What is terroir? It’s a little word with a big meaning. It sums up all the various factors the vine experiences in the environment where it is growing and in turn this affects the style of the wine. Wine without the influence of terroir will just be deliciously fruity whereas terroir driven wines will express a sense of the place where they come from.
The two most influential factors of terroir are the climate and the soil. Also included is the altitude the vines are grown at. Is it flat or sloping land? If there is a slope which way is it facing? Does the soil drain freely? Does the soil trap heat? Is there water nearby and if so is it a large body of water such as a lake or the sea or is it a trickling stream or a great river. What is the microclimate in that place? What else is growing in the area? All of these factors affect the growing conditions for the vine and will shape the characteristics of the wine. However there is one further, highly important element of terroir. Man. How is the land being farmed? Has the terroir been matched to particular grape varieties? How have the vines been pruned and trained? What yield is being achieved? Is the land being farmed sustainably and in deference to terroir or highly commercially using pesticides and herbicides?
Until very recently all wines were named after the terroir they came from. Wines such Barolo from Italy, Rioja from Spain and St Emilion from France. All of these wines tell us the country, the region and even the town or village where they were grown and therefore the climate they grew in. It used to be very unusual to see the grape variety mentioned on the label, that’s quite a recent addition. Many people think it’s a great improvement to have the grape variety on the label however, this alone will not tell you how the wine will taste. The growing conditions – the terroir needs to be taken into account too.
By way of an example, let’s take an apple. If you planted an apple tree in the coldest part of your country and the same variety in the warmest part what would the apples taste like? The apple from the cold climate might be soar and acidic in comparison to the one grown in the warmer climate which will probably be sweet and ripe. The same applies to grapes. If you taste Syrah from a moderate climate such as the Northern Rhône and compare it to one from somewhere much hotter, such as the Barossa in Southern Australia, the wines will taste very different mainly due to the ripeness of the fruit.
Soil type also has a great influence on the wine. For instance Grenache grown on Schist (compacted slate) will have silky tannins even when the wine is young but grown on clay these tannins take some time to become supple.
The Ley of the Land
The vineyards of the Languedoc-Roussillon spread from Nimes across to the Spanish border. The region contains 5 Departments and as is traditional in France, most of them are named after the major river that flows through them. The Gard in the far east of the region is named after the river Gardon and is home to the city of Nimes and the nearby Roman aqueduct the Pont du Gard.
The Lozère named after Mont Lozère, is the most northerly and mountainous department due to its proximity to the Massif Central. The altitude here makes it unsuitable for growing wine.
The city of Montpellier is the capital of Languedoc and is in the Hérault Department which is sandwiched between the Cévennes mountain range of the Mediterranean Sea.
The Aude is home to the medieval city of Carcassonne and also to some of the best known Languedoc wine regions such as the Corbières, Limoux and the Minervois.
Finally we have the Pyrénées-Orientales. This department was created during the French Revolution and brought together two areas. The Roussillon, which was once part of Catalonia until the treaty of the Pyrenees in the 16th Century and the Fenolheda, named after the fennel that grows wild on the hills.
The entire region of the Languedoc-Roussillon can be divided into sections. The Roussillon stands on its own and Languedoc can be split into three zones; The Coastal Pains, Hillsides & Mountains and the Atlantic corridor.
The Coastal Plains zone spreads from Montpellier to just beyond Narbonne and surrounds Béziers in the centre. These flat and fertile soils are where the majority of Languedoc’s high yielding vines are grown producing wines destined for entry level Vins du Pays. The landscape here is changing quite rapidly due to the Vine Pull scheme that has encouraged some winegrowers to leave the industry. Twenty years ago this area was a sea of vines but now cereals, olive and fruit trees are replacing vines.
The Languedoc is bordered by the Mediterranean to one side and mountains to the other with vines spread across the plains then sweeping up onto the hillsides towards the mountains. It’s here that you will find the most exciting wines growing on a myriad of soil types, at varying altitudes and microclimates that offer superb growing conditions. The diverse soil types and bedrocks of the hillsides have been matched to grape varieties and these marriages produce wines with unique signatures. For instance Syrah grown on schist will produce an entirely different wine to Syrah grown on granite. Limestone will often produce wine with a minerality that imitates acidity, producing wine with freshness that others can lack when grown on the alluvial plains. The cooler growing conditions provided by altitude will extend the growing season. This allows the grapes to slowly ripen and build flavours whilst maintaining much needed acidity. Therefore as well as excellent red wines some of Languedoc-Roussillon’s finest white wines are produced on the Hillsides and Mountains zone.
The Atlantic Corridor is close to the towns of Carcassonne and Limoux. It is so called because this is where the Atlantic and Mediterranean breezes and winds meet. Both Atlantic and Mediterranean grape varieties are at home in these conditions and appellations such as Cabardès and Malepère are a blend of at least one grape from each camp.
The wines of Limoux are also grown in the Atlantic Corridor. This area is the most southerly part of Languedoc and is where the Atlantic breezes are most obvious. So again the red wine of this appellation must contain a high proportion of the Bordeaux grape variety Merlot.
The Roussillon is one of the most beautiful parts of France. Mountains and hills dominate the landscape, the Corbières hills to the north and the Pyrenees Mountains to the south. Sandwiched between them is the Roussillon plain that stretches inland from the sea. So you can choose to swim in the sea and ski on the mountains all on the same day!
The overall terroir in the Languedoc-Roussillon is a Mediterranean climate with plenty of sunshine and temperatures that regularly exceed 30◦C. Rainfall is low and mainly happens during the winter months apart from the dramatic summer storms. Drought is the major climatic challenge and its affects are exaggerated by the almost constant wind in the region. The winds are part of Languedoc-Roussillon’s personality and there are many of them. They have an influence on many things including wine growing and, as is the habit of mankind, they have been christened with evocative names.
The Tramontane is Languedoc’s equivalent to the famous Mistral that whistles down the Rhône river valley a little further east from here. Like the Mistral the Tramontane is a cold dry wind. It is the most common wind of the region and blows north or northwest. It can reach high speeds of more than 60mph and blows all year round but thankfully not every day! It is however, a welcome and healthy wind that dries the vines after rain or humidity and reduces the chances of mildew and rot. Humans also welcome it in the 30◦C+ days of the summer.
The Cers blows in the Aude and is cold in winter and warm in summer. Many people say it’s the Tramontane by another name. It blows westerly or north-westerly from the direction of Toulouse and is a welcome wind as it blows away the bad weather.
The Marin comes in from the sea bringing humidity and often fog, low cloud and rain. Everything becomes damp and even stone walls seem to sweat and wood swells in windows and doorways. Most of the time it doesn’t do the vines much good as it encourages rot and mildew. But if it’s a mild episode and there has been a drought the vines can enjoy the moisture and drink from it.
The Autan is caused by the Marin when the wind gathers force and funnels through the narrow gap between the Corbières Hills and the Montagne Noire. Locals call it the Wind of the Devil and it’s said it can drive you mad.
The heat, drought and wind create a terroir that produces full bodied wines with high alcohol levels. The challenge to the wine maker is keeping the balance between alcohol and acidity. As the grapes ripen the sugars build and the sugar is the potential alcohol of the finished wine. As the sugar builds, the acidity lowers and the balance between the two is key to the quality of the wine. It’s important the wine maker is ever watchful, as a really enjoyable wine is fresh in your mouth due to the acidity, has delicious fruit flavours and is without an alcoholic burn. In other words, balanced.
The Wine Makers
The wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon are produced by private wine makers known as récoltants, co-operatives and négociants. Récoltants plant the vines, care for them, pick the grapes, make and mature the wines and sell them and therefore are responsible for every step of the process.
Cave co-operates are usually owned by the members. The grape growers are contracted to grow the grapes, harvest them and bring them to the cave where they need to meet the standards set by the co-operative. Each has its own criteria and in some cases this is very strict with the aim of producing a range of wines at different quality levels. Unfortunately many of the co-operatives have found themselves unable to compete in a world that is demanding higher quality and have gone out of business.
Négociants are businesses that make wine and/or buy wine from récoltants who do not bottle all or any of their production. The Négociants will blend and bottle the wine under their own labels and usually sell the wines in large quantities to bulk retailers such as supermarkets.
The whole region is scattered with hundreds of small villages, a few larger towns and a handful of cultural cities. The outstanding colours of Languedoc are pink and green. The houses have faded pink or grey stuccoed walls punctuated with sun bleached doors. The colours of the shutters and doors are chosen from a palette of blue-green, faded olive, rusty red or flaky French grey. The village houses are crowned with pan-tiled terracotta roofs baking in the Mediterranean sunshine.
Many of the villages were once fortified in order to protect the inhabitants from the numerous invasions this area suffered in times gone by. Bearing witness to this are the lookout towers that rise from the centre of the villages or the fortified churches which in many cases are converted castles. There are a great many villages built as a ‘circulade’ built in the shape of a snail’s shell which gave protection to the inhabitants.
Castles are strewn across this land, or at least the remains of them with some dating back 800 years. They hark back to a feudal society, for Languedoc-Roussillon was home to a great many lords and knights. Each had their castle with the village cottages clustered around it. Some of the villages would have been enclosed within stone walls but all that remains these days are mounds of earth where the castle stood and perhaps a few ruins. Not to be missed are the castles of Lastours in the Cabardès, Quéribus & Peyreperteuse in the Corbières and Montségur in the Ariège. So called Cathar Castles where followers of this faith took refuge during the crusade that eventually wiped them out.
I have found the people of the region to be warm and friendly and although in my experience their accent is a little hard to follow, my stuttering French is usually sufficient to gain me all the help I need. There is a great sense of community in the villages helped perhaps by one of the customs I came across soon after I moved here. One morning I heard music playing over a loud speaker. As I opened my front door to listen a voice over the tannoy said ‘allo allo’ then proceeded to announce the day’s goings on. Apparently the local shop had a special offer on cheese and the fish van would be arriving at 2pm. This is a practise carried out by all the villages in the Languedoc-Roussillon. It’s a great way of telling the inhabitants what is happening, such as when the water is going to be turned off or any other disruption. A friend told me about one announcement in her village. The music that played to get everyone’s attention was very sad and when the ‘allo allo’ came the voice was also sad and reverent. It told the residents that Madam DuPont had passed away, she was 86 and a daughter of the village.
The vineyards are surrounded by low growing scrubland called garrigue which smothers the hillsides. It is the result of deforestation for the cultivation of vines, olives and grains and the rearing of sheep and goats. It is found mainly on limestone soils and is made up of a dense thicket of aromatic, lime tolerant shrubs. These include holm oaks, juniper trees, broom, Fennel and cistus, a pretty flowering bush that sports papery pink and white flowers. Intermingled with the bushes are low growing wild herbs such as lavender, rosemary, thyme and sage. You will occasionally find chamomile, cactus and myrtle too. Maquis is the name given to the taller shrub-covering on higher slopes such as in the foothills of the Cevennes Mountains. It was also the name given to the French Resistance fighters who hid in those forests and mountains.
You will also notice the pierre sèche or dry stone walls built to stop erosion as well as producing a boundary. Many fine examples can be found around the village of La Livinière in the Minervois. The builders of these walls had great imagination and many of them are shaped to incorporate a bench with a curve in the wall to protect you from the Tramontane as you eat your lunch.
Dotted amongst the vineyards and usually alongside a dry stone wall, are ancient stone shelters known as Capitelles. They were used for temporary protection for harvested olives, grains and grapes. Shepherds and farmers used them as short term refuge and places to keep tools or even the donkey should there be a sudden down pour. They are built in many shapes and sizes and the older ones have corbelled roofs and resemble an igloo made from stone. You will also find intricately designed Capitelles for trapping rabbits destined for the pot. In later years the Capitelles were superseded by Casotes, conventionally shaped stone huts often seen in vineyards sporting advertising for the local free paper, the Midi Libre. Massets are small, often very pretty huts used for weekend get-togethers for friends and family. They come together to enjoy a picnic and a pichet of rosé and a good talk, that’s something the French people love to do..!