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For good value wines, look to southern France
By John H. Isacs

AS a team player, I usually like the focus of my column on the main topic of the iDeal section. This week the main theme is nutritious grains and other starches. Kidney beans, taro, sweet potatoes and yams aren’t exactly a prime wine subject but they are healthy and inexpensive so I decided to focus on French wines with the same attributes. In the south of France, the sun drenched hills bordering the Mediterranean Sea offer healthy and affordable wines.

In the fifth century BC, long before the more celebrated wines regions of Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux cultivated wines, Greek traders in the South of France were making wines in and around what is present day Languedoc. For most of its history, wines from the Languedoc region enjoyed a good reputation. However, the advent of the Industrial Age in the late 19th-century and an increased demand for mass-produced wines for thirst French workers and soldiers had a decidedly negative impact on quality.


These factory wines for the masses were often blended with the cheap and rustic red wines of Algeria to give them more body and higher alcohol. The result was over a century of undistinguished Languedoc wines that eventually resulted in the region being the single largest contributor to the European "wine lake," a popular euphemism for excess wine that couldn’t be sold. Something had to change.

As the 20th-century was in its last few decades, regions throughout Europe that produced cheap wines for local consumption were suffering. Making higher quality wines suitable for export was the solution and few regions made this fundamental change to quality wines better than Languedoc. One secret to this success was nature. Languedoc AC is located in the Midi region in the south of France that features ample sunshine, cooling winds and sloping hillsides. The hillsides of Languedoc are filled with wild herbs and flowers that also contribute special flavors to the wines.

Indigionous varieties and creative winemakers also played a role in the renaissance of this wine region. Unique and distinctive white varieties like Vermentino, Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier as well as the red varities Grenache, Mourvendre, Carignan and Cinsault became more popular and winemakers also cultivated more recognized French grapes like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Many winemakers adapted the practice of putting the names of the grapes on the label, making things easier for international consumers. All these factors helped make Languedoc wines among the most distinctive, affordable and fun French wines. Recommended producers with wine available in Shanghai include Domaine Ventenac, Aussieres and Toques & Clochers. I’m a big fan of Languedoc still wines but the most compelling wines from this region may well be those featuring bubbles.

The Languedoc sub-appellation of Limoux is located in the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. The region’s climate features a unique combination of sunny Medditeranean and cooler Atlantic influences that lead to slow and long ripening seasons. This helps imbue the wines with abundant fruit, acidity and complexity.

Blanquette de Limoux, Blanquette Methode Ancestrale and Cremant de Limoux are three different styles of traditional-method sparklers. Many people still mistakenly believe this method of second fermentation in the bottle was invented in Champagne. In fact, the monks of Saint Hilaire Abbey in Limoux were making traditional-method sparklers as early as 1531, which is more than a century before Dom Perignon and the monks of Champagne used the same process. Similar to Champagne, the sparkling wines from Limoux come in brut, semi sweet and sweet styles.

Blanquette de Limoux AC dates back to 1938 and is the older, more traditional appellation that mandates wines must be at least 90 percent of the local variety Mauzac. The aromas and flavors of these Mauzac-based sparkling wines are quite distinct, with excellent minerality and abundant apple flavors and distinctive aromas of fresh cut grass.

Crémant de Limoux AC is a newer appellation that was established in 1990 to allow higher contributions of the internationally recognized Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc varieties. Wines from this AC may have up to 90 percent Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, with Mauzac comprising the rest. In some cases, up to 10 percent of Pinot Noir is added to the blend. All three styles of sparkling wines from Limoux are among the best-value, highest-quality sparklers in the world.

My favorite producer is the family-owned winery Antech. I’ve had the privilege to meet members of this august winemaking family, which for six generations has been making delicious and stylish sparklers. The quality of their wines is comparable to the wines of famous Champagne houses but their prices are far more reasonable. The dry and elegant Cuvee Tradition Blanquette de Limoux AC is a 90 percent Mauzac wine, while the refined and complex Cuvee Eugenie Cremant de Limoux AC is a 70 percent Chardonnay wine. The Cuvee Elegance Demi Sec and Doux et Fruite Method Ancestrale are two lovely demi-sweet sparklers. Antech also makes a charming dry rose sparkler. Other notable Limoux sparkling producers are Domaine Delmas, Jean-Louis Denois and J. Laurens.

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