The History of wine in the Languedoc
It all began 2600 years ago with the Greeks followed by the Romans. Julius Caesar conquered Gaul in 51 BC and Christianity spread under his reign which meant more wine was needed for both religious purposes and for consumption.
400 years after the fall of the Roman Empire in AD 800 Charlemagne, King of the Franks was crowned Holy Roman Emperor and under his rule Christianity flourished. Abbeys sprang up in Languedoc each with viticulture at the heart of them. In fact the monastic influence on wine making can be seen all over France. It was the monks that first recorded the notion of terroir and its effect on wine and matched the terroirs to grape variety and organised vineyards into parcels.
During this time the southern part of France was called Occitania and was a feudal society with its many counts and lords holding allegiances in various directions. It was also full of Cathars who flourished in a society where law and order was hard to come by. The Cathar Crusade began in 1208 and raged for 20 years and was closely followed by the Hundred Years war which began in 1337. These and other religious struggles slowed economic expansion in the South whilst it flourished in the North.
In 1241 an agreement had been drawn up between the kings of France and England that accorded special privileges to Bordeaux wines. The agreement ensured that all wine shipped from the port of Bordeaux would be made in that region. Wines from other areas could not be shipped until the Bordeaux supply was exhausted. The major markets were in the north of France and onwards to the lucrative British, Dutch and German markets but Languedoc could not take advantage of this as the wine could not get out of the region.
The Canal du Midi opened in 1681 which linked the Mediterranean and the Atlantic via the ports of Sète and Bordeaux. This would have enabled Languedoc wine to make its way into the market place but the Bordeaux Privilege was not repealed until 1776. However there was a market for cheap brandy and the French government needed taxes. So in 1709 the peasants of the Languedoc were encouraged to plant vines on the poor and rocky soils leaving the fertile soils for other crops. Mainly white grape varieties were planted and the wine was distilled into brandy which could make its way along the Canal du Midi and was allowed to leave the port of Bordeaux.
The railway connections to the south were established in 1855 and Paris and the north became easily accessible. More and more vineyards were planted and as Languedoc- Roussillon reached the later part of the 18th century it saw a boom in wine and brandy production. Most of it was sent north to satiate the thirst of Napoleons troops and the thirst of the workers as the industrial revolution got underway. The landscape changed quite dramatically as vines replaced the cereals and between 1850 and 1870 plantings doubled in the Hérault Department. Overall in that period Languedoc had almost 300,000 hectares planted to vines. The peasant farmers were selling their sheep and replaced their crops with vines and large vineyard estates were expanding and taking on more workers to produce wine. Increasingly Languedoc was heading for a monoculture leaving it wide open to any fluctuations in the market or a devastating pest should it come – and it did.
Phylloxera entered France in the 1870’s when someone planted an American vine in Provence and unwittingly set the louse loose. Phylloxera had been present in North America without anyone’s knowledge. It had not caused a problem to the native American vines which are a different species to their European cousin. It lives on the root systems of the vines where it sucks the sap and eventually the European vine dies but the American vine has immunity. Once set free in Europe it headed west and came to Languedoc-Roussillon where it devastated the vineyards and then continued across France wiping out the vines wherever it went. No cure could be found. It was only clever thinking that got round the problem. Knowing that the American vine is immune and that only the roots are affected, eventually after much debate it was agreed that the European vine could be grafted onto American root stocks. However many of the poor peasant farmers of Languedoc could not afford to replant and only the large estates had the wherewithal to do so.
Throughout this time the demand for wine and brandy was increasing, especially in the working classes. But wine was in very short supply as the Languedoc-Roussillon struggled to replant and get production going again. All over France fraud became rife.
The Languedoc vineyards were the first to be replanted after Phylloxera hit France. The government needed wine to quench the thirst of the nation and to get the economy on its feet again. Ignoring the concern of those who warned against quantity over quality, the decision was taken to replant with high yielding grape varieties and production soared. Languedoc was now producing industrial wine. Yields were so high that the grapes could not ripen and the resulting wine was feeble, acidic and pale and was blended with the Algerian imported wines to make it palatable.
Although demand for wine was high the market was now flooded and by 1901 the price of wine plummeted by three quarters and collapsed again in 1904. Radicals were pressing for protection and wine laws and many workers went on strike. Farmers were getting less for their wine than it took to produce and there was great social unrest which led to demonstrations in 1907. Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of the day was a hardliner and troops were called in to keep order when 600,000 people marched on Montpellier. Shots were fired and people died but many of the soldiers mutinied and joined the protesters in their quest to be heard.
A solution to the widespread fraud had to be found and it came with the creation of the AOC which guaranteed the authenticity of the wine. The first AOC’s in Languedoc were awarded to many of the Vins Doux Naturel in 1936 and coincided with the formation of the co-operative wineries. Up until then wine sales were in the hands of négociants. These merchants would buy the wine from the small producers to blend and sell as their own. Many people blamed the négociants for the fall in the price and accused them of dirty dealing. The co-operative wineries removed the need for the négociants by employing a wine maker and more importantly a salesman. The farmers could stop making wine altogether and take their grapes to the village co-operative. The wine would be made and sold and any profits could be shared amongst the co-operative members.
The co-operatives did not improve the quality of the wine and neither did the high demand for quantity which was still rising. By 1926 the annual French wine consumption had reached 136 litres per person and those figures include men, woman and children. There was no encouragement for growers and producers to reduce the quantity so the yields remained high. The wines continued to be doctored with richer wine from Algeria until its independence in the 1960’s when wine exports ceased.
During the 1980’s the New World began to produce wine and adopted a very different approach to France. Their approach was to make a fruit led wine that was named after the grape and not the place it came from. It was a great success and more and more people began to drink wine in countries where wine drinking had not previously been the norm. Many people had found French wine labels hard to understand and French wine very dry and lacking fruit. Whereas the wines of California and Australia were fruity and easy to drink and also easy to buy. If you’d had a chardonnay and enjoyed it then let’s have another. The grape variety became the only thing you needed to think about, its provenance was often a secondary concern for many people.
France was losing market share. It needed to do something but not at the expense of its AOC which had been formed to guarantee origin and to protect the ancient wines of France. France introduced the Vins de Pays category in 1983 and Languedoc-Roussillon starting producing Vins du Pays d’Oc in 1987. This category allowed producers much more freedom to choose the grape varietal and where to plant it. The New World had innovation and creativity and now so did Languedoc-Roussillon.
The wine production in Languedoc-Roussillon today is a very different picture. There are over 3700 wine makers in Languedoc-Roussillon, many of them are independent producers, farming small scale of between 6 and 15 hectares. The Vin du Pays label has been the saviour for this region, allowing innovation to invigorate the market and the Appellation wines are now more defined and quality has never been higher.