Name game: the Languedoc's new appellations
Rising prices have forced the Languedoc – the engine room of France’s bulk wine production – to look at more premium offers and establish itself as a top-quality wine region, not a bargain basement.
Producers, agents and buyers have welcomed winemaking improvements and regions such as Terrasses du Larzac and La Clape are upgrading their appellations.
Many in the region are delighted by these developments, saying they are signals of improving quality and more structure helps to trade up consumers.
Advini UK export manager Cédric Deniset says: “Languedoc is building its own map of AOPs based on specific terroirs, and developing its identity as a quality region of production.
“We are seeing several multiple retailers begin to develop AOPs with their own-brand format. Some AOPs, such as Côtes du Roussillon, Pic St Loup and St Chinian have become attractive as they bring a point of difference from the standard Languedoc or Corbières AOP.”
Badet Clement president and winemaker Laurent Delaunay agrees: “It is a really important development for enhancing the quality image of the Languedoc, as more terroirs are being given the recognition they deserve.”
Les Grands Chais de France has switched its focus from IGP to AOP wines. Director Tim North says: “They make a nice point of difference. What is working best from the appellations is chateau and domaine wines, which offer a distinction for the wines more than just the AOP name.”
Free Run Wines is putting all its focus on to AOPs from the region, and director Nicolas Bauer says varietal wines from southern France are no longer competitive compared with Spain, Italy and the New World.
“AOP wines from the Languedoc are finally starting to be recognised as a category of huge potential and breadth, while consumers and retailers are perhaps moving away from IGP,” he says.
Isabelle Pangault, winemaker and brand ambassador for Les Vignobles Foncalieu, is seeing more UK consumers getting interested in Languedoc AOPs. She notes: “Picpoul de Pinet AOP was the first to follow that path in 2013. It became popular first on the French market and now in the UK and the US.”
Coastal La Clape, a former island with limestone cliffs, is to become the Languedoc’s first and only communal appellation.
Vianney Fabre, business manager of Château d’Anglès, which makes all its reds and whites under La Clape AOP, says: “It means that Languedoc is finally getting structured, like Bordeaux, Burgundy or the Rhône, with some ‘grands crus’ – terroirs such as La Clape – and wider appellations.
“The main trend in the Languedoc is definitely to produce less and better. For the past 15 years amazing winemakers have come to showcase terroir that has outstanding potential, and today we see the first results of the new Languedoc age: true, serious wines with amazing value for money. I see fantastic potential for unoaked wines between £8-£12 and oaked ones for £15-£20. At these price points you can get unrivalled quality wines of terroir in the Languedoc.”
For some, more subdivisions are not helping this diverse region to build up a coherent identity.
Katie Jones of Domaine Jones makes some of her wines under AOP Fitou, “because it is easy to pronounce and has a loyal following and well-established history in the UK”. But she warns that breaking up the region into more “unpronounceable” AOPs will not help the Languedoc’s overall image.
She says: “It’s a case of running before you can walk. The big area of Sud de France has been created and the next logical level would be to try to raise awareness of the Languedoc. Other than the more familiar and longstanding Languedoc AOPs, such as Corbières, Minervois and Fitou, I don’t think the majority of UK consumers are ready for further subdivisions of the Languedoc.”
Jones adds: “Languedoc is the most rocking wine area in France, and there is great freedom in winemaking here. There is real opportunity, particularly with specialist and independent merchants, at the mid to premium end. Innovative and creative winemakers are shaking themselves free from the restrictions of the classification system to be able to showcase interesting varieties and unusual and new styles under their own estate name rather than overcomplicate things with an AOP.”
Thibault Lavergne, founder of agency Wine Story says: “There is a real aspiration for a simplified offer. The Languedoc is becoming a well-known name on foreign markets. It is now recognised as a southern French region, producing high quality wines at very affordable prices. But I am not sure how many consumers would be familiar with Terrasses du Larzac, for instance.
“Terrasses du Larzac produces excellent wines and I am by no means trying to criticise it but, from a marketing point of view, is it necessarily a good idea to create a standalone appellation?
“French officials should perhaps resist the temptation to give in to the lobbying of local politicians and keep the clarification of the offer in mind.”
Stéphane Kandler, owner of Château Tourril, says: “The upside is the appellation system has helped to raise the level and create new quality standards. The downside is that adding more appellations is going to confuse the consumer, which is not a good thing while the [retail] offer becomes richer with wines from all over the world. My bet is that it is more the individual names – of winemakers, chateaux or growers – which will make for commercial success.”
Andrew Steel, owner of Connoisseur Estates, which distributes Château d’Anglès, says: “We recognise how important it is to differentiate the individual terroirs of the Languedoc – distances across the Languedoc are several hundred kilometres, so it is not all the same.
“However, the message must not become too complicated as it will only confuse consumers. We need clear and concise information for the public and the producers need to work together to promote the region.
“The Rhône is a great example of this. It has succeeded in having a very strong generic message for the whole region, while highlighting the different terroirs within that. The various regions of the Languedoc have a huge opportunity to fly the flag by working together as a family of wines, and vested interests should not stand in the way.”
Mark Walford, owner of Le Soula, says more growers are making wines under the overarching Vin de France appellation. “Buyers place more confidence in the name of a trusted producer than in an appellation.”
And for Eric Monin, chief winemaker for Boutinot’s Domaine de l’Olibet, IGP d’Oc still holds the most potential, “if we can have a good crop”. He adds: “The current lack of grapes is still a problem in this regard.”