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In praise of Languedoc

It isn’t a lauded wine region – but it is one of France’s best.

By Andrew Jefford

Vast, airy, tough: that’s home. My family and I have been immigrants in Hérault since 2010. For three hours north of the front door, the road is patrolled more assiduously by owls than gendarmes. It winds through the scented limestone scrublands known as garrigues, then the Cévennes’s dark chestnut forests, then limestone uplands so denuded they even look dismal by moonlight. This is the south of France – but it isn’t. There are no jostling super-yachts, no Porsche-laden corniche roads, no manicured poodles on jewelled leads. That’s coastal Provence. This is inland Languedoc.

There’s lots of wine here. Quietly so, because the region can swallow up to one third of France’s vineyards and still leave ample wilderness to spare. Quietly so, because few Languedoc wine producers feel they have anything to brag about.

Yet they do: survival. I know of no other French wine region where so many properties have been in the hands of single families for so long – not decades but centuries. Wealth attracts churn. Languedoc remains – stoically, sometimes cussedly – unchurned.

The kind of wine you produce in Languedoc depends on where your vineyards lie: on the plains or in the hills. Neither furnishes an easy life. Around half of Languedoc-Roussillon’s 240,000 hectares of vines produce Pays d’Oc wines sold under grape-variety names (“varietal wines”): the wines of the plains. They’re hard-traded, often unlauded. Compare them with similarly priced varietal wines from the southern hemisphere or the US, though, and you may find them subtler, more pliant and more drinkable.

Then come Languedoc’s appellation wines: the wines of the hills. Their remote and often isolated vineyards look impeccable, as if their existence was somehow nature’s intention, nestling amid a sunlit chaos of scrub. Follow the red-and-white waymarked footpaths through this largely uncultivated landscape, and your boots scuff thyme, rosemary, savoury and lemon verbena. You’ll push aside cade and mastic bushes in breaks between holm oak, Aleppo pine, wild almond and olive. Scent freights the dry air.

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There are challenges here. France’s army of eager legislators sank their fangs into Languedoc prematurely, at the very outset of its journey towards quality in the late 20th century. Languedoc needed a century of playful experiment – to sniff out its distinguished sites, to slowly sift its varietal choices. Wine creators only perform once a year; varieties take decades to prove themselves in a site. Languedoc’s hastily stipulated red-wine blends, almost all of them based on Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes, may not necessarily be the best means of giving voice to place. Syrah, indeed, is increasingly uncomfortable in Languedoc as its climate warms.

The plethora of Languedoc appellations, constantly juggled and rejuggled since inception, is more confusing than illuminating. These appellations, moreover, are articulated east-west rather than (as in Burgundy or the Rhône Valley) north-south. This is another difficulty: latitude doesn’t provide the limpid contrasts in weight and balance that nuance those other wine regions. A final mistake was to neglect white wines, which often reflect Languedoc’s biotope more faithfully than reds. Languedoc’s single most successful appellation wine on export markets is a white: Picpoul de Pinet, likeable and lemony, produced close to the glitter of oyster beds in the Étang de Thau. This historical oversight has had one advantage, though: recent Languedoc white wine appellations are more varietally liberal than the reds.

Languedoc classics such as Pic St Loup, Terrasses du Larzac, Faugères or St Chinian don’t necessarily have the sweet, seductive charm of their peers in the southern Rhône. I’ve often thought they’re French wine’s chamber music: compelling but cerebral. They appeal to seasoned drinkers – and to lovers of wilderness. Their garrigue notes often equate in practice to a scented, thorny bitterness. They improve each year; search hard, and their value is unrivalled. Through all the difficulties, Languedoc wine culture has endured, and it’s not stopping now.  

[See also: In wine’s culture war, we’ve all been winners]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink