Friday, July 22, 2011

LANGUEDOC & ROUSSILLON: Massively Beyond Country Midi

Massive volumes of wine from a great mass of vineyard acreage along the Mediterranean crescent south of the Massif Central in France are produced each year. In the Languedoc-Roussillon region(s) there are currently more than 700,000 acres of vines, annually producing more than a third of all French wines.  Although this historical region, which extends west of the Rhone river to the Spanish border, produces mostly Vin de Pays(country) classified wines, that's still more than all of the wine produced by the U.S. each year! Importantly, this regions current wave of innovation and quality improvements are a benchmark for all wine lovers, because this is simply the largest wine growing area in the world.
Rocky Roussillon vineyard soils

France's highest quality tier, the AOC, is built with numerous restrictions in grape selection, yield and vinification, as well as its most stringent quality evaluations for typicity of the specific appellation. Created in the 1970's, the broad Vin de Pays classification allows producers a less regulated quality category for typically selected regional varietals evaluated on their individual merits. Among the oldest planted vineyards in all of France, the Vin de Pays d'Oc is the nations' largest VdP. Within its less regulated production of non-indigenous varietals, grape blends and even varietal labeling, the regions of Languedoc-Roussillon have seen a great wave of investment and modernization in the last 30 years, making it perhaps France's most innovative and exciting wine region. If a wine here is labeled by grape variety, it must contain 100% of that grape!

Today coastal dominated Languedoc, and Catalan influenced Roussillon remain the wine frontier for France.  There are over 50,000 growers here, mostly organized into more than 400 cooperatives, which alone produce around 70% of the regions wines. And they have a long and active history of flexing their political muscle to maintain their traditions and promote the wines of the region by way of dozens of 'brotherhoods'. In 1992 these political action associations grouped together to form the Languedoc & Roussillon Brotherhood Academy to maintain their long established ancestral traditions. The region(s) have long been the source of France's vin ordinare, and today only produces about 10% AOC designated wines.

Reflecting its Iberian sensibilities, Banyuls AOC producers use mutage, similar to that of Port, to fortify(arrest) the fermentation, and can expose the barreled wine to the sun, like maderized Sherries for their sweet and blended Carignan/Grenache vin doux naturals. Red as well as white VDN's from Muscat, Grenache Blanc and Spains's Macabeu are produced in volume at Rivesaltes AOC in the northern foothills, amounting to almost 75% of the entire countries' VDN production! Heading towards the Mediterranean, the appellation of Fitou AOC is a still red wine zone from the same widely planted regional grapes, and the regions first AOC.
Vineyards of Carcassone

South of the Roman fortress, Carcassone, lies Limoux, whose monks of Saint Hilaire are to have produced sparkling wines from 1531, more than a hundred years before the birth of Dom Perignon! Without the benefit of disgorgement of its lees, the cloudy Blanquette de Limoux AOC continues to produce methode ancestrale sparklers from the local late ripening Mauzac white grape. This region also produces the more traditional method Cre'mant de Limoux AOC, with Mauzac, Chardonnay and even Chenin Blanc in its version of blended sparklers. Corbieres AOC, the regions largest AOC, sits to the north, producing vast quantities of Carignan dominated blended reds, plus whites and rose' wines from all the usual regional varieties. The catch-all Coteaux du Languedoc AOC sits to the Mediterranean east, with its numerous communes poised for individual recognition of their continuing  improvement of traditional and international variety wines.

Diversity in geography and geology, with mountainous schist terraces to coastal sedimentary sands, uniquely combine here in the Languedoc-Roussillon with passionate traditions and modern innovation. In the summer of 2010, the regions authority introduced a new hierarchy of wine classifications, Grand Vins du Languedoc, and the top tier Grand Cru du Languedoc intended to simplify consumer recognition of their existing 29 AOC's. And, a recent N.Y.Times tasting panel found great quality for value relationships in several Cotes du Roussillon AOC wines and even a few stellar examples within the regions Vin de Pays. As this historic and proud region, sometimes referred to as the Midi, moves quickly forward it remains for savvy consumers to seek out these fine wines and discover the new benchmarks in Old World wine innovation.

Vineyards of Corbieres


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