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.

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