It has been two years since my last visit to Languedoc-Roussillon, that glorious slice of southern France that stretches along the Mediterranean between Carcassonne and Nîmes, and I miss the sunshine, the accent, the scented brush and the wine. In this most generous of regions, the ends of words are closed (“byeng” for bien; “vang” for vin) but everything else is wide open: the coastline curves like an embrace and wine flows unstinting from vast vineyards. This hasn’t always worked out well for the inhabitants, but as we have just lived through the Year of the Big No, I long for a place that knows only “yes” – or “oc”, in la langue d’oc (the language of oc, or Occitan), which gave Languedoc its name.
This nomenclature seems so appropriate for a warm and fertile land that at one point produced 44 per cent of France’s wine – to say nothing of olives, almonds, fruit and herbs – that it ought to have been one of the troubadours, the region’s medieval poets, who came up with it. Or perhaps a winemaker: sun, rich soil and an abundance of grape varieties meant the wine was cheap as well as plentiful, and the people grew wealthy quenching the thirst of the territories Napoleon conquered – and of the soldiers doing the conquering.
Napoleon didn’t last but oppression is always thirsty work, and from the 1830s there was the new colony of Algeria to water. Generous Languedoc opened its arms to everyone, sending wine around the world; unfortunately, everyone turned out to include the phylloxera louse, which arrived on ships returning from America and destroyed Europe’s vineyards. Scrabbling to recoup, Languedoc planted even more vines, and produced a lot of ruinously thin wine that needed strengthening with the powerful reds being made by colonists in, yes, Algeria.
Today, the Occitan dialects are all endangered: saying “yes” has not helped save la langue d’oc. But Languedoc has learned to say “no”, pinpointing and promoting its best terroir, pulling up inferior vines. There is now great wine to be found here, for those prepared to learn a little vocabulary. Obscure varieties are being revived and appellations are sprouting sub-appellations; while that doesn’t automatically bring clarity, several are worth committing to memory.
I have fallen in love with Terrasses du Larzac, a small patch of stony windswept terraces in eastern Languedoc. By saying an enthusiastic “yes” to wineries I’d never heard of – Domaine de Ferrussac, Le Mas de l’Ecriture, Mas des Brousses – I’ve discovered rich, spicy yet restrained reds made of combinations of Cinsault, Carignan, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Farther west, near Carcassonne, there are grapes with unfamiliar names and flavours to get my tongue around: the Grenache Gris, Macabou and Terret that the extraordinary Maxime Magnon blends with his Carignan; or Piquepoul Noir, made into a zippy, tangy lighter red by Calmel & Joseph; and in Fitou, a lovely, juicy red made by Katie Jones – no native Languedocienne but a transplant from Leicester – from Lledoner Pelut, which translates as Hairy Grenache.
In la langue d’oc, the troubadours sang of love and honour. Both require knowing the power of restraint – as, of course, does wine: unrestrained affirmatives will get you vinegar, or phylloxera, or at the very least, thin wine. And where’s the poetry in that?
This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation