Food and Drink: Here is the future of French wine: British and Australian winemakers are tapping the vast potential of the Languedoc region, says Anthony Rose

IT COULD be Australia: carpets of grass between the rows, vines trained along wires to produce a tall leafy canopy, harvesting under spotlight in the cool of the night. It has certainly provoked some animosity from its French neighbours. 'They hope we go broke,' says the vineyard owner, James Herrick.

With a vineyard surface of 344,000 hectares, the Languedoc is easily France's biggest wine region. Traditionally it has produced little but plonk. Now, though, enlightened producers have realised that quality is the only way forward. One resultant initiative is the introduction of classic grapes in vins de pays areas, a varietal revolution led by the Englishmen James Herrick and Hugh Ryman.

Mr Herrick's Domaine de la Motte is one of the three new vineyards that have just given birth to his first French wine, a 1992 chardonnay vin de pays d'Oc. 'I've never been so nervous,' he says. The gestation period had been three long years, plus a year of combing miles of Mediterranean hinterland in search of the ideal site.

Mr Herrick and his two Australian partners, Mark Swann and Robert Hesketh, are New World producers of quality wines made from classic grape varieties in styles that appeal to the wine-drinking public's new enthusiasm for aroma, freshness, life and fruit. And all for less than pounds 5.

The ill-will this brings them is less to do with commercial jealousy than with the belief that they are flouting conventions and traditions. In essence, they are breaking with the rule and spirit of appellation controlee.

Having been successful in America with their Australian wine brands, Roo's Leap and Koala Ridge, Mr Herrick and his partners turned their attention to France. 'We quickly came to the conclusion that France has a certain cachet. But why in America was there no competition from France to Australian chardonnay?' They were surprised to find that almost the only French chardonnay came from Champagne and Burgundy, and that it was expensive and tended to be leaner and less fruity than its New World counterparts.

In late 1989, they bought their three vineyards and planted chardonnay exclusively, aiming to make a full-bodied, dry, aromatic white wine, while giving themselves the option of creating a base for sparkling wine. 'Chardonnay was the obvious choice,' says Mr Herrick, 'a stable value but also flexible.'

To make a decent white wine, particularly a fresh and fruity dry white, needs investment, and few individuals have sufficient resources. In 1990, when Hardy's, the Australian company, bought the Domaine de la Baume farther east towards Beziers, it was part of a strategy of establishing an entry into Europe. There are five hectares of vineyard land on the 62-hectare estate, but the major investment went into transforming the dilapidated two-storey stone cellar into an ultra-modern, stainless- steel processing plant.

Bill Hardy buys in grapes from 20 or so growers - including Mr Herrick - in order to make vins de pays from chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. 'Setting up our own winery has given us total control over the vinification,' he says. 'It means we can ensure every detail of the production process is carried out the way we want it.' British Airways has snapped up the vibrant Chais Baumiere 1991 Merlot and put it into quarter-bottles, while Sainsbury has taken a large portion of the 1991 Chais Baumiere chardonnay and the 1992 sauvignon blanc.

Like Hardy's, Hugh Ryman is a negociant/winemaker. He owns no vineyards but operates a battery of stainless-steel tanks and new oak casks. Mr Ryman, like Mr Herrick, is an expatriate Brit. He specialises in buying grapes and making wine out of the best raw material he can find. Operating near Limoux, high on the ridge where Atlantic influences meet Mediterranean, the source of his grapes varies from warm to cool climate. This diversity allows him to juggle with blends and mature his wines to a formula of his own or his customers' choosing. Control of production and the flexibility of the vins de pays framework enables winemakers/merchants such as Hardy's and Mr Ryman to keep prices down. Mr Ryman can produce quality vin de pays d'Oc chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon in volume at around pounds 3.99, while creating a premium chardonnay closer to the Herrick model at pounds 4.99.

Classic varieties, chosen for their potential for quality rather than their capacity to overproduce, have been gradually ousting the Languedoc's workhorse varieties since it became legal to plant them in the Sixties. It was a Frenchman who first exploited the potential for producing mass-market quality vins de pays in the south of France. Robert Skalli's family business originated in the vineyards of pre-independence Algeria before moving to the port of Sete on the Mediterranean. Spotting the worldwide trend towards cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, in 1982, Mr Skalli embarked on a long-term project of working with Languedoc growers to get them to substitute quality for quantity in their vineyards.

Vins de pays have recently come under the scrutiny of the appellation controlee authorities, who want to ban the use of the grape variety name from the label of appellation controlee wines. 'They are scared of the development of vins de pays,' says Mr Skalli. 'But they need to realise that vins de pays de cepage (grape variety) and de terroir (estate- based wines) can be quality wines, too. I respect appellation controlee in its traditional territory, just as I respect Regency furniture. But I prefer modern furniture to reproduction.'

Despite the New World influences, there remains a deep- seated attachment in Languedoc to the land and its traditions. Mr Herrick's model, with its accent on the vineyard, is closer to French hearts than they would probably care to admit. 'They are right,' he says. 'Once we reach the limits of instant quality, we will only get genuine quality through knowledge and manipulation of the vineyard.'

GOOD BUYS FROM THE LANGUEDOC

Chais Baumiere 1991 Chardonnay, vin de pays d'Oc, pounds 3.99, Sainsbury. Excellent new-wave chardonnay with a light touch of oak. Vin de pays d'Oc sur Lie, pounds 3.79, Marks & Spencer. Fruity, aromatic dry white. Chardonnay 1992, vin de pays de la Haute Vallee de l'Aude, pounds 3.29, Kwiksave. Cool, crisp, unbeatable value. Ozidoc 1992 Chardonnay, vin de pays d'Oc, pounds 4.95, Adnams, Southwold, Suffolk (0502 724 222); also Tanners 1992 Chardonnay, pounds 4.99, Tanners of Shrewsbury (0743 232400); and 1992 Chardonnay, Domaines Virginie, pounds 4.99, Lay & Wheeler, Colchester. Sumptuously rounded, fruity chardonnay. Chardonnay 1992, vin de pays d'Oc (Hugh Ryman), pounds 4.95, Sainsbury. Full, ripe. Domaine des Deux Ruisseaux Chardonnay 1991, vin de pays d'Oc, Fortant de France, pounds 4.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. James Herrick 1992 Chardonnay, vin de pays d'Oc, pounds 4.99, Oddbins. 1991 Chardonnay des Rives de l'Argent Double, pounds 6.49, Oddbins. Buttery oak and burgundian-style fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon 1991, vin de pays d'Oc (Hugh Ryman), pounds 3.99, Waitrose; pounds 3.59, Bottoms Up as Domaine de Rivoyre. Fresh, slightly cedary. Syrah 1991, Domaine de la Fadeze, pounds 5.39, vin de pays d'Oc, pounds 5.39, Lay & Wheeler, Colchester. Succulent, juicy. Cuvee Mythique 1990, pounds 4.95, Safeway. Outstanding five-variety blend. Domaine Grande Olivette la Jasse 1990, vin de pays du Mont Bouquet, pounds 5.99, Oddbins. Smoky bouquet.

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