This vast area of vines spreads from the east in the Costieres de Nimes across west to past Carcassonne to the Limoux region and south to the Spanish border at Banyuls.
The region is France’s oldest wine growing area. Twenty to thirty years ago, this area represented itself as part of the ‘wine lake’ and of dubious quality, since that time there has undergone a transformation that bought in buyers from all over the world looking for the bargains that undoubtedly existed and with the cru classes everywhere else reaching unheard of prices it still remains a hunting ground for bargains in quality.
The scale and diversity of the place does not make that easy – the area produces on its own more wine than Australia – and makes 25% of all French wine, the amount of wine produced creates its own economic problem prices – forced down and yields up to fill the cash gap created by the former, this area was the main supplier to the French need for cheap reds and did so for centuries. But the French are no longer drinking the quantities of old and the only way to survive is reduction in vines and better quality.
Nonetheless, the sheer scale of the place over 800,000 acres under vines and the biggest single vineyard area in the world makes it difficult to tie down in terms of what is produced, and where it encompasses almost the full gamut of wine growing conditions except the cool climate so enjoyed away from the Midi.
It is in fact the temperature that can reach dizzying heights that is often the real problem here. In 2003 when a lot of people died in the French heatwave of that year, the stress on vines meant reduced yields and problems resulting from lack of water and in this respect the French have only recently allowed irrigation, albeit of the wasteful overhead spraying or flooding, not the drip line technique used in, say, Australia.
So many vineyards are located where water is to be found as in fissures and many vineyards in an attempt to ameliorate the weather are planted on north facing slopes.
The three grape varieties as in the southern Rhone dominate here Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre with other varieties used in blending such as Carignan and Cinsault the whites are dominated by Clairette, Rousanne, Marsanne, Viognier Grenache Blanc and Muscat with two others now appearing much more on the international stage Rolle (aka Vermentino) and Picpoul.
This latter is increasingly being seen on supermarket shelves as Picpoul de Pinet. This should be tried, as many of the co-ops and small producers turn out a very good substitute for the likes of Muscadet.
Somewhere in this vast region, almost every other major and minor player in the grape inventory can be found in the eastern Costieres de Nimes. Red Carignan wines are the staple, imitating to a degree Chateauneuf de Pape. The style varies according to the blend, so only trying can determine personal taste.
The Coteaux du Languedoc of mainly two sections Montpelier and Beziers is vast, covering three French departments and a huge diversity of soils and climates from coastal to mountainous sites.
Montpelier is famous for its sweet wines from Muscat at the forefront being those from Frontignan and inland from here is Picpoul de Pinet and north again towards the Cevennes a scattering of red wineries. Some of importance as Mas Duamas Gassac make a mark in a difficult environment.
In the Beziers section, La Clape is an appelation of note and is seen as an area that is turning out some good to excellent wines of the red type also being seen here. The white Clairette that is grown in quantity here is seldom seen outside France.
Going west to Pezenas, Faugeres is mainly for white but it is St Chinian and reds that are the stars of the region. There are some wines coming out of here from both co-ops and some very good individual growers such as Gilbert Alquier, Frederick Albaret and others are worthy of a little effort to find.
Minervois is the last part of the Coteaux du Languedoc. There is a lot of generic Minervois coming from here with a variety of red grape varieties being tried. Some are good but it’s for me another suck it and see appelation.
Further along the Aude river that dominates this stretch is the appelation of Limoux, famous in part for its sparkling wines but whites in a relatively cooler Pyrenees facing growing region have produced some lighter Chardonnays that are worth trying. La Jamelle is a brand seen in England but better is around.
Corbieres and Fitou is the finish of the Languedoc region. Both are in hilly to mountainous terrain. This is beautiful countryside and the vineyards contain a lot of old vines of Grenache and Carignan and despite a lot of new growers getting their hands on these old vines, I can’t honestly say I have ever been blown away by any but the material is there and the expertise. The smaller white wine production is in a similiar state with again some luminaries trying to make a difference.
Both of these regions have the terrain old vines and expertise. Only time will tell if the effort is worthwhile.
Roussilion is interesting. In its recent gold rush to buy vineyards that have all those properties wanted for making good wine but had been neglected for years it is certainly producing some very good wines at all levels of price. The dearer ones are already fetching prices that could only be dreamed of a few decades ago. If buying Cotes de Roussilion, look for Village. This is a step up from the plain Cotes.
Carignan is the major influence here in the reds with blending with Grenache the most common result. Other red grapes are still in the early stages of development.
For whites, Grenache Gris makes some great whites and is a specialty of the region and further south towards the border with Spain is home to ‘vins doux naturels’ – fortified sweet wines that include Muscat but in Banyuls and Maury, the two famous centres for these wines, they are Grenache based.
This border region is again somewhere to visit with Coullioure worth visiting just for the anchovie factory, shops and the endless permutations of the same on offer and south again to Port Vendre – a real fishing port with a host of good dockside eateries specializing in fish, with the Pyrenees the Med and other natural and man made sights as well as the wines and food.
This is a glorious part of the world.