Food & Drink: Raise your glass to a high-pitched wine: Languedoc supplies most of France's plonk, but it is changing grapes and image, says Anthony Rose

At dinner at Chateau de Lastours in Corbieres, its dynamic director and our host, Jean-Marie Lignieres, produced a bottle of his estate's 1986 Cuvee Simone Descamps and, to general astonishment, a 1986 Chateau Haut-Brion, the illustrious first-growth claret. The message was clear: 'We in the Languedoc have spent our lives making wines in the shadow of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The time has come to stop apologising for ourselves.'

The Languedoc, with its fragrant Mediterranean scrub and woodland and its Roman, Cathar and medieval cultures, is one of the world's most captivating wine regions. Until 10 years ago, however, the charm did not extend to its wines, which were basically plonk (even today the region supplies 85 per cent of France's table wine).

But changes are afoot. The Languedoc is becoming one of the world's most exciting wine regions; it has even been called, 'the new New World'. The development of so-called vins de pays de cepage (made from premium varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc), capitalising on the laxity of vin de table regulations, has been a significant feature in the rise of good-value wines from the South of France.

More significant for the Languedoc in the long term is the rising quality of its appellation controlee wines, which account for a tenth of its vineyard area. While there is nothing to prevent growers from planting such grapes as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay for their vins de pays, these are ruled out of the Languedoc's appellation controlee vineyards. This part-political, part-historical exclusion could be regarded as a handicap, but the more far-sighted producers are treating it as a chance to develop a distinct identity based on traditional Mediterranean grapes.

The largest of the appellations is Corbieres, followed by the more amorphous Coteaux du Languedoc, then Minervois. Now three smaller appellations are achieving recognition: Fitou (the first Languedoc red to gain AC status, in 1948), Faugeres and St Chinian (both became AC in 1982).

The best-known is Fitou. It was the co-operatives that orchestrated its success, capturing British hearts and palates in the early Eighties with a deliciously spicy red. The best traditional Fitou, from the co-operative of Mont Tauch, is its robust, spicy Chateau de Segure, a wine typically dominated by carignan and grenache grapes. Last year, Mont Tauch launched a new style of wine, Terroir de Tuchan, an intensely concentrated, rich red made from a majority of specially selected syrah grapes, aged in new oak for a year, plus 40 per cent carignan. The wine was garlanded when it was unveiled at a tasting in Paris late last year.

But not everyone approves. 'Typical Fitou is based on old carignan from the hillsides and shouldn't be tampered with; 20 per cent of syrah in the blend is enough,' says Philippe Cassignol of Chateau L'Espigne, who makes a fine traditional style of Fitou. However, consumers love the spiciness and rich fruit of syrah - Languedoc's problem is how to win over the consumer and stay true to its roots. For Henri Miquel, owner of Chateau Cazal-Viel, the answer is 'by improvements through technology and planting syrah'.

Sandwiched between Minervois on its western side and Faugeres to the east, St Chinian is an appellation of 20 villages covering 2,100 hectares. Gradually its vineyards are going over to syrah and, to a lesser extent, to mourvedre and grenache. According to Mr Miquel, 'St Chinian needs 80 per cent syrah to reach its full potential.' Some of St Chinian's best wines, such as Chateau Maurel Fonsalade and Chateau Belot, contain large proportions of syrah and almost no carignan; but Domaine des Jougla's excellent Tradition is a blend of grenache and mourvedre, with no syrah.

Although 25,000 hectares of carignan have been uprooted in the past 25 years, it remains France's most widely planted grape. Its lifespan has been prolonged by the technique known as carbonic maceration (fermentation in whole bunches, to get rid of its unfriendly astringency).

The commitment of some growers to the carignan, reinforced by a cut in financial assistance for replanting, has retarded progress towards the radical changes in Languedoc vineyards that many would like to see. 'Carignan on its own will never make a great wine,' says Jean-Michel Alquier in Faugeres. 'It's too rustic and common.' His father, Gilbert, started to plant the Rhone varieties - grenache, syrah and southern mourvedre - in the Fifties and Sixties. Alquier's barrel-aged reds are outstanding.

The enfant terrible of Faugeres is Michel Louison of Chateau des Estanilles. He uprooted most of the old carignan when he bought the property in 1975 and planted syrah and mourvedre. He is coy about the amount of syrah that goes into his best wine, but the result is Languedoc's answer to Hermitage.

Languedoc wines to try:

Faugeres, pounds 2.99, Sainsbury's. Basic Languedoc red with soft fruitiness.

1991 Domaine Fouletiere, Coteaux du Languedoc, pounds 3.99, Majestic. Traditional red with oak and spice.

1992 Chateau de la Liquiere, pounds 4.99, Thresher, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack. Aromatic, spicy Faugeres red with a slight bitter twist.

1898 Chateau de Segure, Fitou, pounds 5.25, Unwins, Sainsbury's. Smoky, wooded Fitou from Mont Tauch.

1991 Terroir de Tuchan, pounds 7.49, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, Thresher. Rich, smoked-oak syrah.

1990 Gilbert Alquier, Faugeres, pounds 6.20 (bottle/case), Philip Eyres, The Cellars, Amersham, Buckinghamshire (0494 433823).

1989 and 1990 Gilbert Alquier La Maison Jaune, pounds 7.54, Summerlee Wines, 64 High Street, Earls Barton, Northamptonshire (081-997 7889).

1992 Carignanissime de Centeilles, Minervois, D Domergue, pounds 5.45, Adnams, Southwold, Suffolk (0502 724222). Curiosity vat of 100 per cent angostura-spicy carignan old vines, ditched by carignan-hater Daniel Domergue and snapped up by Simon Loftus.

Sainsbury's French buyer's selection of five Languedoc reds, all at pounds 3.35, kicks off on Monday with a spicy 1990 Saint Vincent Cotes du Roussillon Villages.

(Map omitted)

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice