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Languedoc wine - what makes it so special?

I was recently asked if I thought the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon sit in the shadow of those from the Rhône valley just around the coast. Are the wine makers of Languedoc copying their successful neighbours or do the wines have their own unique personality? Now, although I love the wines from the Rhône and admire how that region maintains its excellent level of quality and produces wines of great character and reliability, I do not think producers of both regions have the same aim. So what Languedoc wine and Rhône wines so different? Surely the climate is similar and the grape varieties are too? Yes those things are true but what makes Languedoc-Roussillon wine stand out from the crowd is something called Vin du Pays. This category of wine was introduced in to France in the 1980’s and is made all over the country to a lesser or greater degree.

Back in the days when the New World started marketing their wines in Europe the main selling point was not the place where the wine came from but which grape variety had been used to make it. Before then, most people drank European wines that were named after the place where they came from and the grape variety was rarely mentioned with the exception of the Alsace. New World producers have always had the freedom to choose the grape and initially many of them chose from the 7 International grape varieties, making them household names. How many of us have never heard of Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon for instance? But in the pre-1980’s when AOC wines were the only option in France wine makers were unable to use the International varieties unless they were part of the tradition for their region. So Chardonnay stayed the choice of Burgundy and Champagne and Cabernet Sauvignon was reserved for Bordeaux and parts of the Loire Valley. Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Riesling were all reserved for wines from their traditional homes. However New World wine consumers became familiar with these grape varieties and found this a much easier way to buy wine.

‘Vin du Pays’ and the rise of Languedoc wines

France was losing market share but was reluctant to alter the AOC to allow the grape variety to take centre stage and so was born a new category of wine called Vin du pays which allowed the grape to become the star of the show. With the emergence of Vin du pays most wine makers in France now have over 30 grape varieties they can choose from depending on their location which must also be part of the label. They can experiment with varieties and blends or make single varietal wines if they choose, so these days it’s only appellation wines that are restricted to the traditional varieties growing in their location.

Well known wine regions such as the Rhône Valley, Bordeaux and Burgundy were not so attracted to the Vin du pays category because their wines were selling successfully without the grape variety being stamped on the label. People were familiar with these names and they were and are a trusted brand whereas Languedoc was not. In fact many people had never heard of Languedoc wine and if they had they associated that name with bad wine..!

Vin du Pays D’Oc has been the saviour of Languedoc-Roussillon wines for many reasons. It was at the forefront of the movement to create better quality wine to replace the industrially-produced bulk wines that this region had been famously making in the early 1900’s after Phylloxera devastated the vineyards. The first step to improve the wines was the implementation of the AOC during the 1940’s and 50’s. This lowered yields and introduced measures that helped increase quality but still the Languedoc region struggled to be seen as a quality wine producer. Then with the emergence of New

The wines of Languedoc are now some of the world’s most innovative

World wines whose main selling point was grape variety, Languedoc seized the chance to create wines in a similar vein by embracing the Vin du Pays designation. Soon international varieties of wine were being planted all over the region and Languedoc was dubbed the ‘New World’ of France. As time went by, lured by the warm climate and low land prices, Languedoc attracted many good wine makers who wanted to make their mark producing interesting and sometimes unusual wines, many of which break the rules of appellation in some way. Thankfully, under the Vin du pays rules these wine makers have flourished, bringing us Languedoc wines that could not have been made under the traditional label of AOC. Wines such a 100% Carignan, the grape that took much of the blame for the bad wines of the region, which has now proved its worth in the right hands.

These days a Languedoc Vin du Pays D’Oc can be anything from cheap and cheerful international varietal wine to one of the finest bottles you will find in France. It is a designation that allows wine makers a great deal of liberty to choose the style of wine they wish to produce. Some are made using Mediterranean varieties such Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre and others by outsiders using international varieties such as Merlot and Chardonnay. Vin du Pays D’Oc has allowed innovation and creativity to seep into the Languedoc wine region and invigorate the style, quality and reputation of the wines produced here - providing a platform from which Languedoc wines can stand out from the crowd.





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