In the pretty fishing-village of Marseillan Noilly Prat, a dry vermouth (fortified wine), is distilled using a process virtually unchanged since the 1850s. It is made exclusively from the white grapes Picpoul de Pinet and Clairette. These produce light, fruity wine which is matured in enormous Canadian oak casks inside the original storerooms, where it remains for eight months, maturing and absorbing the flavour of the wood.
The wine is then transferred into smaller oak barrels which are taken outside and left to sit for a year. Here they are exposed to the sun, wind and low winter temperatures, as the wine slowly changes. The result is an amber coloured, dry, full-bodied wine like Madeira or Sherry. The Languedoc wine is then brought back inside and left to rest for a few months, before being blended in oak casks. A small quantity of Mistelle (grape juice and alcohol) is added to the wines to soften them along with a dash of fruit essence to accentuate their flavour.
In the oak casks, a process of maceration, supposedly unique to Noilly Prat, takes place over a period of three weeks. A blend of some 20 herbs and spices, the exact mix a closely guarded secret, is added by hand every day. After a further six weeks, the finished product is ready for bottling.
Stretching towards Languedoc’s biggest city, Montpellier, the sub-regions Grés de Montpellier and St-Georges-d’Orques, are principal appellations in the eastern Languedoc, and many Languedoc wine producers, whether in an AOC zone or otherwise, make a range of IGP wines. Some producers, but not exclusively those outside the official appellation zones, make nothing but these local “country wines”. The reliably hot summers can often ripen a useful number of grape varieties, and here at least French prejudice against the “vin de cépage” (what we might call varietal wines) is much less marked.
More and more, the wine here is sold simply as Vin de France, the flexible category available for those who wish to stray away from the confines of AOC and IGP regulations and/or are unwilling to deal with the paperwork involved!
The Languedoc wine region has proved that it can be a fine source of serious, terroir-driven, often hand-crafted tastes of southern France, but an area as extensive and varied as this can be as difficult to understand as it is to sell, meaning for the moment it is still relatively unknown…