story and photos by Albert Letizia
I recently visited the Languedoc in the South of France. As on many wine trips, I spent a lot of time in a rented van with other Somms and writers staring out at remarkable scenery. But as I traveled the winding roads of the Mediterranean Coast, two things particularly blew my mind.
First was the amazing beauty of the region, with its shimmering blue sea, its prehistoric fishing villages, its sprawling castles and the endless, rolling hills covered in thick layers of wild garrigue, and the fragrant juniper, thyme, rosemary and lavender plants that grew everywhere.
The second thing that struck me was the deep and profound wine culture. Vineyards are planted all around: on the roadside, up the hills, down the valleys, stretching far and wide in every direction and at nearly every turn.
The area has approximately 700,000 acres planted and is the largest wine producing region in the world, contributing nearly one-third of France’s total production. They have been growing wine for 24 centuries in the Languedoc with a history that can be traced to the early Greeks and is the earliest region planted in France.
Historically the Languedoc had a reputation for producing high quality wine. But with the dawn of the Industrial Age, the Languedoc has been mostly known for mass produced ‘bulk wine’ or ‘plunk,’ and the area has retained some of that reputation among many wine consumers even today. To many, the region is still known for producing tons of ordinary wine, much of it marketed as Vin de Pays.
However, over the past 30 years, thanks to some exceptional cult wines, a massive shift toward biodynamic and organic farming, the development of nearly 80 varietals, and a new class of producers who concentrate on quality rather than quantity, the new reputation for the region is shifting.
The question for the region has now become: Will the Languedoc finally get the world-class recognition it deserves among its peers of Bordeaux, Cote du Rhone, or even Napa? And maybe the premium price points as well?
It certainly seems to be well-positioned in that direction, particularly thanks to the explosion of blended or GSM wines in the new world which seem to have made many novice wine drinkers very comfortable with non-varietal specific bottlings like The Prisoner, which sells millions of units per year.
Additionally, I spoke to the legendary wine importer and author, Kermit Lynch, who has been selling Languedoc wines for 30 years. “People have a taste for Mediterranean wines now. They like those flavors. And those flavors go with the kinds of cuisine that people are focusing on now, be it Catalan or Sicilian or the wines of Southern France”, he said. “And thankfully the Languedoc is not monocépage. Because when you make wines based on blends of grapes, it’s easier to make a balanced wine with finesse.”
Also, what benefits the Languedoc is the increasingly expensive and corporatized wines of Bordeaux, Southern Rhone, and Napa. As these regions continue to be bought up and consolidated by insurance companies and international corporate conglomerates, the trend toward family owned and operated producers only benefits lesser-gentrified places like the Languedoc.
But if one could trace the current resurgence of the Languedoc back to one producer or one wine, it would have to be Mas de Daumas Gassac, planted in 1974 by Aimé & Véronique Guibert in the Gassac Valley. At the time of first release, no one in the French wine trade would even consider that there could be a wine worth tasting from the Languedoc, especially a Bordeaux Blend in a Burgundy bottle that was not an AOC wine. But within three years of their first vintage (1978), they were being called the “Lafite of the Languedoc,” and “The Petrus of the Midi,” and “The Grand Cru of the South,” by everyone from Oz Clark to Jancis Robinson to Robert Parker.
Today, Samuel Guibert and his four brothers craft the family wine from a patchwork of small, forest-enclosed parcels that span over 40 different grape varieties. This rare and diverse assortment, dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, make up the unique Gassac red and white blends with the youngest wines producing a sparkling rosé. The wines are farmed organically, made with slow and cool wild yeast fermentation and low sulfur additions.
Domaine de La Grange Des Péres is arguably the next most important wine from the Languedoc after Gassac. This is a small production, carefully crafted wine grown by the talented vigneron, Laurent Vaillé. It has been a Somm Darling since its first vintage in 1992 when the densely concentrated and intensely flavored red wine scored 90 Parker Points and became an instant phenomenon. Collectors and buyers have been on a mad quest for allocations ever since. Planted in limestone-rich soil and farmed traditionally, the wines age incredibly well and deliver on the promise of terroir and taste.
Even more recently it’s difficult to talk about the New Languedoc without the mention of Gérard Bertrand. Gérard was a professional rugby player until the untimely death of his father. It was then that Gérard was forced to quit his rugby career to take over the family wine estate at Cigalus in the South of France. Gérard, however, is the opposite of a small cult producer. Gérard now owns 15 Languedoc estates, has over 1500 acres planted to vine, makes a top-selling Rosé wine for the Bon Jovi family (yes, that Bon Jovi), and—the really good news—is that Gérard Bertrand is the largest organic and biodynamic farmer in the world.
Gérard is a businessman and an entrepreneur, yes, but he’s also an environmentalist and a champion of the Languedoc. He is an excellent spokesman for his native region, something they truly need—a charismatic communicator who is not afraid to tell the world about Languedoc. And the fact that his wines are great makes it far easier to receive his message.
Clos d’ Ora, a single estate, biodynamic, small production red from AOC Minervois La Livinière, is Bertrand’s top wine. The vineyard is planted to Syrah and Mourvédre alongside old vines of Carignan and Grenache in a mix of limestone and marl. This wine is not cheap, but it’s made to rival the great wines of the world and live for decades.
The current conversation about these three wines (Daumas Gassac, Grange des Péres and Clos d’Ora) should not simply be had within the context of the Languedoc.
The conversation should be had within the context of how they compare to the greatest wines in the world. And furthermore, the conversation can be had about what it means to be pioneers and icons and to change the face, and the reputation, of an entire wine region.
What about the question: Will Languedoc ever be considered a world-class wine region like its Peers?
“I think it’s already there,” says Kermit Lynch. “It’s already happened in quality and price. There’s a lot of expensive Languedoc wines that are getting damn good money now. And when I started with those wines back in the ‘70s, I couldn’t give them away.”
While it’s true that these wines may be going up in price, they are oftentimes ridiculously superior and light years beyond what you get for similar money when compared to Bordeaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or even Napa Valley for that matter. So, what’s the biggest obstacle for Languedoc now?
“I don’t think we have a lot of obstacles,” says Gérard Bertrand. “In the last 30 years, it’s spectacular what has happened in the south of France. Everyone has turned to quality. It is not a problem. Now we need to reach for excellence and for a revelation of terroir.”
So, one could say that the Languedoc is already world class—a lot of us just didn’t know it yet.