The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon by Wendy Gedney – Chapter 1
I remember the first time I came to the Languedoc-Roussillon. It was the summer of 1990 and in those days I could hardly be described as a wine connoisseur, in fact quite the opposite. Yes I liked to drink wine but my taste had not developed beyond a glass of good Sancerre. It was a family holiday that brought me to the region, I was attracted by the Mediterranean climate and the ‘good value’ accommodation and my husband was attracted by the wine. He was the wine buff in the family and had heard that the wines of this region were undergoing great change which he wanted to discover for himself.
I had never been wine tasting at a vineyard and was very excited at the prospect of it. John had explained that this region of France was known for good value wine and quantity rather than quality, but change was afoot. He said that this place had everything you need to make wonderful wine. The Mediterranean climate that can produce ripe grapes, many different soil types and the quality grape varieties now planted. Also with the advent of the AOC and the then fairly new Vins du Pays category introduced in the 1980s, wines were said to be greatly improving.
We were staying in the Corbières which is a rugged and beautiful part of the Languedoc and back then it had a great many co-operative wineries and only a few independent producers. Hardly any books had been written about the area and we didn’t have much to guide us so we headed off in search of welcoming ‘Degustation’ signs. In fact the first place we came upon was on the roadside just outside a village where an old lady sat under a parasol next to a barrel where 3 bottles of wine had been placed in the sun.
We stopped and my excitement built at the prospect of discovering a great wine. There were 3 wines to choose from; a rosé and two reds but I was disappointed to see that no white wine was on offer. I eagerly accepted the glass of red that was offered and following John’s lead I sniffed at it expecting the beautiful aromas of ripe fruit. Instead I remember a cloud of alcohol and some very astringent smelling cooked fruit odours. I sipped it and although these days I am used to spitting wine to avoid inebriation, on this occasion I spat it out because it tasted so rank…! I looked at John aghast. He had said that this place had everything needed to make good wine so why was it so disgusting? ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘you see there’s something missing. Yes they have this wonderful terroir and better grape varieties nowadays’ but it’s not just these elements that make good wine. You need the right people. You need people who have passion for wine and passion for the way it’s grown and made. That’s been missing here for a long time, but those people will come. Already wine makers are arriving here attracted by the climate and the price of the land. The children of the local wine growers are developing new skills and already have a great passion for the place where they were born. One day the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon will be some of the most exciting wines in France, you mark my words.’
And he was right.
So why did Languedoc–Roussillon produce such bad wine? To answer that question we need to understand a little bit about the history and what made this place tick. It all began 2600 years ago with the Greeks followed by the Romans. Julius Caesar conquered Gaul in 51 BC and Christianity spread under his reign which meant more wine was needed for both religious purposes and for consumption. We have written evidence beginning in 125 BC that describes the wines produced around the city of Narbonne which was the capital of Roman Gaul. The Romans knew a thing or two about growing and making wine and many of the things expounded by Pliny and the like are still practised today.
It’s not until the Middle Ages that we again have recorded information about wine growing and this time it’s the monasteries that are responsible for it. 400 years after the fall of the Roman Empire in AD 800 Charlemagne, King of the Franks was crowned Holy Roman Emperor and under his rule Christianity flourished. The Benedictine abbey of Sainte Marie d’Orbieu was founded in Lagrasse. The Cistercians later founded the abbey of Fontfroide also in the Corbières and the abbey of St Hilaire in Limoux, each with viticulture at the heart of them. In fact the monastic influence on wine making can be seen all over France. It was the monks who first recorded the notion of terroir and its effect on wine. They matched the terroirs to grape varieties and organised vineyards into parcels based on soil type and microclimate. They were prolific record makers and it’s thanks to this that we know so much about the vineyard practises of the day.
During this time the southern part of France was called Occitania taking its name from the Romance language of Occitane. This language is characterised by the use of ‘oc’ as the word for yes. Languedoc therefore means the language of oc. Occitania stretched across the Mediterranean including the cities of Nice, Marseilles, Nimes, Montpellier, Narbonne, Béziers, Carcassonne and Toulouse. The land of Occitania did not belong to France and back then what was to become Roussillon was part of Catalonia. Occitania was a feudal society with its many counts and lords holding allegiances in various directions. It was also full of Cathars who flourished in a society where law and order was hard to come by. The Cathar Crusade began in 1208 and raged for 20 years and was closely followed by the Hundred Years war which began in 1337. These and other religious struggles slowed economic expansion in the South whilst it flourished in the North.
The Languedoc landscape in the 15th and 16th centuries would have looked very different to that of today. Wine was needed for local consumption but vines were just a part of the agriculture here and not the dominating force they were to become. The region produced cereals and olive oil as is borne out by the many derelict windmills and fortunes were made through sheep and wool. Wine was mainly being produced by the monasteries who were the hoteliers of their day. Pilgrims, travellers some of them important people would be housed in the monasteries where they would be entertained with food and the local wines.
In those days wine could not become a major export for Languedoc due to the difficulty to transport it. The major markets were in the north of France and onwards to the lucrative British, Dutch and German markets. The easiest way to get the wine up to the north of France would have been to transport it to the port of Bordeaux in the west and sail it round. However in 1241 an agreement had been drawn up between the kings of France and England that accorded special privileges to Bordeaux wines. The agreement ensured that all wine shipped from the port of Bordeaux would be made in that region. Wines from other areas could not be shipped until the Bordeaux supply was exhausted. This hardly ever happened and only 5% of wine made it from South to North.
The Canal du Midi opened in 1681 which linked the Mediterranean and the Atlantic via the ports of Sète and Bordeaux. This would have enabled Languedoc wine to make its way into the market place but the Bordeaux Privilege was not repealed until 1776. However there was a market for cheap brandy and the French government needed taxes. So in 1709 the peasants of the Languedoc were encouraged to plant vines on the poor and rocky soils leaving the fertile land for other crops. Mainly white grape varieties were planted and the wine was distilled into brandy which could make its way along the Canal du Midi and was allowed to leave the port of Bordeaux.
Back in the 13th century it had been discovered that by fortifying a wine you would stabilise it and make it suitable for long sea voyages. The process was patented by the King of Majorca who controlled Roussillon which was part of Catalonia in those days. A huge trade in the sweet fortified wines called Vin Doux Naturels was born. And so it was that 18th century Languedoc was planted with Picpoul and Clairette grapes destined for brandy production and Roussillon was mainly planted with Macabeu, Grenache and Carignan for Vin Doux Naturel production.
The railway connections to the south were established in 1855 and Paris and the north became easily accessible and more and more vineyards were planted in Languedoc-Roussillon. Between 1850 and 1875 France planted new vineyards that amounted to 200,000 hectares and of those plantings Languedoc-Roussillon accounted for more than 140,000 hectares. However much of the wine was being distilled and this region was making 2/5 of all brandy produced in France.
As Languedoc- Roussillon reached the later part of the 18th century and on into the first 80 years of the 19th century, it saw a boom in wine and brandy production. Most of it was sent north to satiate the thirst of Napoleons troops and in later years the thirst of the workers as the industrial revolution got underway. The landscape changed quite dramatically as vines replaced the cereals and were planted on the rich soils of the valley floor. Between 1850 and 1870 plantings doubled in the Hérault Department. Overall in that period Languedoc had almost 300,000 hectares planted to vines. The peasant farmers were selling their sheep or replacing their crops with vines and large vineyard estates were expanding and taking on more workers to produce wine. Increasingly Languedoc was heading for a monoculture leaving it wide open to any fluctuations in the market or a devastating pest should it come – and it did.
Phylloxera entered France in the 1870’s when someone planted an American vine in Provence and unwittingly set the louse loose. Phylloxera had been present in North America without anyone’s knowledge. It had not caused a problem to the native American vines which are a different species to their European cousin. It lives on the root systems of the vines where it sucks the sap and eventually the European vine dies but the American vine has immunity. Once set free in Europe it headed west and came to Languedoc-Roussillon where it devastated the vineyards. No cure could be found. It was only clever thinking that got round the problem. Knowing that the American vine is immune and that only the roots are affected, eventually after much debate it was agreed that the European vine could be grafted onto American root stocks. However many of the poor peasant farmers could not afford to replant and only the large estates had the wherewithal to do so.
Throughout this time the demand for wine and brandy was increasing, especially in the working classes. But wine was in very short supply as the Languedoc-Roussillon struggled to replant and get production going again. All over France fraud became rife. The feeble wine from northern territories was doctored with sugar to increase the alcohol content and cheap brandy was made from potatoes, sugar-beet and maize. The government sanctioned the creation of vineyards in Algeria and the wine was imported to France via the port of Sète. It was a dreadful time for the people of the Languedoc region. They had lost their livelihoods and were living in poverty. And as if to rub their noses in it, the port of Sète where their wine and brandy had once left for the lucrative markets of the north, was now receiving imported wine from Algeria.
The Languedoc vineyards were the first to be replanted after Phylloxera hit France. The government needed wine to quench the thirst of the nation and to get the economy on its feet again. Ignoring the concern of those who warned against quantity over quality, the decision was taken to replant with high yielding grape varieties. With government grants Aramon and Alicante were planted on the plains and Carignan and Grenache on the better sites. So successful was this plan that by the end of the 19th century Languedoc was producing nearly half the entire French production from less than 25% of all French plantings. Languedoc was now producing industrial wine. Yields were so high that the grapes could not ripen and the resulting wine was feeble, acidic and pale and was blended with the Algerian imported wines to make them palatable.
Although demand for wine was high the market was now flooded and by 1901 the price of wine plummeted by three quarters and collapsed again in 1904. Radicals were pressing for protection and wine laws and many workers went on strike. Farmers were getting less for their wine than it took to produce and there was great social unrest which led to demonstrations in 1907. Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of the day was a hardliner and troops were called in to keep order when 600,000 people marched on Montpellier. Shots were fired and people died but many of the soldiers mutinied and joined the protesters in their quest to be heard.
A solution to the widespread fraud had to be found and it came with the creation of the AOC which guaranteed the authenticity of the wine. The first AOC’s in Languedoc were awarded to many of the Vins Doux Naturel in 1936 and coincided with the formation of the co-operative wineries. Up until then wine sales were in the hands of négociants. These merchants would buy the wine from the small producers to blend and sell as their own. Many people blamed the négociants for the fall in the price and accused them of dirty dealing. The co-operative wineries removed the need for the négociants by employing a wine maker and more importantly a salesman. The farmers could stop making wine altogether and take their grapes to the village co-operative. The wine would be made and sold and any profits could be shared amongst the co-operative members.
The co-operatives did not improve the quality of the wine and neither did the high demand for quantity which was still rising. By 1926 French annual wine consumption had reached 136 litres per person and those figures include men, woman and children. There was no encouragement for growers and producers to reduce the quantity so the yields remained high. The wines continued to be doctored with richer wine from Algeria until its independence in the 1960’s when wine exports ceased.
By the 1970’s wine consumption in France had changed considerably and people were looking for higher quality wine and some had stopped drinking wine altogether. The European wine lake was being filled with poor quality overproduction from Italy and France. Growers were being offered grants to uproot the poor quality varietals planted after Phylloxera. The options were to replant with quality grapes or diversify into other crops. This result was over 100,000 hectares of vines were uprooted. Also during this time more AOC’s had been created in an attempt to improve the image and the quality of the wines by controlling yields, terroir and grape variety.
During the 1980’s the New World began to produce wine and adopted a very different approach to France and indeed Italy and Spain. Their approach was to make a fruit led wine that was named after the grape and not the place it came from. In other words without regard to terroir. It was a great success and more and more people began to drink wine in countries where wine drinking had not previously been the norm. Many people had found French wine labels hard to understand and French wine very dry and lacking fruit. Whereas the wines of California and Australia were fruity and easy to drink and also easy to buy. If you’d had a chardonnay and enjoyed it then let’s have another. The grape variety became the only thing you needed to think about, its provenance was often a secondary concern for many people.
France was losing market share. It needed to do something but not at the expense of its AOC which had been formed to guarantee origin and to protect the ancient wines of France. France introduced the Vins de Pays category in 1983 and Languedoc-Roussillon starting producing Vins du Pays d’Oc in 1987. This category allowed producers much more freedom to choose the grape varietal and where to plant it. The New World had innovation and creativity and now so did Languedoc-Roussillon. People all over the world had caught the wine making bug and began to look for places to make it. They wanted a place with interesting terroir in a warm climate. A place where the wine was not already famous, where creativity could be expressed and where the land was cheap. For many people Languedoc-Roussillon turned out to be that place and they came from all directions re-christening this place the New World of France.
Soon people from other parts of France also began to buy land in Languedoc-Roussillon. People who made wine already and could bring their wine making skills with them. They were followed by the younger generation of the local inhabitants who took themselves off to college to learn how to make wine. Many of their parents were members of co-operatives and owned vines but had no wine making experience. They were shocked when their youngsters returned from college with ideas such as reducing yields. How would they make sufficient quantity to sell it at a good price, surely they would go bankrupt? The answer: ‘Those days are over; we’re going to make quality wine that will compete on the world stage’.
The wine production in Languedoc-Roussillon today is now a very different picture. There are over 3700 wine makers in Languedoc-Roussillon. Many of them are independent producers, farming small scale of between 6 and 15 hectares producing small amounts of high quality interesting wines. In Languedoc much of this wine is bottled under the Vins du Pays label which has been the saviour for this region, allowing innovation to invigorate the market. Roussillon also produces Vins du Pays but AOC wines are still in the majority due mainly to the Vin Doux Naturels this region is famed for. Yes there are still some co-operatives and bulk producers but they have had to improve their methods and create better quality wine to satisfy the market. Both Languedoc and Roussillon are now populated with winemakers who have a passion for the land and the wine produced on it. People who have resurrected forgotten vineyards bringing them back to life to produce some of the most complex and terroir driven wines France has to offer.
So my husband was right. It was people that were missing. People with passion and desire for top quality wine and now they are here. Many of them are Languedoc-Roussillon born and have been joined by others from all over the world. The Languedoc-Roussillon is no longer an ‘up and coming’ region, for it has arrived and produces some of the most exciting wines France has to offer.