Amazing French Wine For Common People
Updated: Aug 5, 2019
Notes on an approachable fine red wine from one of the world’s oldest vineyards
Ever wonder why Air France serves free wine?
In this installment of un verre du vin, I will cover the lesser known wine region of the Languedoc, and at the end of this article, I provide a description of a more popular red wine from this area along with a couple suggested food pairings.
Many of us know Toulouse, France as the home of Airbus, the famous aerospace producer that builds many of the planes we typically fly on. Toulouse is where several of the world’s most popular airplane models are assembled, including the A320, A330, A350, and the worlds largest passenger jet, the A380. However, few people are likely to associate Toulouse with Languedoc-Roussillon, an important and storied French wine region about a one-hour drive from the city.
Toulouse is both the historic and current capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, and while the city itself is largely focused on new-age future technology, the nearby wine regions are amongst the most ancient in the world. Commonly known as just “the Languedoc,” few wine growing regions have been embroiled in as much political and social conflict as this highly underrated appellation.
For many people, French wine is synonymous with the more famous wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne, and the Languedoc is not something you’ll commonly hear mentioned in America. Regardless, it is the largest wine region by landmass in France, as well as the single largest wine-producing region by volume in the world.
Wrapping along the Mediterranean coastline from the French-Spanish border all the way to Provence, the Languedoc is responsible for one-third of all French wine. This single region produces more wine each year than both the United States and Australia.
Despite the sheer magnitude of winegrowing taking place on over 500,000 acres, the Languedoc produces some of the most enjoyable and table ready wines in the world. Because so much wine is produced in the Languedoc, supply is usually greater than demand, and so prices for these wines are always competitive. This does not, however, reflect the quality of the wine compared to global competitors, as many wines from the Languedoc can hold their own against other wines from some of the world’s most recognizable appellations.
Aged wine is good, but aged wine regions?
The history of winegrowing in the Languedoc dates all the way back to the 5th century BC when ancient Greek settlers first planted roots into the land.
Along with parts of neighboring Provence, the Languedoc is home to the oldest vineyards in all of France, as well as some of the most ancient in the world. After the Greeks, the Languedoc region was part of the Roman Empire and became an important wine region during the reigns of several famous emperors, including Gaius Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar. Like much of European history, many ancient winemaking relics still exist in the region, including the ruins of a winery nearly 2,000 years old that can be found near Clermont l’Herault, just west of Montpellier.
Between the 4th and 18th centuries, the Languedoc had a reputation for producing high-quality wine. During the 14th century, some Languedoc wines were seen as having healing powers and were sent to Parisian hospitals (MacNeil, 2015).
During the advent of the Industrial Age in the late 19th century, production shifted towards mass-produced cheap red wine that could satisfy the growing and restless worker population in France. During this time, it wasn’t uncommon for Languedoc wine to be blended with Algerian wine, to create a more full-bodied effect in what was an otherwise thin wine.
During both WWI and WWII, winegrowers in the Languedoc produced daily wine rations for French soldiers to help the battled hardened men cope with their daily ordeal. During WWII, the Languedoc was under Vichy France, however, the area proved problematic for German and Italian occupiers, as strong resistance efforts mounted after the Allied landings in North Africa.
After the end of the Algerian war for independence, the Languedoc was no longer blending its wines with Algerian wine, and thus ushered in the end of the cheap-wine era for the region.
The Languedoc has long been a hotbed of political protest, and many consider it the birthplace of modern French socialism. This political protest has directly impacted wine production, and it is not unheard of for militant groups of winemakers to attack foreign wine operations. As far as wine regions go, the Languedoc certainly has a colorful past.
Do people like the Languedoc?
Today, the face of Languedoc-Roussillon wine has drastically changed from the cheap wine days. Since the change from cheap to fine wine, more grape varietals for the discerning customer have been planted, and fine wine names such as St Chinian, Faugères, Corbières, Pic St Loup and Terrasses du Larzac are becoming increasingly known among sommeliers and wine lovers.
Languedoc wines are also quickly gaining notoriety for being exceptionally undervalued, and are therefore being seen on more and more restaurant menus. Languedoc wines are not usually expensive, as the region isn’t as prestigious as other famous French winegrowing regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Provence, and Champagne. Regardless, Languedoc red blends can be just as dynamic and enjoyable as their cousins from other regions and typically come at a fraction of the cost.
Tear me off some of that terroir:
Vineyards in the Eastern and Western Languedoc are found mostly along the coastal plains of the Mediterranean, while those in the Southern Roussillon area are typically found within narrow valleys between the Pyrenees mountains. The composition of the soil in the Languedoc varies, as inland vineyards are planted on mostly chalk, limestone and gravel based soils, while the coastal vineyards tend to be on more alluvial soils. Many of the wines from the Languedoc have a notable sea air quality to them, and the coastal wines have an unmistakable distinction from the alluvial soil type.
My baby’s got the blends:
In the Languedoc, vineyards are often termed as patchwork since so many different grape varieties grow together. This is not to be confused with field blends, where the entire vineyard is usually crushed and fermented together.As is common in much of France, most producers in the Languedoc make blends instead of single varietal wines, however, some producers make straight Syrah and Grenache, and whites are commonly made with just one grape varietal.
Red blends from the Languedoc tend to be made from common red varietals including Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, and Mourvèdre. What sets the Languedoc apart however is the use of less common grapes including Carignan and Cinsault.
While Carignan has never really enjoyed good press, it produces a deep purple wine that is heavy on tannins, and almost syrupy with brambly fruit flavors. Cinsault is a grape that thrives in the heat, and it is grown widely in the South of France, and this grape is used to add fragrance and lightness to overgrown reds, however, its primary use is to make rosé.
While the Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre (GSM) blends hailing from the neighboring Rhône region in the north are globally celebrated, Languedoc produces similar wines using Syrah and Grenache, however, the use of Carignan as a blending partner in place of Mourvedre yields a softer wine with rustic fruit and perfume. GSM’s can easily be found on many wine lists in America and around the world, while Languedoc “GSC” red blends are more difficult to find, especially by the glass.
A GSC from the Languedoc provides a delicious introduction to this region’s wines. The alluvial soil comprised of ancient riverbed stones is unmistakable on the nose, while the salinity from the sea imparts a delicate sweetness to the aroma of a flower bed of violets and catnips.
Inhaling one of these wines is like breathing the air on a cool evening in a coastal evergreen and eucalyptus forest.
The density of this wine is visible, as the opaque purple liquid in your glass lets you know you’re about to taste something rich. The flavors of these wines teem with luscious dark fruit, similar to a Rhône GSM, but less peppery and a bit a juicier. Enjoy one of these wines with grilled sardines, or the classic Lyonaisse quenelles de brochet served with sauce Nantua.
Next time you go to your local wine shop, see if they have red from the Languedoc, and take it out for a swirl or two. Enjoy.