ABCs of Languedoc
By Kim Marcus
When talking about the Languedoc, it's important to keep a few definitions in mind to help sort out what would otherwise be a crazy quilt of appellations spread over one of the largest vineyard realms in the world. With more than 700,000 acres of vines under cultivation, the Languedoc is France's biggest grapegrowing region, containing nearly a third of the nation's vineyards. In comparison, the entire United States has only about 400,000 acres of vineyards.
Although both the Languedoc and neighboring Roussillon are commonly viewed as one unit, there are important historical and viticultural differences between the two. Therefore, for this report, the Languedoc is considered as a separate entity from Roussillon.
The Languedoc is one of the latest regions to be classified in the French appellation system -- governed by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine -- in efforts to improve quality.
The most important quality factor in the Languedoc is the division between the winegrowing regions of the coastal plain and those of the hillsides, surrounding plateaus and other specialized areas, known as terroirs or crus.
In general, the wines grown on the plains, most of which carry the broad Vin de Pays d'Oc classification, account for most of the international varietal releases, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot. These wines are generally of lesser quality and evoke less excitement than do the more distinctive Appellation d'Origine Contrôllée wines, the most important of which are Coteaux du Languedoc, Minervois and Corbières. All were upgraded to AOC status in 1985, joining Fitou, the region's first AOC, which was recognized in the late 1940s. Such status limits the types and amounts of grapes grown.
For wines in the Vin de Pays d'Oc category, for example, yields of up to 90 hectoliters per hectare are allowed (about 6.6 tons per acre). The AOCs, however, can be limited to production levels as low as 40 hl/ha (about 3 t/a). There has also been a concerted attempt in the AOCs to lessen reliance on the Carignane grape, which was the source of many of the region's insipid reds of yore.
In the Coteaux and associated appellations, the focus is on Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache grapes for the red wines, and AOC regulations govern the minimum amounts to be used. However, vintners can opt out of the AOC system and bottle wines using international varietals -- and sometimes these wines can be better than the AOC efforts. Though regulations can encourage quality, they can never guarantee it.
-- Kim Marcus, managing editor