Fighting Fit Languedoc

The Languedoc is a fiery region of bullfighting, rugby and tough, cassoulet-fuelled farmers tending scorched plains, but it has always suffered from an inferiority complex when it comes to wine. The “wine factory” tag has dogged the world’s largest wine-producing region for decades, and noisy stepsisters Burgundy, Bordeaux and Côtes du Rhône have historically left it more downtrodden than Cinderella on a bad-hair day.

But a new generation of bold, progressive winemakers has emerged, determined to shake off the sense of inferiority and rip up the historical associations. They are forgoing quantity and taking on the established regions with wines of serious quality – at a fraction of the price.

The region’s Cabernet Sauvignon blends benefit from warm weather and many can now stand up to Bordeaux reds, while peppery blends of Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and Mourvèdre are similar to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, minus the inflated price tag.

Throw in delicate Pinot Noirs grown on high ground, the Champagne-like Crémant de Limoux, an array of dry whites and some subtle rosés, and the Languedoc competes on all fronts.

With modern winemaking techniques, the region still produces boatloads of wine, but the rise in quality can be partly attributed to big French wine names from more established regions investing in Languedoc’s cheap vineyards and reliable Mediterranean climate and producing excellent small-batch wines.

Chief among them is Eric Fabre, former winemaker at Château Lafite, who was seduced by the potential of the soil, the climate and the local grape varieties. He took over Château d’Anglès in the La Clape area that straddles the Mediterranean coast.

“We are proud to be part of the Languedoc,” he says. “We believe in the south of France. This is a natural place for growing a vineyard. It’s easy and natural and you can taste it in the wine. It’s long and elegant and you don’t need to extract too much. We can produce consistent wine of the highest quality.”

Its Classique Rosé, Rouge and Blanc are sold in Wine Rack at £11.99 and the Grand Vin Blanc and Grand Vin Rouge are in Peckham’s at £15-£17. Fabre aims to see the UK overtake Belgium as his chief export market by targeting independents.

Another rising star is Burgundian winemaker Laurent Delaunay, who made the journey south to set up the Languedoc- based Abbotts & Delaunay winery in 2005.

“We are part of a great up-and-coming movement,” he says. “There were some big players but now they aren’t the most dynamic people in the region. There are smaller producers who are much more dynamic – this new generation has a quality approach.”

This summer the winery, which exports to 45 countries, secured a major UK listing with Averys of Bristol, which stocks a range including four AOC wines from the Clouds & Wind range.

Nevertheless, Delaunay admits he has been frustrated in his attempts to sell Languedoc to the world. “It’s difficult to make a lot of margin and profitability in the Languedoc as the retail prices are very low.

“It’s very difficult to convince the market to accept decent prices. When you talk to a buyer from a supermarket, they try our wine and say it is a top, top wine, and we get the impression they are ready to pay €20 per bottle. Then we tell them it’s from the Languedoc and they say €2.”

The fact that his Réserve AOCs are priced £11.99 and AOCs £16.99 at Averys suggests Delaunay has overcome this hurdle, and the future looks bright for his array of wines.

Fellow Languedoc producers have followed Delaunay’s lead in securing listings for ultra-premium wine in the UK.

A young upstart called Julian Seydoux is especially keen to tear up the rulebook when it comes to making wine in the Languedoc and he has started to have success – his Impertinent range is now stocked by Yapp Brothers at £12.75.

Seydoux, whose father owns powerhouse Ligue 1 football team Lille, says he moved to the Languedoc in 2009 because it is the “nouveau” of the French wine regions.

“In Burgundy and Bordeaux everything is established,” he says. “In Languedoc you can move up the ladder and make yourself a name. It has a lot of potential.

“The grapes have a great freshness and the soil is special here. It’s ancient. The sea was here a billion years ago. We are using the best possible equipment. It is not so much about mass-produced wine now – it is changing.

“In France they have this opinion that Languedoc only makes mass-produced wine but other countries, such as the UK, are more open-minded.

“People who want to show off quality 

French wines that are more accessible to their customers in terms of price are turning to Languedoc.”

Families that have made wine in the Languedoc for centuries are also joining the new generation in focusing on quality. Frantz Venes’s family has produced wine at Massamier La Mignarde for 800 years, but in the past decade his trophy-winning Domus Maximus – an ultra-premium Syrah/Grenache blend stocked alongside others in his range by Berry Brothers – has become widely revered as one of the finest wines in the world.

“Wines were made here a long time before Bordeaux and Burgundy – the ancient Greeks produced wine in Languedoc 2,000-3,000 years ago,” Venes says.

“It’s very easy to produce wine here because of the weather.” He adds: “British people are good customers because consumer knowledge in the UK is good. Britain is one of the most educated markets.”

Over in the Côte de Thongue, family-run project Domaine de l’Arjolle is spearheaded by Louis-Marie Teisserenc, who is described as “the bearded wonder of the Languedoc” by Paul Strang in his book, The Wines of the Languedoc.

He says: “We put a lot of effort into mak- ing our wine and we are very proud of what we produce. We think they can compete with wines from the rest of France, and they are often cheaper too.”

Indeed, Domaine de l’Arjolle makes claret-like Cabernet/Merlot blends that can certainly compete with Bordeaux reds, and the 2008 vintage is stocked at just £7.50 a bottle by The Wine Society.

As the Languedoc renaissance gathers steam and the quality of the wines continues to improve, its historically noisier neighbours may soon find themselves struggling to compete with this old new kid on the block.

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