Food & Drink: The Midi strikes back: Languedoc-Roussillon is raising its standards and producing high-quality grapes, says Anthony Rose

A transformation has been taking place in the tranquil vineyards glimpsed from the Mediterranean road that hugs the coast from Nimes via Montpellier to the Pyrenees. The Languedoc-Roussillon, oldest and biggest of France's wine regions, with a vineyard area five times that of Australia, is producing wines that have begun to rival those of the new world in drinkability and value.

Languedoc-Roussillon started making wine for the people in the 19th century, when factory work lured rural southerners to the cities and they brought their wine-drinking habits with them. But in 1874 phylloxera struck; the tiny, vine-slaying insect sucking the lifeblood from the Midi's vineyards. Before this, there were well over 100 grape varieties in the hills. Post-phylloxera, to meet the growing thirst for wine, most of the region's vineyards were replanted (on resistant American rootstocks) with just two workhorse varieties: carignan and aramon. The Midi was condemned to a century's production of plonk. Until the Fifties, the region remained a pipeline to the cities, with a combination of its own rather acidic wines and the richer, more alcoholic wines of Algeria and Morocco. Then French domestic wine consumption went into rapid decline. The consumer was starting to look for better wines but local growers were too set in their ways to adapt. Only a handful of far- sighted producers could see that the region should take the quality route.

Today, the decline of the mass-market industry continues but a lifesaver has come from wines made from quality grape varieties, and from the rediscovery of the Languedoc's enormously rich vineyard potential.

Fashionable varietals made from chardonnay and sauvignon, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, have been adopted with an eye to satisfying export markets, particularly the UK and America. Varietal vins de pays make a significant contribution to the revival of the region's economic fortunes.

Nevertheless, the groundswell of opinion over the Languedoc-Roussillon's quality appellations is that the vineyards should be restructured by planting native or near-native grape varieties on sites best able to express the character of each variety.

The movement is raising the profile of the region's appellations, headed by Corbieres, Minervois, St Chinian, Faugeres, Fitou, Coteaux du Languedoc, Collioure and Cotes du Roussillon Villages.

But what is good that is native? Up to a point, the more astringent features of the rustic carignan and aramon grapes have been toned down, by modern methods of vinification, to produce a softer wine. Impressively concentrated wines can still be made from old, low-yielding carignan vines. And oak- ageing, if excessive at times, has begun to add style and polish.

Most recently, the replanting of the region with quality varieties such as syrah, grenache, mourvedre and cinsault has gained momentum. Realising that low-yielding hillside sites are best, growers have become aware of the wisdom of trying to adapt the variety to the soils best suited to it. At Chateau de Jonquieres outside Narbonne, Marc Dubernet, consultant oenologist to Val d'Orbieu, the giant producer's group, is involved in a viticultural experiment. Mr Dubernet thinks the region's varied soils need a better complement of grapes. 'Grenache is highly variable, prone to poor flowering; syrah doesn't like soils which are too dry; mourvedre is a sybarite: it likes its feet in the sea and head in the sun,' he says.

Val d'Orbieu carried out painstaking research before planting its vineyard with 15 obscure Languedoc varieties as well as grapes that flourish in Cyprus, Sardinia and Corsica. Students of grape varieties will thrill at the names of altesse, biancu gentile, vermentino, picardan blanc and verdejo, not to mention the more fashionable viognier. Red varieties include braquet, counoise, fuella, morrastel, muscardin, nebbiolo (the barolo grape), nielluccio, piquepoul noir and vaccarese.

The thrill for me of tasting them came as much from venturing into unknown territory as from the wines. For the most part distinctly un-French, their features included the aromatic character of the viognier and picpoul, the lively acidity of the rolle, biancu gentile and muscardin and the spice of the counoise.

WINES TO TRY

1993 Viognier, Cuxac, Val d'Orbieu, pounds 4.99, Spar. Aromatic Languedoc viognier, with fine, apricot-like flavours and balance.

1993 Domaine les Colombies, Corbieres, pounds 3.99, Thresher Wine Shops, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack. Fine- value spicy red with chunky tannins.

1993 Domaine Gauby, Cuvee des Rocailles, Cotes du Roussillon, pounds 4.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. From one of the Roussillon's rising stars, a deliciously spicy blend with the oak much better integrated than on many a Gauby wine.

1991 La Cuvee Mythique, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 5.49, Safeway. Sumptuously oaked southern blend of mourvedre, syrah, carignan and grenache with a touch of cabernet sauvignon adding dash to the herb and angostura bitters character. Only one thing wrong with this wine: not enough of it.

1991 Resplandy Mourvedre, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 4.19, Connolly's of Birmingham. Rich, soft-textured fruit with typical Mediterranean spice and a touch of mourvedre gaminess.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins wins the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
music
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
News
(David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
  • Get to the point
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

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor