Languedoc Wine Guide: One of the Largest Wine Producing Regions in the World

Languedoc Wine Region

Languedoc wine was first harvested by the Phoenicians in the 6th century BC and, along with Provence, are some of the oldest vineyards in France. From the 4th to the early 19th centuries, the Languedoc wine region had a reputation for producing high quality wine. In Paris during the 14th century, wines from the St. Chinian area were prescribed in hospitals for their “healing powers”. During the advent of the Industrial Age in the late 19th century, however, production shifted towards the mass-produced le gros rouge—cheap red wine that could satisfy the growing work force. The use of highly prolific grape varieties produced high yields and thin wines, which were normally blended with red wine from Algeria to give them more body.

During both World Wars, wine from the Languedoc was standard issue for the French army, and as more wine was exported and sold to restaurants and bars throughout Europe as generic “vin de table”, its reputation continued to fall. It was known primarily as basic, thin and cheap wine. In fact, in some villages, it is still possible to bring your own barrel or jerry-can and fill up several litres of wine at the local cooperative for only a few Euros!

South of France Wine Map

Today, however, the Languedoc wine region is considered by many connoisseurs as France’s “New World” and is a wine region on the up. With vineyards covering more than 740,000 acres (three times as much as Bordeaux), the Languedoc wine region is the source of one in 10 bottles of the world’s wine and one in three bottles of French wine. Until recently, very little Languedoc wine was AOC; Vin de Pays d’OC was the region’s most important product. Today there are as many as 12 AOCs, with the most famous being Corbières, Faugères, Minervois, and Saint-Chinian. This is prime red wine country, with some rosés and whites thrown in for good measure.

The vast majority of Languedoc wine, however, is produced by more than 500 cooperatives in the region. First introduced in 1925, after the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out most vineyards in the late 19th century, cooperatives allowed winemakers to share the profits and costs of the year’s product. The oldest such co-op is found in the town of Homps, which made its name in the 18th century as the centre of the cooperage industry on the Canal du Midi.

While most of the region is firmly Mediterranean, its far west is influenced more so by the Atlantic. The character of its Languedoc wines ranges from a Bordelais style to the west, to Rhône-like in the east. Of the two most important appellations of the western Languedoc, Minervois is more polished. The terrain is not quite so rugged as that of the Corbières, although at its northernmost limit, its vines push up into the foothills of the Black Mountain and the southernmost tip of the Massif Central. Here its vineyards are every bit as gnarled and precarious as those of its neighbours, which grow in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Grapes Languedoc Wine

Approximately 85% of all Minervois wines are red, with roughly 12% rosé. They are typically based on various combinations of the Rhône blend – Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre – and must contain no more than 40% Carignan. Carignan which in the 19th and 20th centuries was the workhorse of the south, is now a dying variety. Known primarily for giving quantity over quality, it once produced thin Languedoc wines in enormous quantities.

Despite its reputation for producing less-popular Langeudoc wine, there are some wine makers who are striving to keep Carignan as part of their production, not only for tradition’s sake but also due to the character the grape can give to a vintage. Adding just a small amount of Carignan to the blend can balance the wine and give it a touch of structure and body.

If the Minervois is calm and undulating, the Corbières’ landscape is dramatic. A geological chaos of mountain and valley reaching from the sea 40 miles back into the Aude department, limestone alternates with schist, clays, marls and sandstone. The influence of the Mediterranean is intermittent with that of the Atlantic blowing down the Aude Valley and over its western hills, scattered with garrigue and vast plains of barren wilderness. Made from the same southern cocktail of grapes, red Corbières tastes less refined and more concentrated, often tougher, than Minervois wines whose vineyards enjoy fewer extreme summers – drought and summer fires are a constant threat in many parts of this varied appellation. Corbières is a huge and varied wine region, making it difficult to generalise about the wines. Over 90% of production is reds made from Syrah and Carignan grapes. Good Corbières are spicy, full-bodied, rich, ripe, fruity and dry.

Languedoc Wine Barrels

One of the most interesting wineries of the Minervois is the Château St Jacques d’Albas. Surrounded by 60 acres (26ha) of vineyards and featuring the remains of a Visigoth village and church, the Domaine was founded in 2001 by an eccentric Englishman called Graham Nutter. Eager to experiment with blends, his wines today are a perfect example of new ideas coming to the Languedoc.

The Domaine de Homs, a small production of only 30 acres (12ha) is located at the foot of the Black Mountain and is famous for its delicate rosés, fine whites and full-bodied reds using blends of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Viognier.

The extent of the cooling Atlantic influence is more evident in the western hills south of Carcassonne, where Limoux long ago established a national reputation for its fine, traditional-method, sparkling wine, whether it be a Blanquette, based on the Mauzac grape, or the more delicate Crémant de Limoux made from Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir. Legend has it that the Crémant de Limoux, also known by its trademark ‘Premiere Bulles’ (Best Bubbles), was first developed by monks residing at the Abbey of St Hilaire. A young monk studying theology at the Abbey became interested in the vinification of the wine and decided to take the recipe back to his homeland of Champagne.

Although the sweep of vines continues around France’s central Mediterranean coastline, it has shrunk considerably in recent years, as the Languedoc has been the single most responsive region to EU inducements to pull out vines in less than suitable terrains. The total vineyard area in the Languedoc fell from 721,500 acres in 2005 to 584,400 acres just four years later.

Château Pech-Céleyran
Guests on a cruise aboard 8-pasenger hotel barge, Anjodi, will have the opportunity to enjoy a wine tasting and tour of Château Pech-Céleyran

La Clape is a sub-appellation covering red and white wines on the eastern fringes of Narbonne, and the official area encompasses the villages of Armissan, Fleury-d’Aude, Vinassan and Salles d’Aude. Located less than 4 miles (10km) from the coast, La Clape has a climate that is definitively Mediterranean and a clear marine influence due also to its proximity to the various local étangs (lagoons). Its much-respected red Languedoc wines are produced from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, whilst Carignan and Cinsault are gradually being phased out from local vineyards.

The lesser-known white La Clape Languedoc wines are made from the classic Languedoc white blend, which includes Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc, with smaller amounts of the Rhône varieties Marsanne and Rousanne. The appellation even permits the use of Piquepoul, the speciality grape of Pinet.

St-Chinian has one of the most distinctive reputations for Languedoc wines in all three colours, perhaps most characterfully from the rugged schists of the north and west of its region at altitudes often above 1,900ft (600m) in spectacular mountainous country. The appellation is known for its fine whites and Carignan-marked reds which are heavily influenced by Rhône varieties, particularly Syrah grown on schist, as well as the predominant Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Lledoner Pelut and Mourvèdre. Vines grown at lower altitudes in the unusual purple-clay and limestone soils around the village of St Chinian tend to yield softer and more supple wines.

Faugères AOC is made up of almost entirely rocky schist and demands hard work on the meagre soil where vineyards of red, white and rosé are planted at up to 2,300ft, overlooking Béziers and the vast plain, no longer a sea of vines, that stretches towards the coast. The main grape varieties are Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsault. Its Languedoc wines are rounded with mature fruits and soft tannins.

Clairette du Languedoc and Picpoul de Pinet are white Languedoc wines specifically embraced by the AOC system. The first is made to a limited extent, just north of Pézenas, in a modern and fresh style that can also be late-harvested and sweet. The latter, unusually for France, is a varietal appellation, in this case dependant on the quirky, lemon scented Picpoul grape grown between Pézenas and the Étang de Thau.

Noilley Prat Distillery
Noilly Prat Distillery is nestled in the enchanting port of Marseillan

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…

Our cruises aboard hotel barges Anjodi, Enchante and Athos takes us through the vineyards of the Languedoc wine region. For more information on our Canal du Midi cruises and the rest of our collection of luxury hotel barge cruises, why not order a free copy of our brochure today or speak to a member of our team directly using our handy Contact Form

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