The regions called Languedoc-Roussillon in the south of France along the Mediterranean coast runs from the Spanish border east to Provence. Languedoc is the eastern/northern part of the region, Roussillon the western/southern stretch. The total region contains more than 700,000 acres of vines and is the largest wine producing region on the planet, accounting for more than a third of all French wine. This was the area largely responsible for the “wine lake” of the late 20th century and subsequent European Union efforts to decrease wine production with the aim of increasing both wine quality and wine industry viability. Over the past several decades, the area has attracted outside investment aimed at quality, as well as maverick winemakers seeking to blaze new trails. The majority of Languedoc wine is still produced by the region’s more than 500 cooperatives.
Like Provence and the southern Rhône, the region enjoys a Mediterranean climate with warm dry summers. Vineyards in the Languedoc stretch along the coastal plains of the Mediterranean while in Roussillon they cling to the narrow valleys around the Pyrenees. The tramontane wind comes in from the northwest, keeping the climate dry. Water is an issue, especially with global warming. Some areas are being allowed to irrigate, and others irrigate on the sly in contravention of French and EU regulations.
A range of grapes are prominent in this large region. Among reds, the dynamic duo of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have made their inroads. The Rhône grapes of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre are widely grown, as are Cinsault and Carignan. Among whites, Chardonnay is widely grown for regional wines and in the sparkling Crémant de Limoux. Other whites include Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Vermentino (Rolle), Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanche, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Picpoul, and Maccabéo, and a range of Muscat varieties used for fortified wines.
AOC Languedoc was launched in 2007 as an all-encompassing quality wine appellation covering the entire region, from Nîmes—just west of the Rhône—down to the eastern Pyrenees. This subsumes the Coteaux du Languedoc appellation that previously covered only the high country in the northeast of the region. Coteaux du Languedoc still appears on wine labels. AOC Languedoc wines can be made from: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Carignan for the reds and rosés; Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Viognier, Picpoul, Marsanne, Roussanne, Vermentino and Ugni Blanc for the whites. As is the case with any broad regional appellation, winemakers within the various crus can label their wine with those crus if they qualify for them. Let us take a look at some of these crus, moving from right to left on our map, starting with the region’s numerous sweet fortified wines and then moving on to still dry wines.
Most of the fortified wines are vins doux naturels (VDNs), literally “naturally sweet wines.” The “natural” sweetness comes from grape juice that is not allowed to ferment. The mutage method is used: adding a distilled grape spirit to stop fermentation before all the grape sugar ferments to alcohol.
Just to the southwest of the university city of Montpelier, the neighboring appellations of Muscat de Mireval and Muscat de Frontignan produce VDNs from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains grapes. In the northeast corner of the Minervois appellation (which largely produces still wines), Muscat de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois is also based on Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. Further south, Muscat de Rivesaltes is made from Muscat of Alexandria and Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains grapes. Rivesaltes (with no “Muscat”) refers to the same region’s VDNs produced from Grenache Noir, Grenache Gris, and Grenache Blanc (and varying in color accordingly). Maury, just southwest of Rivesaltes, makes similar Grenache-based VDNs. In the extreme south, approaching the border with Spain, Banyuls produces VDNs in a number of colors, also based on Grenache Noir, Grenache Gris, and Grenache Blanc. Small amounts of Muscat grapes are allowed in these wines.
Among the still wines of the region, the Clairette du Languedoc appellation produces wines only from the white Clairette grape, but in a wide range of styles. Some are light and crisp, while others are full-bodied, sweet (but not fortified) and reddish brown, labeled sometimes as “rancio” (intentionally oxidized) if they have been aged at least three years.
The coastal appellation of Picpoul de Pinet is a full-bodied white wine with citrus aromas and flavors, made exclusively from the local Picpoul grape.
Sited on an ancient seabed giving it schist soils, Faugères is renowned for full-bodied red wines made primarily from Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, with some Cinsault and Lladoner Pelut. It produces some white wines from Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Rolle (Vermentino).
Saint-Chinian gives us blended red, white, and rosé wines. Most wines are robust reds traditionally led by Carignan. The fruity rosés are commonly based on Cinsault. Grenache, Lladoner Pelut, Mourvèdre and Syrah go into the mix. White wine grapes include Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne. AOC regulations mandate that all wines be blends.
Minervois is named after the village of Minerve, referring to the Roman Goddess Minerva, a testament to the long history of winemaking in the region. Minervois is an area whose reputation is on the rise. In red Minervois wines, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre (our old friend GSM) must together constitute 60% of the blend, possibly complemented by Carignan and Cinsault. White wines are made from Vermentino, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc.
Corbieres is an important, productive region producing red, rosé and white wines. Both red and rosé wines are based on Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan, with the rosés also enjoying contributions from Picpoul and Grenache Gris. White are blends of Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Maccabeu, Marsanne and Roussanne. To the south of Corbieres, Fitou produces similar wines. Located on the coast hard by the northeast corner of Corbieres, La Clape produces highly regarded red wines from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre as well as whites from Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Piquepoul.
Cabardés produces red and rosé wines in the hills just north of Carcassonne. The area, which has made wine since the Roman era, is on the border between Languedoc-Roussillon and France’s Southwest region. The grapes reflect this split personality: Syrah and Grenache from the south of France, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from the southwest and Bordeaux. Think of it as the best of both for rich red wines and intensely flavored dry rosés. The wines of Malpère directly to the south have a similar configuration
Limoux is known for both still and sparkling wines. It is yet another appellation (or pair of appellations) that has one foot in Languedoc-Roussillon and the other in the Southwest region. Here, grapes grow at higher elevations than in the rest of Languedoc-Roussillon, in a cooler climate. Still red Limoux must be at least 50% Merlot, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Grenache, Syrah and Carignan. White Limoux Blanc is made from Mauzac, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. The Mauzac, a white grape of the Southwest called “Blanquette” locally, is the major grape of Blanquette de Limoux, the sparkling wine the area is best known for. Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay go into the mix. To appeal to present day international tastes, Crémant de Limoux is made from a higher percentage of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.
Roussillon’s specialty is sweet VDNs like Riversaltes, Maury, and Banyuls. The catch-all Côtes du Roussillon appellation covers the various still wines of this part of France. Red Côtes du Roussillon is typically Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, with possible help from Carignan and Cinsault. Rosés can use these plus Grenache Gris and Macabeu. Whites are predominantly Grenache Blanc and Macabeu, with Marsanne, Roussanne and Rolle. Côtes du Roussillon Villages labeling applies to four better quality villages and is commonly made from Carignan, Grenache and Syrah.