Drink
Interested? Languedoc-Roussillon has plenty of good wine, but with so many winemakers capitalizing on low-quality bulk wine, it’s tricky to find those that are more focused on creating a new image in the region. A few tips when looking for Languedoc-Roussillon wines:
- The region is known for varietal wines and both red and white blends, so be open to trying those that may have a proprietary name.
- Blends may be non-traditional such as viognier and chenin blanc.
- As mentioned, bottles will carry vin de pays on the label or more specifically a designation such as Vin de Pays d’Oc or Vin de Pays du Gard.
- One of the marketing techniques has been to re-brand the region as Sud de France (Southern France); this may be on the label instead of Languedoc-Roussillon.
- Several grape varietals used in Languedoc-Roussillon aren’t used in the rest of France (or are very unpopular) such as rolle (vermentino), piquepoul, bourboulenc, clairette blanche, cinsaut, chasan and mauzac.
- Several rosé wines are produced in this region (something that Languedoc-Roussillon has in common with neighboring Provence).
- If you enjoy fortified wines, try Maury, which is a fortified wine from the Maury AOC
To begin your South of France visit, try a few of the following wines. The vintage year and price may vary at your local wine merchant, but the labels release wines consistently and you should find plenty of variety.
- Domaine de Beck Viognier Vin de Pays de Gard, $28-$35
Bright, warm-weather type profile with apricot and peach
- Dominique Laurent Chardonnay Vin de Pays d’Oc, $14-$18
Is this from California? Quite pleasantly oaky in its profile
- Domaine Les Creisses ‘Les Brunes’ Vin de Pays d’Oc, $36-$40
A blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and mourvèdre
- Domaine de Montcalmès Cuvée Serigraphie Gris Languedoc-Roussillon, $10-$14
A blend of syrah, mourvèdre and grenache – a very standard blend for Rhône or even Paso Robles
- Hob Nob Languedoc-Roussillon Point Noir, $11-$12
A New World style pinot from the Old World – soft, but full of red fruit flavor
- Tortoise Creek Languedoc-Roussillon Pinot Noir, $10-$12
More Burgundian in style, this wine is less-fruit forward, but still gives cherry and raspberry flavors to support food rather than dominate it
- Gerard Bertrand Crémant de Limoux Brut, $15-$18
Floral, nutty and grassy all at the same time, this crisp-tasting crémant delivers tiny, smooth bubbles
Naturally, these wines are only a small sampling from this extraordinary region on the rise. Take time to explore Languedoc-Roussillon and you may find your new favorite wine.