The Languedoc spreads its wings

Ink, leather, burnt rubber, headaches – these are the associations Languedoc wine used to inspire in me. True, this was mostly down to the wanton chugging of corner-shop Corbières at university, but it had a foundation in reality. For decades the Languedoc was scorned by the industry’s opinion-formers as the one true wellspring of rubbish wine – responsible for lakes of carignan-based vin de table that couldn’t even be spoken of in the same breath as the stuff from the main appellations of France.

But that was then. Times have changed, the Languedoc has changed – as a trip there to work on last year’s grape harvest made shoutingly clear to me. The trip, to Domaine Jones in Tuchan, on the Languedoc-Roussillon border, confirmed for me what various talks and tastings have been suggesting for a good while: that the Languedoc is the most dynamic wine region in France right now, if not the world.

What’s happened is that, in the last 15 years or so, there has been a big viticultural shift. In the past, wine production in the Languedoc has been dominated by co-operatives, of which there is still a large, though diminishing number – about 300. While the co-ops were founded on good socialist principles and are the focal point of many Languedoc communities, they vary hugely in winemaking standards and overall competence; generally, their way of working is to pool resources to produce average wine in staggering quantities.

The co-ops are foundering for a few reasons, all linked to globalisation. First there’s the slump in domestic consumption (the days where the average French person would drink a glass with lunch and a glass with dinner each day are long gone). Then there’s the pressure from cheap imports. Add to that the EU ‘vine pull’ scheme (designed either to stoke demand or to make way for other forms of agriculture), which has led to many vignerons pulling up their vines in return for a wedge of cash to retire on.

All these factors have left many co-ops struggling to survive. They have also left a creative vacuum, which a growing number of enterprising outsiders – some very corporate and carrying massive investment, others very individual and risking everything with their life savings – are seeking to fill. Attracted by the prospect of cheap high-quality old vines (parcels of old Languedoc vines are being sold for as little as €3,000/ha; the average price for Bordeaux Superieur vineyards is about €25,000/ha), these outsiders have come in fizzing with new ideas, focusing on the global market and using organic or biodynamic production methods to make wines that appeal to the swaggering 21st-century wine drinker.

Katie Jones, who owns the picturesque domaine I visited, is just one such producer. She has around 15 hectares of vines (carignan, grenache, syrah, muscat, maccabeu – some more than 100 years old) and produces some outstandingly fresh and elegant Fitou (red), grenache gris and muscat (both whites). Katie’s wines have been making critics swoon – and winning awards – here, there and everywhere since her first vintage in 2009. But there are many more producers who, with every new vintage, are demonstrating the Languedoc’s true potential.

For us wine lovers, what it boils down to is this: if you want fine French wine without the intimidating price tag, you could do a hell of a lot worse than looking to the Languedoc.

Five stand-out Languedoc wines to try

1. Domaine Sainte Rose Nuit Blanche Roussanne 2013
The roussanne grapes were picked at night to preserve the freshest fruit flavour (sugars in the grapes are more stable at cool night temperatures, generally meaning a more reliable fermentation). Oak-aged, the wine shows off exotic fruit aromas, with manadarin and a slight nuttiness on the palate. (Majestic, £12.99).

2. Antech Blanquette de Limoux Brut Nature
The Languedoc’s answer to champagne, thought to be the oldest fizz in the world. ‘Brut nature’ is the driest of the dry – fewer than 3g of sugar per litre. It’s made without ‘dosage’ (the traditional way of making much sparkling wine is to add sugar and/or sweet wine to the grape juice following fermentation). A crisply refreshing aperitif. (The Wine Society, £9.95)

3. Virgile Joly Saturne 2010
From the Saint Saturnin appellation and one of the most influential Languedoc’s winemakers. I’ve tried his whole range and found them all to be very good or excellent. Virgile says this Saturne, a blend of Grenache, syrah, carignan and cinsault, is most representative of his approach to winemaking, which I take to mean: packing all of the intensity of a southern French red while retaining a marked freshness. You’ll get faint liquorice spice and soft oak lightened by perfumed notes of violet, lavender… you’ll get a lot for your money. (Borough Wines, £18)

4. Château Rives-Blanques Le Limoux 2010
Château Rives-Blanques wines have a lot gold medals – too many to ignore. Le Limoux is made from a blend of mauzac, chenin blanc and chardonnay, so it’s a still version of the classic sparkling Limoux wine. Complex – apple, peach, honey, clove, herb – with refreshing acidity and a subtle background of oak. (greatwesternwine.co.uk, £12.50)

5. Domaine Jones Fitou 2011
I’m bound to choose this, but I do urge you to try it as an easy-drinking ‘way in’ to the new style of Languedoc wines. A grenache/syrah/carignan blend, this Fitou has much more bright fruit upfront than you might expect, complemented by lingering hints of pencil shaving-type spice and garrigue herb. (Naked Wines, £19.99)

Find out about visiting Katie at Domaine Jones for the harvest or for wine tours at domainejones.com.

This is an edit of an article that originally appeared on iLoveMyGrub.com and is intended as an introduction to Languedoc wines. There are plenty more Languedoc posts to come.