Monday, June 6, 2016

Drinking in the Languedoc and Loving It.

This spring I had the pleasure of attending an event known as Terroirs et Millesimes ( which translates to Lands and Vintages) in Carcassonne, a beautifully restored and maintained medieval walled town in the center of the southern French region known as the Languedoc.

The Medieval city of Carcassonne at sunset - it's a fairly magical place. 

Why is there a 'the' in front of Languedoc? I don't know, but everybody calls it THE Languedoc. Kind of like how you say THE Richmond or THE Tenderloin when you're talking about neighborhoods in San Francisco.

It's called Languedoc because long ago the local French dialect used the word 'oc' for yes instead of 'oui,' which prevailed elsewhere, so it was known as the region that spoke the 'lange' (language) of 'oc.' It's also quite closely connected with the neighboring region of Roussillon, but for now their marketing programs are separate and I haven't really had any opportunities to explore Roussillon, but I hope to someday.

The Languedoc encompasses a large swath of the South of France following the Mediterranean coast from Montpellier west to the Pyrenees range and the Spanish border. There are many sub-zones that have been outlined over the last 80 years based on differences in climate and soil type. Some are officially recognized as AOCs (Appellations d'Origine Controllee) and some have not yet been recognized, but you'll still see the name of the region on the label. (More about that soon)

Anyway, I think the Languedoc is one of the most exciting wine regions in the entire world right now and it has been for at least a decade or two. I say this for a few reasons:

1. This is first class wine country. It's warm, beautiful and rugged country, just the sort of place vines really love. For the most part the soils are either primarily limestone, clay and limestone (a common mix), schist, or a rare fractured black slate schist that is seen in Faugeres. This last stuff is very similar to the black schist called llicorella that you see in the Spanish region of Priorat.

Although the Rhone Valley to the East is much more famous, I think that one can make a pretty good argument that some parts of the Languedoc are more special than parts of the southern Rhone Valley in terms of the quality of the terroir or vineyards. Indeed, reds from parts of the Languedoc probably have begun to command a slightly higher price internationally even though popular understanding of the Languedoc region lags far behind that of Rhone Valley wines.

2, The climate and various soil types that you find in the Languedoc are very well-suited to the grapes that are grown there. There are some white wine focused areas like Clairette and Limoux, the latter probably best known for its sparkling wine. But as a whole, this is red wine country. You will most often be drinking a blend of several red grapes including Carignan and Cinsault, the two most indigenous red grapes, and Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre which migrated over from the Rhone Valley and parts farther east.

Within any given region like Saint-Chinian, Faugeres, Corbieres, Pic St. Loup, Fitou, La Clape, Montpeyroux or Minervois you can find all kinds of blends with different grapes playing a leading role. This can be a little bit confusing, but in many ways it lets the climate and soils shine through, because you if you taste enough of them, you begin to taste the common thread that runs through all of the different various blends, and that's the terroir shining through, Blending allows winemakers to compose more seamless, complete wines, and even with the blends so different, you will find that these regions all have their own personalities. When the terroir speaks more loudly than the grape varieties in the blend, that's when you know that you are in a place where the terroir has a heavier hand than the winemaker. These places exist, and the Languedoc is rife with them.

Carignan from the Languedoc can be spectacularly good. Carignan probably originated over the Pyrenees in northeast Spain, but the old vine plantings in the Languedoc produce brilliant Carignan wines, and they warrant another post entirely...

The Languedoc garrigue, the herb underbrush of thyme, rosemary, lavender, juniper and other herbs permeate the air in the Languedoc, and those plant oils wind up flavoring the wines from the region, much the same way that eucalyptus trees in Australia and Madrone trees in the Mayacamas Mountains can flavor wines from those places. Think of it as an above-ground aspect of terroir. Languedoc wines are famous for being infused with these aromas. At first sniff, they can seem a bit wild and funky, but they can really grow on you. And brother/sister, when you pair some grilled or roast lamb seasoned with fresh herbs and then pair it with a Languedoc red the whole world seems to come together. These are the kind of pairings that can transport you to a different place altogether.

The same can be true with whites from the Languedoc. Picpoul de Pinet, a fresh white wine from the Languedoc is one of the best oyster wines in the world, and if you do ever find yourself in Sete, you'll really enjoy the oysters, especially with some chilled Picpoul, trust me.

A great old windmill in Minervois
3. Great winemaking. Relatively affordable land prices have drawn in some savvy investors and great winemaking talent over the last couple of decades. Most of the winemakers seem focused on making terroir-driven wines with great balance and restraint. In my two visits to the Languedoc, the last of which was in the spring of 2016, On both visits, I tasted between 50 and 150 wines per day for a week straight. I was blown away by the overall quality of the wines. Even the most simple wines had personality and style, and very few were poorly made or faulty. You don't have a lot of winemakers trying to make flashy 'blockbuster' wines, and that's a GREAT thing. Winemakers in the Languedoc are making wines that are a reflection of where they come from, and they're killing it.

4. Value. A good, and I mean really good bottle of Languedoc red will probably set you back between $15 and $25 retail. You'll get a glass at a nice restaurant for $9 to $12  a glass, and probably pay $30 to $45 in a restaurant for a bottle of red wine from Pic St. Loup, Faugeres, Saint-Chinian, Minervois, Corbieres, Fitou or La Clape. And you know what? It will probably really impress you. For that you're getting a wine with a lot of flavor, a real sense of place, and legitimate finesse.

Kinda kinky labels from La Louviere. These wines
aren't just rustic and traditional. At they're best, they're
quite contemporary. These are the coolest , most suggestive
 and provocative labels I have seen in years.
I vividly remember stopping into Sidebar in Oakland a couple of years ago with my girlfriend and ordering a glass of Pic St. Loup for about ten bucks. I sat back and wondered out loud why, if I really need to drink anything imported, I can't have something that good at every restaurant in Oakland. It was the best by-the-glass wine I had bought in years. It seems like every California wine director is chasing mediocre, obscure wines these days, but wines from the Languedoc are classically proportioned in the best sense, and they're rather undervalued, probably because the region is complicated and confusing for most people, including for me, and I've been there a couple of times.

If you're familiar with Cotes du Rhone reds and appreciate their value, expect a similar experience from the reds of Languedoc. They're similar to wines you've had and loved before, even if they're a bit more nuanced. They aren't trying to re-invent the wheel, and the wines are hella easy to appreciate.
Nifty, crypctic Masonic label.

5. Comeback Kid. I think this whole area of France has been victimized for a long time, both by the French wine trade establishment and foreign investors. Much like Lodi and the Central Valley of California, this is where big wine companies went to procure grapes that the public wanted. The land was cheap and the price per ton for grapes was cheap, so it was easy to get people to plant whatever the market demanded instead of what the land and climate really recommended. The Languedoc is a terrible place to grow Pinot Noir, but when that grape got hot, plenty of companies, including Gallo from California went there to secure cheap supplies. Within a few years, they realized they were being duped and were sold other stuff masquerading as Pinot Noir. Maybe the locals are a little smarter than the Yankee colonizers. The truth is that wines from the Languedoc have been admired since the Roman era. Maybe they went through a bit of a slump, but dammit, these wines are for real.

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