Not plain sailing for southern belle
It's been a rough few years for producers in the Languedoc-Roussillon but, says Natasha Hughes, things look on the up again for this blighted region
My first professional visit to the Languedoc, some seven years ago, kicked off with a meeting with an up-and-coming négociant.
Nerida Abbott, an Australian woman, was typical of the kind of person bringing a new vitality to the region - young (she was in her 30s), dynamic and open-minded.
She explained how southern France was in the middle of a revolution that was changing the once hidebound region's approach to viticulture, winemaking and marketing.
The changes, Abbott told me, would not be without cost: within the next five years, she estimated, a third of the Languedoc's growers and winemakers would have gone bust and sold up.
What neither of us realised at the time was that Abbott would end up as one of those who would have to abandon their interests in the region's vineyards. Like many other mid-level producers in the Languedoc, she would become caught up in the downward spiral of tumbling prices and shrinking markets. This arose as winemaking became polarised into a small group of top-end producers who could command high prices for their niche wines and large co-operatives and négociants who had the capacity to feed the mass distribution end of the market.
As Waitrose's Justin Howard-Sneyd MW points out: "What happened in the Languedoc was purely a supply and demand problem. When there is too much cheap wine around the price plummets. Although a lot of bad wine is made, there is a lot of perfectly good wine tarred with the same brush and massively undervalued at the price."
The good news for those producers still making wine in the region is that things, once again, seem to be on the up. "Not everything is hunky-dory," admits Christine Behey-Molines, export director for the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc, "but we've seen some encouraging news from the most recent Nielsen figures. Not only is the Languedoc showing good growth in terms of both value and volume, we're also selling well in the £5.99-£7.99 bracket."
And many of those in the UK's wine trade believe the region is still on track in terms of rising quality, despite the pressures of recent years.
"I think the quality promise has been fulfilled, particularly in terms of the reds," says Tesco's product development manager Graham Nash. "And although I think the whites can be disappointing, I think the region as a whole is finding its place in the market and I expect things to stabilise in the near future."
Not everyone is as optimistic . "Although the situation has improved, the area is still in crisis," says Majestic's Chris Hardy. "The reality is that the situation is pretty grim - there are numerous properties with between 20ha and 50ha of vines for sale at the moment. People clearly want to get out. What's emerging, though, is that the really dynamic, progressive people are striving to make quality wines at realistic prices and they're succeeding.
"However," he continues, "for every one of those you may have 20 people who can't find a market for their wines - people who are being paid less per hectare than it's costing them to farm those hectares. They're the ones pestering the government for more financial support."
As with any European winegrowing region, the solution to the Languedoc's problems lies - at least in part - in the creation of a customer base that not only has some understanding, however limited, of its geography and recognises the area's strengths but is also prepared to pay more than bargain-basement prices for good examples of the wines.
This has been particularly difficult for the Languedoc because the region doesn't command the prestige - and hence the recognition factor - of many of France's other winegrowing areas. Indeed, for many years southern France has been the source of much of the cheapest AOC wine on the supermarket shelves.
"There is still a lot of good, cheap Corbières to be had," says Howard-Sneyd. "The problem is that the under-£4 customer finds more fruity simplicity. The good news is that a market at over £5 is starting to develop for the more complex and interesting wines.
"Although our customers will happily buy right across the globe," says Hardy, "they won't specifically look for the Languedoc. In terms of our stock at Majestic, the Languedoc enjoyed a period of meteoric growth over a period of seven to eight years, but that growth has plateaued or even gone backwards slightly in the past 18 months. We're tackling this by trying to restrict any duplications in our range and have diversified into unusual blends, such as Syrah/Viognier, or relatively unknown AOCs such as Cabardès."
While the Languedoc continues to fight the good fight on the high street, its southern neighbour, Roussillon, faces problems that are almost a mirror image of those of the Languedoc - although the high-end wines are selling well in the independents, by and large the area has little presence in the high street.
One recent development the decision makers in both regions hope will make things easier for producers and end purchasers alike is the creation of a new AOC that will unite a vast swathe of vineyards under one generic umbrella. "The new AOC Languedoc appellation will cover the area from the Côteaux du Languedoc down to the Spanish border," says Behey-Molines. "In addition, we're working on developing some of the sub-regions as appellations in their own right."
Not everyone is convinced the move will pay off in terms of increased sales.
"Generic AOCs often fail to promote quality or typicity, and need to be treated as brands if they are going to add value [Côtes du Rhône is a good example of a success story, while Bordeaux is a good example of a failure]," says Howard-Sneyd. "With no history behind it, they will need to work very hard over a long time for AOC Languedoc to gain any traction."
"I guess it could help in terms of marketing," counters Hardy, "in the same way that Vin de Pays d'Oc has simplified matters for the consumer, rather than confusing them with the Vin de Pays de l'Herault, VdP des Coteaux de Narbonne, VdP des Coteaux de Murviel and all the rest. My problem with the whole thing is the creation of all these little crus within the AOCs . They're adding another layer of complexity that may damage any benefits they get from simplifying things with AOC Languedoc."
Over at independent merchant Stone, Vine & Sun, Simon Taylor has a slightly different take. "Our customers don't really care about the appellation as long as the wines deliver," he says. "I do think it's worth pushing the Languedoc as a brand name - anything that pushes a region is worth doing. That's why I think Bordeaux succeeds - it's the name of a place. If you want customers to attach something to a name, it has to have some kind of geographic reality."
For similar reasons, however, Taylor is less convinced about the development of the new crus. "I don't think it's helpful to have appellation names that you can't find on a map. I love the idea of terroir and I can understand what they're trying to do, but you won't find the Grès de Montpellier on a map, which doesn't make it easy for punters. We're trying to build knowledge and interest among our customers, and it's not helped by this confusion over the names. I agree that Saint Chinian has different soil types - but so do most of the appellations in France , so why make the difference between Saint-Chinian Roquebrun and Saint-Chinian Berlou? Fragmenting and sub-dividing zones in this way is an own goal."
Despite the problems that face the region , most in the UK trade feel that the south of France still has something special to offer consumers and that, while the future may not be la vie en rose, for many the worst may well be over.
"There's a lot of work for them to do, but I remain hopeful that the next few years will be important for the region," says Nash. "There have been signs for some time that consumers are thinking of returning to Old World styles and countries. I think if that trend continues there's no reason why the Languedoc, with its reputation as France's New World , shouldn't be in a magnificent position to take advantage of it."
"Southern France has been through a tough period, but I think there's light at the end of the tunnel," agrees Hardy.
"Those producers who've adopted a dynamic approach should be about to reap the rewards. It goes without saying, though, that those who've spent the past few years lounging across their barrels bemoaning their fate will, at best, be in exactly the same place in a few years' time."
Languedoc-Roussillon AOC facts and figures
Languedoc-Roussillon AOC wines grew UK off-trade sales by 6 per cent to £37.2 million in the year to March 24
French wine overall grew sales 5 per cent to £780.1 million
The average Languedoc-Roussillon AOC bottle price is up 10p to £4.03
Languedoc-Roussillon AOC wines grew UK off-trade volumes by 10.72 per cent in 2004-2006
France overall grew volumes by 5.8 per cent
New Languedoc-Roussillon AOCs
Corbières Boutenac Rouge - a cru of Corbières AOC 2005 (first vintage under AOC status) Saint-Chinian Berlou and Saint-Chinian Roquebrun - both crus of the Saint-Chinian AOC 2005
Saint-Chinian Blanc 2005
Faugères Blanc 2005
And the regions applying for cru or AOC status
Picpoul de Pinet
Pic Saint Loup
Grès de Montpellier