The Languedoc? Devote a whole issue to a part of France that isn't one of the classic regions? Why?
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."
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.
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).
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
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 ControlÃ©e) rules and
regulations. The AC laws, set up back in 1936, determined and codified
then-existing winemaking practices. Emphasizing geographical context,
strictures were reinforced in 1949 by the establishment of the VDQS
(Vins DelimitÃ©s de QualitÃ© SupÃ©rieure) 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).
- restricted use of a place name on a label to wines from that area
- specified methods of production
- specified grape varieties that could be planted
- set maximum levels for crop yields
- set minimum levels for natural alcohol
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.
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.
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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