Super, superior, superb

Vineyards in the south of France have always been more about productivity than quality. But changes are afoot.
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For all the south of France's charm, fine wines have never been its strong suit. Not that it's had a problem churning out the bog-standard variety; indeed, the very legacy of workhorse grapes planted for their productivity has kept the south in its place. But changes are afoot. Recent plantings of the quality Mediterranean grape varieties syrah, grenache and mourvedre, are starting to turn rot-gut rouge into something altogether more palatable.

For all the south of France's charm, fine wines have never been its strong suit. Not that it's had a problem churning out the bog-standard variety; indeed, the very legacy of workhorse grapes planted for their productivity has kept the south in its place. But changes are afoot. Recent plantings of the quality Mediterranean grape varieties syrah, grenache and mourvedre, are starting to turn rot-gut rouge into something altogether more palatable.

Along with these vines, confidence is growing, too. A group of newcomers convinced that the Languedoc-Roussillon region can produce fine wines is making its influence felt.

Herve Bizeul, a former Parisian sommelier, has made his tiny Clos des Fees in Roussillon an instant hit in fancy Parisian restaurants. Another, Guido nsegers, a Belgian industrialist, produces flavoursome wines at Chateau Mansenoble in the Corbieres, which have caught the eye and nose of the influential American guru, Robert Parker.

As more outsiders move in, they are blowing the south's trumpet louder, if not more tunefully, than it's ever done itself. Add the names Rothschild, BRL-Hardy and now Australian giant Southcorp, which, after starting a joint venture with umbrella group Val d'Orbieu, has committed itself to the Midi by buying out chardonnay whiz-kid James Herrick, and the trickle of outsiders is producing a flow of exciting new wines.

External influences aren't everything, though. The most impressive new wines are those emerging from the heart of the Languedoc, from Faugeres, St-Chinian, Coteaux du Languedoc and, above all, an enclave of 13 villages comprising the Pic Saint Loup district. With its shark's-fin peak, Pic Saint Loup benefits from an unusually cool climate influenced by the Cevennes mountains and the Mediterranean. It's become a model for the entire Languedoc, thanks to the dynamism of like-minded producers, among them Domaine de l'Hortus, Mas Bruguiere, Mas Morties, Chateau L'Euziere and Chateau de Cazeneuve.

Unlike Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone, the south can exploit to good effect one major advantage: it is not restricted by rules rigidly stipulating which grapes may or may not be grown and where. So while the appellation wines are changing for the better, the flexibility of the system is helping to create good varietal wines and blends, too, from grapes such as merlot, syrah, viognier and chardonnay.

Perhaps the greatest key to progress lies in the huge organisations, and the way their members are willing to countenance change. At the bustling Montpellier wine fair, Vinisud, I talked to Marc Dubernet, the respected winemaker at Val d'Orbieu, which makes about half as much wine as Australia. On a recent visit he was particularly impressed by the system of grading wines by quality in the vineyard.

"We have good wines, but lack great ones," he admits, "but by producing more concentrated fruit in the vineyard, we're starting to create an informal but authentic quality classification. The long-term aim is to create a pyramid where the best quality is appreciated." And by making better quality distinctions, they'll be able to get more for their wines and invest in vineyards and cellars. The excellent 1998 vintage has provided Val d'Orbieu with a springboard from which to launch a new premium range based on improved selection criteria.

There's similar thinking behind a top-of-the-range red due to be launched in the next few weeks by the giant Mont Tauch co-operative, where pounds 10m has been splashed out on a new winery and vineyard investment. Called l'Exception, the 1998 vintage again is the pretext on which to create this superior blend of carignan, grenache and syrah. In fact, 1998 looks set to add fine wines to southern France's natural advantages.

Wines to look out for

1997 Chateau Chenaie, Faugeres, £6.36, Laytons/Jeroboams, London, NW1 (0207 388 4567). A juicy, succulent blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre and carignan from Andre Chabbert, with the herby garrigue character of the Mediterranean.

1998 Mas Brugiere, Futs de Chene, Pic St Loup, around £7.99, Fuller's, Noel Young Wines, Cambridge (01223 844 744), Sandiway Wines, Cheshire (01606 882101). Super luxurious, succulently spicy, blackberryish Pic St Loup blend of syrah, mourvedre and grenache.

1997 Chateau L'Euziere, Pic St Loup, Les Escarboucles, £7.99, Fuller's. From brother-and- sister team Marcelle and Michel Causse, a finely crafted, spicy syrah-based blend with a touch of vanilla from maturation in small oak casks.

1998 Domaine de L'Hortus Grande Cuvee, Pic St Loup, £90 a case in bond, Bibendum, London NW1 (020 7916 7706). Rich and concentrated with cinnamon and clove spice oak and an intense blackberry fruitiness, needing time for the mourvedre/syrah blend to really gel.

1998 Domaine de Courtilles, Corbieres, £8.99, Waitrose. From Bernard Schurr, this is a wickedly concentrated, sex-in-a-bottle style blend showing powerful peppery fruitiness.

1998 Fitou L'Exception, £8.99, selected Tesco stores (from 2 April). From Mont Tauch, this is a blend of syrah, carignan and grenache with an aromatic nutmeg and cinnamon character and rich, intensely flavoured robust fruit.

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