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The Languedoc

The Languedoc? Devote a whole issue to a part of France that isn't one of the classic regions? Why?

Well, there are several reasons, the first suggested by our headline: the Languedoc-Roussillon - the southern part of France extending from the Pyrenees to the Rhône - is France's New World, its open back door, its link with the outside world. Another reason: it is the biggest single wine-producing region in the world, with more than 736,000 acres under cultivation, more than 350 cooperatives, and hundreds of exciting young winemakers. And the most compelling reason of all: in spite of a dismal earlier history, by the end of the 1990s (to quote Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson), "the Languedoc-Roussillon had established itself as France's best-value and most exciting wine region by far."

The people here are different; being Ligurian and Iberian in ancestry. Their dialects and accents are different, having their origins in the old Provençal tongue. And that brings us to the meaning of "Languedoc": The form of Latin used by the people of southern Gaul had evolved, by the end of the Roman Empire, into Occitanian or "langue d'oc" (the language in which "oc" means "yes"), and this became Provençal; those in northern Gaul meanwhile were speaking langue d"oil (the language in which "oil" means "yes . . . and "oil" eventually became "oui"). The language of northern Gaul evolved into modern French, which was officially imposed on the entire country in the 16th century.

Then, in the 1970s, several critical things happened that started the winds of change blowing. First Algeria gained independence from France in 1972 . . . and there went the source of that blending wine. Second, France joined the EEC (now EU), thereby subjecting herself to new wine regulations. Third, there was an influx of Australian winemakers who, recognizing the region's potential, bought up vineyards and built wineries, forcing up quality and value. And fourth, coinciding with all of this there was a marked change in the wine-drinking habits of the French themselves, with sales of those plastic litre bottles shifting toward the 750 ml glass bottle (in other words, less wine but better).

Finally, the French bureaucracy started inching toward solution of the problem, making loans for new equipment available at favorable rates and establishing new research institutes and oenological departments in local universities. Most important, it created a new category, Vin de Pays (see next page), and with that the Languedoc began its dramatic rise.

The Enabling Power of the Law

To really appreciate the wine revolution in the Languedoc you have to understand what had for so long inhibited it and then what finally permitted it to happen . . . The French wine law.

The governing body we are dealing with here is the INAO, Institut Nationale des Appellations d'Origines, whose purpose is to enforce the AC (Appellation Controlée) rules and regulations. The AC laws, set up back in 1936, determined and codified then-existing winemaking practices. Emphasizing geographical context, the law

  1. restricted use of a place name on a label to wines from that area
  2. specified methods of production
  3. specified grape varieties that could be planted
  4. set maximum levels for crop yields
  5. set minimum levels for natural alcohol
These strictures were reinforced in 1949 by the establishment of the VDQS (Vins Delimités de Qualité Supérieure) category. Most consider this a "waiting room" for AC status, but the VDQS rules do permit slightly higher crop yields and lower alcohol levels. Because they codified existing practices (especially with regard to grape varieties planted), the laws worked fine for the mainstream quality regions like Burgundy and Bordeaux (Burgundians aren't about to rip out their beloved Pinot Noir and replace it with Syrah, for example), but it stuck the Languedoc with their traditional native varietals (in other words, no Cabernet or Chardonnay need apply).

The INAO remained fairly intransigent on all of this until those winds of change started blowing in the early 1970s. Finally seeing a solution to the problems, they created a new category in 1973, Vin de Pays (although the conditions were not fully formalized until 1979). There are some 150 Vin de Pays designations throughout the country, but since the Languedoc-Roussillon has the greatest concentration of zonal Vins de Pays and is dominated by the most successful of these, Vins de Pays d'Oc, the liberating effect of the new category is felt the most here.

The category does stipulate the exact production area (though in a much less restrictive fashion) and is much more generous regarding yields and alcohol levels. Much more importantly, it permits the introduction of classic non-native grapes and the labeling/marketing of the wines by varietal designation (a boon for the consumer). In effect, the new rules gave growers and winemakers an escape route from the straight-jacket of AC regulations. To quote Tom Stevenson: "The success of the Vin de Pays system lies not in creating more appellations but in freeing producers from them, which allows the most talented individuals to carve out their own reputations."

The end result of all this, especially in the Languedoc, has been an exhilarating improvement in the quality of the wines, partly expressed in a widespread move away from bulk production to domaine bottlings. We are seeing the emergence of a new generation of winemakers who are combining modern technology with the best of traditional practices and who are committed to making wines (with whatever varietal) that best express their terroir.

Is everything rosy and wonderful? Of course not. So just to keep things in balance we close with a final quote from Tom Stevenson: "This success . . . also attracted the attention of less quality-minded producers who jumped on the bandwagon and now churn out megagallons of unbelievably bland Vin de Pays, but if this is the price of revolution at the bottom end of the French wine regime, I for one am pleased to pay it."

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