Like so many older European winemaking regions, the Languedoc has instigated its own transformation during the last decade as more informed and new generations of winemakers introduced state of the art winemaking technique to showcase local terroir. The development can not be taken casually since the Languedoc, combined with its southwest neighboring sister region Roussillon, represents more hectares of planted vineyards and total wine production than any other region in the world. Once known as a simple French country-bulk wine producing region of average quality product, the Languedoc AOC has just split itself into three broad hierarchal classifications that include more than 30 already recognized appellations and designations to help consumers get a better handle on their high quality and value wines.
Consumers are responding as export growth from 2009-2011 has increased more than 20% a year. But, the growth has not been straightforward nor easy. Last week at the Boston trade tasting hosted by the Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins du Languedoc (CIVL), top retailer Bin Ends’ proprietor John Hafferty talked about how he needs to hand sell these wines in order to create the consumer discovery, and hopefully regional affinity, that he knows is in the best interests of his customer base. Besides the small market segment of long time wine geeks who picked through these wines to find quality and value 10-20 years ago, almost nobody comes into Hafferty’s shop looking for this Minervois or that Corbieres. Still, Hafferty finds a way to sell these expressive value wines by understanding what his customers like about their long time favorite producers and regions, suggesting he likes those very same things, and then presenting strange looking $15 bottles of things like Muscat de Frontignan as substitutes to favorite sweet or other styled wines.
The scope of Languedoc’s vast region creates advantages and challenges on the way to helping consumers embrace the region’s wines. The influences of the Mediterranean, Atlantic, mountains, heat, garrigue fields, incessant sunshine, and dominant breezes affect each part of the region in different ways. Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Caragnan, Bourboulenc, Clairette, Piquepoul, Nuscat, Marsanne, Rousanne, Viognier, and Vermentino are just some of the region’s more popular grape varieties, all growing predominantly or differently in one appellation or another. It is all one big mess for consumers and Languedoc marketers to sort out, since nothing about the bottle labels make it easy for consumers to understand exactly what they have in their hands nor represent any expression of “official” quality hierarchy. The Languedoc team did a great job of simplifying things with the above terroir chart describing the Mountain, Western, Central, Coastal, and Southern sub AOC character influences on baskets of appellations.
My personal lessons from tasting vast amounts of Languedoc wines at tastings like this over time are ones of variety, surprise, discovery, hidden excitement, and style diversity. It is no wonder consumers have taken so long to catch on; none of these are “sure thing”nor “old reliable” descriptors. At this recent Languedoc tasting I was reacquainted with an amazing ***1/2 value from Hecht & Bannier, a new discovery ***1/2 $13 Fabas Minervois Mourral , and a *** serious and pretty $11 rosé 2011 Sainte Eulalie Minervois Printemps d’Euilalie.
The highlight of this tasting of more than 50 Languedoc white, rose, sparkling, and red wines was the portfolio from Chateau des Karantes. These wines are made only footsteps from the Mediterranean. From the appellation of La Clape comes the **** $22 2009 Chateau des Karantes Blanc , a magnificent white wine half made from bourboulenc, and almost equal parts of vermentino, grenache blanc, and rousanne in the balance. A viscous wine with straw field aromas combines with the rest of the nose and flavors of peach and lychee. The mouthfeel is rich and luscious, but clean and balanced by good acidity. It reminds me of some of the finest white Chateauneuf du Papes I have tasted. This wine was a stunning needle in a haystack find at this Languedoc tasting, and something to seek out if you like white wines that are wholly expressive, rich, and balanced by abiding acidity. The rest of Karantes’ wines including the bubble gum and floral 2011 Rosé, the rougher country, spicy, and balanced 2010 Bergerie, or the big fruit bomb and teeth staining La Clape 2009 Red were all worth buying and drinking.
It is worth getting your trusted retailer to hand sell you his or her favorites. There are mountains, seas, and garrigue covered fields filled with discovery for anyone that is open to it.