I spent the summer of 1998 in the Languedoc working in the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant in the small village of Florensac, somewhere between Montpellier and Béziers. The sea was a manageable bike ride away through the wild herb-scented Mediterranean breeze. The nearby Etang de Thau provided and endless array of seafood and shellfish delivered daily to the restaurant, and fresh lamb came from the high mountain pastures of the Pyrenees no more than an hour’s drive away in a Citröen 4L. Days started at 8 or 9am and finished around midnight six days a week, unless there was a catering event on Sunday. It was hard work and I was paid next to nothing, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
2:30-4:30 was a sacred time, when everyone in the house, front or back, would pause for lunch. There were always at least 4-5 open bottles of local wine on the table to taste, brought over by the sommelier Laurence. And so I began a serious exploration of the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon, then as now the largest officially designated wine-growing region in the world. It was also at about this time that the Languedoc started to gain a lot of international recognition for the quality and value of its wines, shedding the image of a vast, poor quality bulk wine region as it had been considered for at least the last century. Suddenly there were small, artisanal producers popping up in the most promising sub-regions and micro terroirs from the Pyrenees to the borders of the southern Rhône appellation making great wine from the local grapes and a few imports.
I spent my rare days off that summer driving around in a borrowed car and visiting many of these up and coming producers, guided by Laurence’s recommendation and my own research. I discovered a wealth of dedicated winemakers eager to explore and express the maximum potential of Grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and old vines carignan, mostly in blends, as well as more rare but fascinating whites from grapes like maccabeu, bourboulenc and clairette and the more familiar marsanne and roussanne. I was thrilled at the discovery of characterful and flavourful wines at more than reasonable prices, made by passionate young individuals. The new generation of quality-oriented producers were quickly joined by big name and big money outsiders eager to get a piece of this terroir while it was still relatively unknown and the prices attractive. Regions like Minervois, Corbières, St Chinian, Faugères and the Côteaux du Languedoc were virtually unknown outside of France, and probably to most Parisians as well. It was this experience in fact that led me to leave the kitchen and get into the wine business, at first working with Vinifera, an importer of French wines. My motivation was at first selfish – I simply wanted to be able to drink these wines back home in Toronto.
In the intervening years, the Languedoc enjoyed a mini boom time in Ontario thanks in part to the LCBO’s buyer for the Classics Catalogue, Lloyd Evans, who had a soft spot for the wines. But the market never really took off has it did in, say, Québec, where not surprisingly all of the top wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon were, and still are, highly sought after and coveted by collectors and sommeliers alike. In some cases the prices have exceeded the value category to rival top crus from the Rhône Valley, but in general I still look to the Languedoc-Roussillon for excellent pleasure-price ratio.
There are some fine examples in the July 24th release at Vintages. My top smart buy this week is the 2007 DOMAINE LES YEUSES LES ÉPICES SYRAH $12.95. Here’s a pure syrah from the south with as much character and typicity as many northern Rhône versions at twice the price. Number two on my top ten list is the 2009 CHÂTEAU SAINT-ROCH VIEILLES VIGNES GRENACHE BLANC/MARSANNE $13.95, a highly flavourful and typically sweet herb-scented old vines white blend. Both of these are wines to buy by the case for everyday enjoyment and entertaining out back.
I also recommend two other southern French wines in the smart buys category: 2006 CHÂTEAU DE PENA $13.95, a black fruit and savoury herb scented red from the wild hills of the Roussillon, and a bubbly, DOMAINE J. LAURENS LE MOULIN BLANQUETTE DE LIMOUX BRUT $16.95 from what is claimed to be the oldest sparkling wine region in the world in the upper, cooler reaches of the Languedoc near the town of Limoux. Sparkling wine is said to have been purposely-made (i.e. they wanted the bubbles), in the region of Limoux since the early 16th century, nearly two centuries before the monk Dom Pérignon was still grappling with the problem of out how to keep the bubbles out of champagne, or at least keep the bottles from exploding. This example has the typical appley character of the dominant mauzac grape, alongside a marked yeasty-biscuity note from its traditional method production.
The Languedoc-Roussilon is not free of radical opinions nor styles. This is after all, the base of the ultra-radical guerilla wine faction called CRAV, the Comité Regional d’Action Viticole. CRAV has claimed responsibility for a number of acts of vandalism or wine terrorism if you prefer, such as emptying out 100’s of thousands of liters of wine in the middle of the night at producers who source wine outside of the region or outside of France, and other similar acts, in a not so muffled cry to the government to intervene and support local industry.
This release too, has its radical element. Surely most controversial wine in my view is the 2007 DOMAINE DES AIRES HAUTES MINERVOIS LA LIVINIÈRE $19.95. This will undoubtedly be a polarizing wine, with many swooning over its full-bodied ripeness and others, probably far fewer, wondering what just hit them over the head. You’ll see in the Vintages catalogue that Robert Parker rates this wine a 90-91, while I was considerably less enthusiastic at just 86. I found the fruit fully baked and raisined and the alcohol, at an exaggerated 15.5% (on the label), well, exaggerated. No balance, no finesse, no poetry, just sheer mass. Any long time First-in-Line or WineAlign readers will likely have already figured out which wines ‘align’ with my tastes so this won’t be surprising. I know Minervois is a hot region. I lived next door to it and traveled through it during the hot summer of 1998. I’ve visited Domaine des Aires Hautes and tasted 16-17+% alcohol barrel samples and found them excessive then too. I know that properly managed vineyards can produce fully ripe fruit at less vertiginous alcohol levels, as plenty of other producers in the area manage to do, so I’m left wondering why it’s necessary. I suppose it’s because lots of people including well-known and respected critics like the style. I can’t help thinking that if I wanted to drink amarone or fortified wine, then I would probably buy amarone or fortified wine. In any case, I encourage you to pick up a bottle and see for yourself – it will at least be warming on a cold winter’s night.
As for the other feature of the July 24th release, Aussie whites, there is a collection of solid if not extraordinary wines, led by my top pick, the 2008 HENSCHKE TILLY’S VINEYARD $19.95 .
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John Szabo, MS