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.
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