What's the most exciting and dynamic wine region of France? Reaching a consensus might be difficult, but an excellent case could be made for the Languedoc AOC in the south of the country.
Formerly known for volume production of mostly undistinguished wines, this large region is now arguably the most progressive wine region in France. The wines of Languedoc are also some of the most affordable French wines, with many delicious wines available here in Shanghai in the 100 yuan (US$15.6) to 300 yuan price range as well as super-premium wines costing from 800 to 2,000 yuan. Wine lovers are increasingly discovering that wines from Languedoc routinely outperform similarly-priced wines from the more famous regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux.
The ability of Bordeaux and Burgundy to make many of the world's greatest wines is undisputed, but their northern climates make the production of inexpensive wines more difficult. In many years it is difficult to achieve adequate grape ripeness without a lot of selectivity.
Simply put, this means it's more difficult for these northern regions to make good inexpensive wines.
I often warn friends to beware of the numerous Bordeaux wines available in the local market with alcohol content under 12 percent. As the palates of local consumers mature, these insipid and diluted wines are becoming a harder sell, especially when there are good value French wines from regions like Languedoc on the market.
Languedoc has always had the weather and land to make excellent wines. The abundant sunshine and selected higher altitude vineyards that benefit from a combination of sea breezes and cooler evening temperatures only needed new investment along with dedicated and passionate winemakers to reach their potential.
The soils vary from chalk, limestone and gravel in inland areas to more alluvial soils near the coast. The dry climate during the growing season also cooperates in the quest to make ever higher-quality wines.
Today, the region sports the widest variety of grapes in France, ranging from classic Mediterranean red varietals like Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvedre to what are now referred to as international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Popular white varietals are Chardonnay, Viognier, Grenache Blanc and a wide range of others.
In the fifth century BC, long before the more famous wines regions of Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux cultivated wines, Languedoc and Provence had thriving wine industries. The first to bring wines were Greek traders who discovered the region's natural affinity for winemaking. For most of its history wines from the Languedoc region enjoyed a good reputation, however with the development of the industrial age in the late 19th century and demand for the mass production of wines had a decidedly negative impact on quality.
These factory wines for the masses were often blended with the heavy red wines of Algeria to give them more body. The result was over a century of very cheap, undistinguished wines that led to Languedoc being the single largest contributor to the European wine lake - excess wine that couldn't be sold. Languedoc wines became associated with low-quality wines for domestic consumption, but thankfully this reputation was about to change.
The unique and favorable climate of Languedoc, along with investment in more advanced winemaking and logistical equipment now enables producers in Languedoc to make some of France's most affordable good wines. Unlike similarly-priced French wines of the north, these white and red wines offer good ripeness and concentration along with desirable freshness. Whether you're looking for reasonably priced white or red wines, or sweet and sparkling wines, quality producers like Skalli, Solensea, Sieur d'Arques and BP Rothschild can be found in Shanghai.
Good value doesn't always mean inexpensive. Some of the best value, high-quality wines are made in Languedoc. While by no means cheap, at similar or lower price points they routinely outperform well-known Burgundy and Bordeaux wines. A pioneer in the super-premium wine movement in the south of France has been Gerard Bertrand. A former top level rugby player, he owns seven estates in Languedoc.
At a recent lunch with Gerard in Shanghai, we tasted some of his wines. The 2010 Reserve Speciale Viognier IGP Pays d'Oc was a lovely expression of the Viognier varietal with abundant fruit and floral aromas with good freshness, while his biodynamic wine the 2010 Domaine de Cigalus Blanc IGP Pays d'Oc was even richer on the palate.
Gerard's reds were similarly delectable, with the 2009 Reserve Speciale Cabernet Sauvignon IGP Pays d'Oc exhibiting abundant elegant fruit flavors balanced by smooth palate-coating tannins.
Other premium producers from Languedoc with wines available in China are Mas de Daumas Gassac, making elegant and age-worthy white and red wines, and Alain Chabanon, producing rich concentrated wines.