History of wine in Languedoc Roussillon, South France
The history of wine in Languedoc Roussillon, South France, is quite fascinating. As far as can be discovered, the grape vine (vitis vinifera) came to the Mediterranean from Asia Minor via the Greeks and the Romans, who planted it in any land they occupied. The vine almost certainly entered France around the town of Narbonne, the first Roman capital of Gaul.
This early history was followed by a period of non-history: vines were planted, grapes were harvested and an alcoholic beverage was produced in millions of litres to be drunk by ordinary Frenchmen at their déjeuner each day (not to mention the vast quantities consumed from bottles and pichets in the crop fields from dawn to dusk). The major grapes found in Languedoc in these years were Carignan, Cencibel (Tempranillo), Mourvedre, Grenache and Syrah – not surprising when one remembers that until the middle of the 13th century, Languedoc was a part of Aragon and ruled from Barcelona. One single claim to historic fame from these years - it is recorded that 156 years before Dom Perignon claimed to have 'invented' champagne, the wine growers of Limoux, south of Carcassonne, were producing a sparkling white wine (Blanquette de Limoux) by what became known as the Methode Champenoise.
After two millennia the wines and region of Languedoc enjoyed a brief notoriety in the 19th century with the onset of Phylloxera. The tiny bug that eats the roots of native European vines was first found in 1865 in the Bouches-du-Rhone but quickly spread throughout Languedoc and the Midi. Over the next ten years it ravished all of France and virtually every vine in the country had to be uprooted, burnt, and replaced with American rootstock grafted with the original. Much of the frantic study of the phylloxera problem and its eventual cure centred on Montpellier and its excellent science schools. And since the Midi had been the first sufferer the region was the first to import large numbers of American vines as a replacement rootstock. Finally for a few years , whilst Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne were still virtually wiped out, Languedoc made a modest fortune supplying the whole of France.
Nothing more of interest occurred in the Languedoc wine area until 1948 when Fitou, between Narbonne and Perpignan, was awarded the first AOC of the Midi. Other large areas – Corbieres, Minervois, Faugeres, St Chinian – followed but hopes of competing on quality (and getting the higher prices) with Bordeaux and Burgundy were frustrated by the rigid wording of most AOC’s of the region. No single-variety wine was allowed. Only the old Spanish grapes listed above were allowed and then in regulated percentages. A very few Domaines, ageing in oak barrels and handling the production with care, could challenge the great areas.
But then in the early 1980’s far-seeing growers began planting Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignan Blanc. These wines could not legally be labeled “Minervois” etc, so they fell back on the old Vin de Pays (the Englishman’s Chateau Plonk label) and VDQS which really means Vins Délimites de Qualité Superieure but has been ridiculed as Very Dodgy Queer Stuff. Slowly, slowly, these new wines gained recognition until today the very best are challenging the best of the Haut Medoc and the Cotes d’Or. Under the label “Vin de Pays d’Oc” and a few other Vin de Pays names one can now buy Languedoc red wine equal to a Cru Bourgeois of Bordeaux.
As I write, a new Appellation d’Origine Controlée has been mooted: AOC Languedoc. In the coming months I shall be finding and reviewing the best of these Wines of Languedoc – old and new.
- Geoff Taylor
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