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)

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
News
people
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
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

    Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced