Twenty minutes into the Languedoc north of Montpellier, the jagged peak of Pic Saint Loup juts out like a menacing shark's fin from the surrounding countryside. On the other side of the peak, across a patchwork of vineyard interspersed by clumps of pine, scrub and woodland, the imposing chalky bluff of Hortus looks incongruously like a chunk hewn from the white cliffs of Dover.

For its picturesque landscape and sleepy stone hamlets alone, Pic Saint Loup is a destination coveted by tourists in search of the real Languedoc and riders who come to canter in dappled sunlight through its garrigue- scented woodland.

The hidden excitement, though, lies in the product of its vines. Thanks to the collective energy of an unusual group of local growers, what was once sheep-grazing country and a source of everyday plonk is in the process of transforming itself into one of southern France's most dynamic areas for full-flavoured red wines - and increasingly for whites.

Once a year, in March, the growers of Pic Saint Loup do the hour's trek to the top of the peak, taking a picnic with them. In place of the old, southern, lackadaisical mentality, a healthy, confident, open-minded approach to competition spurs them on. "A big problem in many parts of the Languedoc is the infighting among growers," says Jack Boutin, of Chateau de la Roque, who is in the forefront of the fight for Pic Saint Loup's right to appellation controlee status. "Outsiders say that Pic Saint Loup has the biggest number of intelligent growers," he grins. "There's a certain modestie des pauvres which creates a rapport between us."

The local growers share the view that the syrah grape, and to a lesser extent mourvedre and grenache, is the saviour that will release them from the outdated heritage of the south's typical workhorse varieties. "Twenty years ago the vineyards around here were all planted with carignan and cinsault. There was some grenache but only a tiny bit of syrah," says Andre Leenhardt of Chateau Cazeneuve. "In 20 years, everything has had to be redone."

Like Boutin, and a number of other significant newcomers such as Domaine Morties, Leenhardt is from outside the area, a former agricultural technician in the regional chamber of agriculture. "When I arrived at Cazeneuve in 1988, it was a big property making everyday wine. I replanted, with the emphasis on syrah, and added roussanne and viognier to make white wines."

Jean Orliac, of Domaine de l'Hortus, one of the early pioneers of Pic Saint Loup, is a firm believer in barrel-ageing for the best reds. He came to the area in 1978 on a climbing trip, fell in love with the secluded property that sits snugly beneath the towering white cliff of Hortus, and stayed. At the time, the domaine's five hectares of vineyard were planted with aramon, carignan and cinsault. In replanting the vineyard, his aim was to match the potential of vineyard site to grape: hotter for the late-ripening mourvedre, cooler for the more vigorous syrah.

The stimulus from newcomers to the district has in turn motivated local family growers to pull up their own socks. Down the road from Hortus, Marc Bruguiere's family, typically, used to sell to the co-op. When he took over, he rebuilt the old family property and restored the 18th-century vinification cellar beneath the house. The redundant aramon and cinsault were replaced by the holy trinity: syrah, grenache and mourvedre, and he bottled his wines for the first time in 1987.

Pic saint Loup offers two distinct styles of red, often complemented by a dry white fermented in small oak barrels. The basic red is unoaked, at its best fragrant and redolent of raspberry or mulberry and designed to be drunk young. The oak-matured style of red will normally be a superior selection, with greater black fruits flavours and staying power.

The self-imposed production rules for Pic Saint Loup, including yields and minimum age of vines and alcohol levels, are stricter than those required for the Coteaux du Languedoc. At least 90 per cent of wine with a Pic Saint Loup label must be from the premium grapes grenache, syrah and mourvedre, compared to 50 per cent for the Coteaux du Languedoc.

With the Cevennes mountains rising in the north, Pic Saint Loup is one of the most northerly points in the Languedoc. Cool summer nights from Mediterranean and continental influences during the warm growing season contribute to a distinctive vivacity in the district's wines. The growers of Pic Saint Loup are pinning their hopes on this special feature in their claim for appellation controlee status. If this is granted, Pic Saint Loup will be the first of 12 enclaves within the increasingly fashionable Coteaux du Languedoc to be granted it own AC.

The Wines

[Note to A:J: Please leave space for four or five wine recommendations]