This rather lengthy backgrounder sets the stage for a study tour of the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region hosted by Wine Scholar Guild. Renowned wine writer Andrew Jefford will lead this tour October 14-19. Stay tuned for trip highlights!
Photo Credit: TheDrinksBusiness.com
I have fished endlessly in deep pools of information – online and in resource books – with no luck in uncovering an explanation (in English), of exactly why the Languedoc and Roussillon regions were combined administratively in 1972. Was wine trade the big driver?
Consider this timeline. In the early 1900s, the first French wine cooperative was formed near Montpellier. By the 1930s, cooperatives had become very popular throughout France, giving groups of small growers the scale of operations they needed to become producers. Unfortunately, quantity prevailed over quality. Thus was born a perhaps unfortunate era in Languedoc-Roussillon history: producing bulk table wine just as demand for quality was on the rise.
Then, in 1968, a new wine classification called Vins de Pays was created to allow for experimentation and innovation outside the strict boundaries of the AOC system. In a list of many firsts, Languedoc and Roussillon vigorously embraced the new concept right away. Was it a device to avoid the regional fragmentation that has thwarted Southwest France in its quest for a unified brand identity? Perhaps joining administratively was the only way to be able draw and blend grape material from both Languedoc and Roussillon? The fact that 56 different grape varieties are permitted today might be considered a piece of evidence supporting this conclusion. Now called IGP Pay d’Oc – one of 150 IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) designations in France – this Languedoc-Roussillon powerhouse generates 50% of total French wine exports.
It would seem that wine was indeed the big driver. Even so, every wine reference book (and wine writer) begins the story of Languedoc-Roussillon with a plan to discuss the regions separately. Much like the alliance among fractured appellations within Southwest France, the Languedoc-Roussillon is by all accounts really two distinct wine regions spanning five departments (since 2016). Joint administration notwithstanding, they are quite different in many ways.
LANGUEDOC is the “Language of Yes”
Languedoc is situated near the Spanish/French Pyrénées, partially within the Pyrénées-Orientales department. In the Occitan language, “oc” means “yes.” For nearly 500 years, the people of Languedoc have been turning “yes” into “opportunity” with an undaunted spirit of adventure. Just a few firsts from Languedoc include:
- The monks of Saint-Hilaire “discovered” sparkling wine in 1531 while making Blanquette de Limoux (Mauzac grape) 150 years before Dom Perignon took credit for discovering the bubbles secret in Champagne.
- Languedoc was the first French wine region to replant vines on American rootstock after the 1863 phylloxera scourge. By 1900, Languedoc had become France’s #1 supplier of wine — at the time nearly half the country’s total.
- 1905 marked the birth of the first French cooperative in Maraussan near Montpelier.
- Languedoc was first to adopt the Vin de Pays (IGP) classification of 1968. Today France has more than 150 IGP designations, but by far the most important is IGP Pays d’Oc spanning Languedoc and Roussillon. It is France’s largest wine export.
Historic market pivots have also demonstrated the determination and true grit of the Languedoc people. When the first half of the Canal du Midi opened for business in 1681, Languedoc (and basically all of southern France) was locked out of French and other European markets when merchants from Bordeaux controlled river access. Not easily knocked out of the game, Languedoc stepped up its trade partnership with the Dutch who were prime customers for affordable sweet wine. Score for Languedoc! A little over a century later, production pivoted to dry white wine used as the base to distill brandy for Napoleon’s armies.
Iron-rich (“rousse”) ROUSSILLON
Roussillon is topographically distinct from Languedoc (and many other wine regions). It is surrounded by mountains on three sides, creating the effect of an amphitheater as vines cascade down slopes toward the Mediterranean Sea. Mountains also serve as rain shadows and tunnels of wind from all directions. Roussillon enjoys on average 325 days of sunshine a year, and its mean temperature is the highest in all of France. Seasons are basically compressed from four to two. As the Wine Scholar Guild notes, it is “possible to ski and swim in the same season!” Tall peaks dotting the Pyrénées block Spanish Catalonia from view, but not from the legacy of Catalan language and culture, or from big earthy red wines and slightly oxidized white wines. In fact, Roussillon is still considered to be French Catalogne.
Most of Roussillon’s production (75%) is carried out by 60 cooperative wineries. Roussillon is well known for two things: (1) 80% of France’s total production of Vins Doux Naturels, and (2) more organic and biodynamic producers than any other French region.
An Efficient Bridge…Cooperatives
Cooperatives have traditionally been market leaders in Languedoc-Roussillon, whether it was the boom that came from creating France’s first post-phylloxera cooperative in 1905, or the bust starting in the 1930s that led to a tradition of bulk vin de table production. Innovations in winemaking began to blossom in 1968-79 as new classification rules were developed and eventually formalized to permit broader experimentation outside the appellation system. Wine styles may have changed, but the perception of Languedoc-Roussillon as a provider of plonk hung on for more than 50 years. As the region’s flight to quality took hold in the 1980’s, cooperatives benefited from the competition and technology improvements.
For more than a century, cooperatives have lowered barriers to entry for growers even as the appellation structure was being developed. In Languedoc, the number of AOCs grew from 10 to 50 over the past 35+ years, yet 150 sturdy cooperatives are responsible for 65% of the region’s production. In Roussillon, the story is a bit different. Three of the current 13 AOCs were approved in 1936, initially all for the sweet Vins Doux Naturels. Appellations producing dry white, rosé, and red wines were not established until 1971. But then these two regional stories converge: 75% of Roussillon’s total production comes from 60 cooperative wineries.
According to the French Confederacy of Wine Cooperatives, today there are more than 600 co-ops that collectively produce about half of the wine in France. As nearly all wine cooperatives are members of this federation, it is safe to say that about one-third of them are located in Languedoc-Roussillon.
The future of cooperatives looks bright, once again putting Languedoc-Roussillon into a leadership position. Peter Weltman, the founder of “Borderless Wines,” argues in SevenFiftyDaily (9/3/18) that ”the age of the grower-producer finds many buyers overlooking co-op wines—and missing out…While cooperatives were once startups for survival, the organizations today provide ongoing support for small family farms in grape-growing regions around the world. For Buyers, the wines are valuable for their typicity and breadth.” In an interview with a Greek agricultural official, Weltman heard that “(t)here is no country in the world with an advanced agri-food system where agricultural cooperatives do not play a major role in the main food supply chains.”
In the Wine Economist (7/17/18), Mike Veseth points out that cooperatives account for more than half of all the wine produced in Italy and Spain as well as France. He calls them “invisible wineries,” noting that they are one of the most under-appreciated elements of the global wine trade despite the commercial success of some of the wines. “Cooperatives seem to be under attack to a certain extent…(but) more than anything I think it has been competition that has stirred French cooperatives to raise their game — competition in the retail market and also competition between and among the cooperatives for the declining group of potential grower-members. Competition is disruptive but has obviously been a good thing.”
A Sweet Bridge…Vins Doux Naturels
I have always found the term Vins Doux Naturels (VdN) to be misleading because the wines are actually fortified with neutral grape spirits. (Hardly natural, right?) The fortification process called mutage was discovered in 1285 by Arnau de Vilanova at the University of Montpellier in Languedoc.
Roussillon is the largest producer (80%) of VdNs in France. Other fortified wines are produced only in Languedoc and Rhône. The first three of five total sweet appellations in Roussillon were all founded in 1936: Rivesaltes, Banyuls, and Maury. Dry wine appellations were not established until 1971. The five regions, and their respective styles, are:
Banyuls Grand Cru – red only, primarily Grenache
Muscat de Rivesaltes – white only (Muscat à Petits Grains Blanc and Muscat d’Alexandrie)
Maury – red and white
Rivesaltes – red, white and rosé
Banyuls – red, white and rosé
In Languedoc, there are four appellations for white VdNs only, all made solely from Muscat à Petits Grains Blanc. The four highly regarded Muscat AOCs are Frontignan, Lunel, Mireval, and Saint Jean de Minervois.
VdN fortified wines have a second layer of style differentiation. They are made in two styles: reductive (minimal oxygen, primarily through the use of glass jars called bonbonnes) and oxidative (oxygen encouraged via aging vessels). In Languedoc, all of the VdNs are made in reductive style; there is greater style diversity in Roussillon.
As always when discussing French wines, it is important to know the names of styles and labeling requirements. Rosé VdNs do not have any special or additional style descriptors.
Reductive for red VdNs:
- Grenat (12 months aging including 3 in bottle)
- Rimage (2-6 months aging)
Oxidative for red and white VdNs:
- Ambré – white only – (minimum 20 months aging)
- Tuilé – red only – (minimum 30 months aging)
- Hors d’Age – red or white – (“with age” minimum 5 years)
- Rancio – red or white – (extremely oxidized or maderized, aged more than 5 years)