Jeroboams Education is a new series on our blog providing you with the lowdown on the most iconic wine producing regions of the world. Led by our super buying team, Peter Mitchell MW and Maggie MacPherson will introduce you to the key facts and a little history of all the regions you recognise but perhaps don’t know too well. To help really further your education, why not drink along? Browse our Languedoc & Roussillon selection.
The Languedoc is one of the most important regions for supplying the UK and the source of some excellent value wines. Although many vineyards have been pulled out under EU subsidised schemes, this is still the largest vineyard in the world at (with the Roussillon) 235,000 hectares and produces over 130 million cases of wine each year. To put that in perspective, the production averages more than any of Argentina, Chile, Australia or South Africa. The main traditional varieties here for reds are Grenache noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. Whites still only represent 10% of production and traditional varieties are Grenache blanc, Rolle, Clairette, Macabeo and Picpoul. The international varieties are all now grown with enthusiasm, usually making varietal vins de pays. The region stretches from the mouth of the Rhône near Arles around to the border with Roussillon 15km north of Perpignan. The most characterful Languedoc wines are from the appellations in the hills away from the heat of the coast. Most of these produce herbal, spicy and fruity reds based around Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. Cabardès and Malpère also use Bordeaux varieties and are less exuberant, perhaps more elegant. Further into the hills lies Limoux, where excellent sparkling wines and decidedly Burgundian tasting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are made.
The Roussillon is usually lumped together with the Languedoc, but it is very different, both culturally (as part of historic Catalonia) and with more sunshine, more interesting soils and a highly arid climate. Basic Roussillon wine has a certain rusticity with it dark berry fruit, but fine villages examples, often based on ancient low yielding Carignan vines, can be simply majestic, with power and elegance. Some excellent white wines are also made here based around Grenache Blanc, richly textural with peachy fruit and great ability to improve in bottle. These are surely the best value fine wines in the world.
This region is also home of 90% of France’s Vin doux naturelle production. Rivesaltes is a powerful fortified wine made from Grenache Noir and Blanc, Muscat Rivesaltes from the same are but made from 100% Muscat. Maury and greatest of them all, Banyuls, make beautiful aged fortified Grenache, which can vary in style from Port-like to semi-oxidised, pale rancio style wines.
It is generally accepted that the Romans first planted vines in the Languedoc around 125BC in the Narbonne area and it grew to be an important production centre of the Empire. After centuries of decline, production thrived again in the middle ages and in the 17th century, the port of Sète was built, providing a place to export wine to Holland and England, with Muscat de Frontignan perhaps the most valued export. The 1850s saw the arrival of railways here and production boomed and in just 20 years production quadrupled. The region was the first replanted after Phylloxerra and by 1900 was producing 44% of France’s total wine production. Made from heavily over cropped vines on the fertile plains, the only way to make this wine commercial was to blend in dark strong wine from France’s colonies in North Africa and this sowed the seeds for the region’s path of low quality and prices in the 20th century. The majority of growers joined the new co-operatives in the 1930s and wine in the area became highly politicised – a problem that remains today. As people began to drink less (and much less of the very basic quality made here), only EU subsidies kept the region afloat. The hillside areas had always been capable of real quality and good wines slowly began to appear in the latter part of the 20th century. Despite its undoubted qualitative importance, until 1985 and the promotion of Corbières, Minervois and Côteaux du Languedoc, the only appellation was Fitou – a reflection on quality and how the region was perceived in France.
At the start of the 21st century there was a sea of vines on the plains just inland from the coast and much of what was produced ended up receiving EU subsidies to be turned into industrial alcohol. Incentives to remove vines resulted in a fifth of the vineyard area being turned over to other crops and over a third of those who had worked in the vineyards finding other careers. Despite this, a quarter of French vines remain in this region.
First planted by the Greeks some 600 years before the Languedoc, by the 13th century the region was ruled by the Spanish and primarily made fortified wines, become the world’s largest producer of the style by the late 19th century. Politically a part of France from the 17th century, it is still heavily influenced by Catalan traditions. By the mid-20th century, 70 million bottles of Rivesaltes were being sold each year, but he collapse infashion for fortified wines has reduced that number to under 3 million bottles today. As the region moved to table wine production, a lack of expertise and investment hampered it and the wines were dark and robust and frequently were sold in bulk to be used to beef up lesser wines from the Languedoc. The overarching appellation Côtes du Roussillon was awarded in 1977, but the often splendid wines of this region are still struggling for an international identity.
Climate & Geography
The Roussillon is France’s sunniest area with an average of 325 days of sunshine per year. It is also very windy with cool winds from the Pyrenees frequently battering the vines and resulting in low average yields. Centred around 3 river valleys, the Agly, Têt and Tech, the vineyards are mostly found on gentle slopes and hillsides with schist or granite soils in the finest areas. The region is surrounded on three sides by mountains which dictates the climate.
The Languedoc covers a large area with the majority of vineyards along the littoral plains, along with better ones on the hillsides above the plains and along the Aude river valley. In land, soils can include gravels and limestone and vineyard elevations can be several hundred metres and often on steep slopes. It is a generally hot and dry climate with summer drought a hazard. At the upper (western) reaches of the Aude Valley it is considerably cooler, especially in Limoux and Malpère.
A wide variety of cultivars are planted in the Languedoc, many to make anonymous budget varietal wines of the international varieties for global markets. Significant plantings of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon exist, along with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. The traditionally recognised varieties of the region are listed below
Grenache Noir: The second most planted variety giving sweet warm fruits, spiciness and softness to wines. A key ingredient in most appellation wines. In the Roussillon it is responsible for the fortified wines of Banyuls and Rivesaltes and Maury.
Syrah: A high quality variety that is now the most planted and has become an increasingly important component of most appellation wines. In this region it produces rich and robust wines with full fine tannins and spiciness..
Carignan: This dominated the vineyard area throughout the 20th century but is now only third most planted and falling. It dominance was not because of its quality or ease of growing, but mostly because of its potentially huge yields. It tends to produce wine high in tannin, colour, acidity and extract, with a rustic, bitter character to the tannins. The amounts allowed in appellation wines has been consistently reduced as the authorities attempt to remove its presence. And yet….In some limited terroirs and from very old low yielding bush vines, it can make really fine wine, super concentrated, rich yet elegant. Rare though these are, an increasing number have appeared, mostly in the Roussillon, but also in parts of Corbières.
Cinsault: One of the most historic varieties in the region giving pale, soft and very fruity wines. Now more important for rosés than reds..
Mourvèdre: Dark fruited and high in acid and tannins and relatively low in alcohol, it needs plenty of heat to ripen. Plantings have grown rapidly in the last 30 years and it is widely used in appellation to bring noble structure to wines.
Grenache Blanc: Can produce richly flavoured whites, often with melon and peach flavours and on better sites can make fleshy yet crisp whites with real ageing potential. Has an affinity to oak and is the basis of the Roussillon’s finest whites.
Piquepoul: Ancient variety from the Vaucluse renowned for its bracing acidity. Once widely grown in the region, by the early 20th century it was confined to the sandy coastal vineyards and used as a base for Vermouth. The decline of Vermouth saw a rise in dry table wines from the grape and its notable success on the shores of the Etang de Thau where it makes Picpoul de Pinet.
Clairette: Drought tolerant, Clairette has been grown in the Languedoc for centuries and is usually blended with Grenache Blanc, giving acidity and floral aromatics. There are also two single varietal appellations for the variety, Clairette de Bellgarde and Clairette de Languedoc.
Bourboulanc: Originating in Provence, this fine variety is high in acidity, minerality and aromatics and is of increasing importance, especially in Corbières, Minervois and La Clape, where it is the dominant variety.
Whilst there are extremely well-equipped wineries and domaines, the majority of production still comes from co-operatives, many of which have old equipment and varying degrees of expertise and ambition. Wine tends to be made and aged in concrete vats, or occasionally old barrels and more often than not is blended and bottled at a merchant’s warehouse. The better co-operatives now have refrigeration equipment and stainless steel, but these are still the minority. Winemaking is traditional, with de-stemming a relatively recent introduction, the notable exception being for Carignan, much of which undergoes carbonic maceration to tame its (often) rustic tannins. The Vins Doux Naturels are made with fortification taking place during fermentation to leave a strong sweet wine. The most interesting are then aged in cask or glass demijohn taking on a rancio character.
The Appelations of Languedoc & Roussillon
The Main Appelations
Previously known as Côteaux du Languedoc, this vast appellation covers much of the land from Narbonne round to Nîmes. In practice, much of this land is used for table wines, Vin de Pays and even other crops now, but the declared appellation area still amounts to 10,000 hectares, making around 4.5 million cases per year, 78% of which is red. Within the AOC are a collection of crus which can append their name and all of which have pending applications to become AOCs in the own right. Red must be made from at least 50% of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre for the basic appellation, rising to as high as 90% for the Pic-St.-Loup Cru. Whites are blends of the traditional Languedoc grapes with the exception of Picpoul de Pinet, which must be 100% Piquepoul.
The Crus are; Pic-St.-Loup, surrounding the eponymous 658m peak, makes bold rich reds wines in the style of the southern Rhône Valley. There are a number of fine domaines and this is probably the best of the Languedoc appellations for finesse, value and consistency. Grès de Montpellier covers a broad area of land around the city that is subject to cooling sea breezes. Wines must be at least 70% Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre and are notably powerful. La Méjanelle is within Grès on the outskirts of the city and and is broadly indistinguishable. Pézenas is on schist and is the hottest of the crus and produces dark and alcoholic reds that are not without elegance.Cabrières sits next to Faugères and has some cooling influence giving wines with good freshness to them. Montpeyroux is similar. La Clape once an island off Narbonne, is heavily influenced by the sea and specializes in delicious Bourboulenc based wines with aromatics and lovely salinity. The name has not helped it in Anglo markets. Reds from here are similar to those of Corbières. Othersr rarely seen are St.Saturnin, Sommières, St.-Christol and St.Drézéry.
Terasses du Larzac
Promoted to appellation in 2014, Larzac has fast become fashionable for its distinctive and potentially great reds. Located at up to 800m in the foothills of the Cèvenne Mountains on infertile rocky limestone soils, diurnal temperature variation can be as much as 20C in the summer and ripeness is often only just reached. The wines have deep colours and intense fruit, but also a cool freshness and floral aromatics not usually associated with the south.
Picpoul de Pinet
An appellation in its own right since 2013, Picpoul is one of the best known and best value white wines in France. 2,400 hecatres are planted on low lying land on the north shore of the Etang de Thau (an inland lagoon). The vast majority of production comes from the two main co-operatives, however there are also now some fine domaine bottled examples. Aromatic, bone dry and with a saline minerality, this lemon scented wine is a perfect match to the local shellfish.
From hillsides overlooking the plains on schist soils and with cooler night temperatures coming down from the Cèvennes, Faugères has some of the most consistent quality of the Languedoc and can generally be relied upon. There are more domaine bottled wines here than in other appellations and much of the vineyard is farmed organically. Reds have a spiciness to them and a certain amount of floral aromatics and are more elegant than many. The rarer whites have a portion (at least 30%) of Roussanne in them and can be particularly fine.
Muscat de Lunel, Muscat de Frontignan, Muscat de Mireval.
The three historic production regions for sweet muscats are now of little commercial importance. Frontignan is one of the oldest wine regions in France and one of its first appellations and is a golden coloured, highly aromatic fortified wine of real character. Adjoining Mireval is near identical, whilst Lunel can be similar, although it is now diverting more attention to dry table wines. Co-operatives dominate the production.
Between Faugères and Minervois,, the terrain of St. Chinian is hilly and has the spectacular backdrop of the Cevènnes. There are two main styles here, wines from around the village itself are ripe, plump and very easy-going, whilst those from the north of the appellation, suffixed Berlou or Roquebrun, are aromatic, minerally and have great nervous tension. They can be some of the most elegant and precise wines of the region. Small amounts of white wine are made here and it is also home to one of the best co-operatives producing some admirable IGP wines.
Along with Corbières this is probably the best known of the appellations and like its neighbour to the south, there is much wine sold under this appellation that has little character and is cynically using the name. Minervois does also, however, have some really excellent wines, often spicy and full of savoury fruit and garrigue notes, but generally easier, less structured and imposing than the best Corbières. La Livinière is the first sub zone of Minervois to receive its own appellation, although the jury is out as to what this has really achieved. Across the appellation styles vary as the further to the west one travels, the cooler the vineyards become leading to more angular and aromatic wines. In the far north-east, where yields are lowest and soils poorest, is found also the small Muscat St.Jean de Minervois appellation for an aromatic and finely etched Vin Doux Naturel, that is generally lighter and more elegant than other fortified Muscats.
This extensive appellation covers more than 10,000 hectares and can produce some thrilling, powerful and herbal red wines with imposing structure and real density. There is also some workaday rosé and increasing amounts of peachy, succulent white. Vineyards to the east have significant coastal influence and produce softer wines, whilst those further inland into the Pyrenean foothills have more aromatic complexity and finer structure. Boutenac on especially poor limestone soils was recognised for its quality in 2005 and given its own sub-appellation. Whilst, in common with other areas, Carignan is slowly being replaced, there are some wines made with old Carignan vines of real character and quality. Like Minervois, there is much wine that doesn’t deserve to bear the name, but seek out the good domaines and these are some of the best wines of the region.
An enclave in the south of the Corbières region that was the Languedoc’s first appellation in 1948. This is one of the only appellations that insists on Carignan (a minimum of 20%) and the wine must be at least 60% from Grenache and Carignan. The land here is harsh and infertile and is capable of producing rugged and powerful wines, but for much of the last 40 years has underperformed with most wine in the control of co-operatives.
The melting pot between Mediterranean and Atlantic, this appellation to the north of Carcasonne is a blend of Bordeaux varieties and more traditional Languedoc Syrah and Grenache. An area of mostly small producers, wines from here can be remarkably good, with the freshness and structure of the south-west enriched with some warmth and spice of the Languedoc, however poor returns and minimal investment hold this potentially interesting appellation back somewhat.
In many ways the pair of Cabardès, but the vineyards are even cooler here and the resulting wines have a south-western feel to them rather than a Mediterranean one. Merlot must make up 50% of the blend with Malbec and Cabernet at least a further 20% and production is dominated by the co-operatives. Wines from here can be fragrant, fresh and good value, but rarely especially exciting.
Located in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Limoux became famous for its sparkling wine, Blanquette, which is claimed pre-dates Champagne. Although part of the Languedoc and only 60km or so from the Mediterranean, the Corbières hills block off this influence and the climate here is distinctly cool. Mauzac is the traditional grape, but Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc have long been planted as well and in 1993 the appellation rules were changed to allow still wines generally made wholly or predominantly of Chardonnay, which here produces crisp and powerful barrel aged examples to rival Burgundy in quality. Since 2005 red Limoux has been allowed, but perversely it must be made of Merlot blended with other Bordeaux and Rhône varieties, rather than allowing Pinot Noir which is by far the best grape for this climate. Local politics played a big part in this and red Limoux tends to be pale, light and not especially interesting, whereas the Pinot Noirs from here – sold as Vin de Pays – can be some of the best in Europe outside of the Côte d’Or. In 1990 the Crémant de Limoux appellation was created for sparkling wines made without Mauzac that tend to have more international appeal and production of this has now surpassed that of Blanquette. This is a region with real potential and some dynamic producers as well as a fine co-operative.
Côtes de Roussillon/ Côtes du Roussillon Villages
A relatively recent appellation, granted only in 1977, Côtes du Roussillon covers much of the Pyrenées-Oriental département and just under 5,000 hectares of vineyards are planted. Red, white and rosé are all made under the appellation. The Villlages appellation is for red wines only from the northern hilly third of the region and makes (in theory at least) superior wines. There are 2,500 hectares of vineyards. Reds must be made from at least three of Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah. Four villages can also append their name on the label – Latour de France, Tautavel, Caramany and Lesquerde. Whilst much of the production is quite basic, in a robust and fruity way, the finest reds have real density and finesse and those made from grapes grown high up the Agly valley can have a real elegance and savour to them. Along with Priorat, this is one of the few places where Carignan (albeit only with ancient vines) can make wine of real quality, mostly off the black schist soils of the Agly. Whites are based around Grenache Blanc and can be superb, with peach and nectarine fruit, fine acidity and often some oak influence. Many top producers make wines outside of the regulations and label them as IGP Côtes Catalanes.
Historically one of the best areas for Vin Doux Naturel, Maury is also capable of producing perhaps the best table wines of the region and the appellation was extended to include these in 2011. Wines must be based on Grenache Noir and they have a herbal note and fine minerality.
This small area on the Spanish border takes its name from two beautiful fishing ports. Collioure is for cry table wines of all colours, whilst Banyuls is for the Vin Doux Naturels. Terraced vineyards drop down to the Mediterranean and are planted with old, low yielding bush vines. Made from Grenache, supplemented by Syrha, Mourvèdre and Carignan, these are wines of high alcohol, intense colour and power and filled with dried fruit flavours. Whites are soft, rich and powerful. Banyuls is based on Grenache Noir, with the grapes usually oicked very overripe. After fortification, the wine is port like, but with even more raisined character. The method of maturation then determines the wide array of styles, from oxidative, through slightly cooked, to the port like Rimage wines.
Rivesaltes/Muscat de Rivesaltes
These are large and largely overlapping appellations for Vins Doux Naturels, the Muscat area including some parts of Fitou and Banyuls which are excluded from Rivesaltes. Nearly 3,000 hectares are still used for making these wines and the appellation has 70% of France’s Muscat production. Muscat de Rivesaltes is fortified during fermentation to give a highly aromatic and slightly spicy sweet wine that should be drunk the year after the vintage and is a superb aperitif. Rivesaltes can be made from Grenache of any colour, Macabeo, Vermentino or even Muscat and comes in all colours. Sweet and strong, generalisation are hard beyond that as they can vary from pale and fragrant through to dense and rasiny, many having nutty notes. Some are aged in steel, others in oak or even outside in glass jars. The best rival Banyuls, but this is a declining category worldwide.