Act II: The Languedoc in context, part 1

Gerard Bertrand in San Francisco

When I have the opportunity to meet winemakers from the Languedoc, I grab it because there is no wine region in France that is as dynamic and more misunderstood as the Languedoc.  The tasting I attended at the SF Yacht Club recently was hosted by Gerard Bertrand, a tall, tan and rugged-looking man that one would think  would better represent Nice or St. Tropez instead of the Languedoc, but he is indeed a son of Corbieres and Georges, who was one of the first generation of winemakers in the 20th century to remake this vast region.

The Languedoc has all the qualities of a premier French wine region:  the most diverse soils in France as a result of continental collisions, crustal upheavals, torrential glacial melts and repeated sea incursions; it enjoys the warmest and sunniest weather in France being in the South and shielded by mountain ranges; and it has the country’s longest winemaking provenance dating back to 500 BC.

But in the more recent last century and a half, Languedoc languished as a mass producer of table wines for the working man.  The extension of the rail network to the South of France in 1855 expanded markets for their wine and then after Phylloxera struck, Languedoc was the first region to begin planting en masse to satisfy the thirst of an entire country.  By 1900, the Languedoc was the country’s largest producer of wine accounting for about half of volume.  Wine cooperatives grew for economies of scale.

It took a while to get over this reputation, but beginning about 30 years ago, a generation of winemakers and outside investors began a revolution to raise the quality of wines in the Languedoc by planting so-called “improving” varieties like Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre (aka GSM) at the expense of other historic grapes like Carignane and Cinsault, planting grapes in the right locations, and modernizing winemaking to produce the clean, fruit-driven wines demanded by a global marketplace.

And what is Act II?  That’s where Gerard comes in.  After their parents laid the groundwork for quality, the second generation of winemakers in Languedoc are now working on an equally, if not more important, effort:  the marketing of the Languedoc.  It’s a monumental endeavor for this simple reason, the region is huge.

The Languedoc is the largest wine region in France with about 650,000 acres of vineyards.  Larger than all of California and more than twice as big as Bordeaux.  It has several established and noble appellations like Corbieres and Minervois, but for me, they’ve always been little islands floating in a vast sea of undefined land without context.  Kind of like the Douro in Portugal, another vast and vastly misunderstood region that would benefit greatly from a formal delineation of quality sub-regions.

The Languedoc, until recent years, did not have a framework in which to understand the wines like other large wine regions in France.  In 300,000 acre Bordeaux for example, with 60+ appellations, the Right Bank and the Left Bank mean something.  In the vast Rhone, Northern Rhone appellations mean single varietal Syrah and Viognier while the Southern Rhone appellations are about blends.  Most French wine regions have a clear tiering of controlled appellations from the smallest monopole to overarching regional wines.  But not the Languedoc.  They had the free-standing appellations, and then the “table wines” categories of bulk wines and excellent Vins de Pays which, due to VdP’s more relaxed standards, launched the sea changes in the Languedoc beginning in 1979.

This began to change in 2007 when the Languedoc initiated a segmentation project.  Effective 2008, the Languedoc and its Southern neighbor the Roussillon, became a single regional appellation called the “Languedoc”.  Then in June 2010, it created a 3-tier quality pyramid of appellations to make the region easier for consumers to grasp, with the Languedoc AOC as the foundation.  The second tier up consists of heritage appellations including Corbieres, Minervois, Saint-Chinian, Faugeres and Limoux.  At the top are Cru or Grands Crus vineyards whose identification began as early as 1999 with Minervois La Liviniere.

Fast forward to the Yacht Club.  I looked forward to tasting in context because Gerard Bertrand produces the full scope of Languedoc wines.  I was also interested in his POV on marketing the Languedoc.

For example, should we continue to look at the Roussillon and Languedoc as distinct regions.  For Bertrand, it is simply, the “South of France.”  Pretty sexy.

And what about the grape varieties, is there a much greater emphasis on GSM now?  This man of Corbieres pointed his finger at me and announced very slowly and deliberately, the grapes are not the most important thing.  “It is #1, the terroir; #2, the climate; #3, the grapes; and #4, man.

To be continued….