Thanks to the folks at Le Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc, last month I went on a whirlwind wine tasting trip in Languedoc, the Southeastern section of France that hugs the Mediterranean. Before the trip, if I were to have judged from the amount of Languedoc wines I see in the U.S., I would have guessed Languedoc to be, say, around 4 to 5% of the total wine production of France. I would have been wrong. Indeed, coming in at a full 30% of France's production, Languedoc is the most prolific wine-producing region not just in France, but in the entire world. It's just that we don't happen to get much of it here in the States.
There are reasons for this, of course. Before the 1980s, Languedoc wasn't producing anything particularly spectacular. It had a reputation for cheap and plentiful table wine. Only through the concerted effort of scientists, wine makers, and growers did matters improve. Soil surveys were taken. New grape varieties were introduced to best take advantage of the region's climates. New vinifying techniques and controls were put in place. Even so, the region's wines are still only starting to make headway into the U.S. market.
A lot of it has got to do with the relative drinking cultures of the U.S. and France. In France, wine is a way of life, an everyday thing. Just as in the U.S. we have our hopped-up, punch-you-in-the-face slow-sipping beers along with our lighter session beers (and mass-market pilsners), France has its serious, complex wines—the ones that demand your full attention—and its everyday wines meant for casual drinking. These everyday wines may not be earth shattering, but they have you reaching for a refill as soon as you finish a glass.
In general, the wines of Languedoc fall into this latter category. The problem is that historically, Americans drink wine only on special occasions—dinner parties, holidays, and celebrations—and as such, have largely held an interest in more celebratory wines.
But times are a-changing fast, and more and more Americans are discovering that not all red wines have to be "serious", heavy and packed with oak. Just look at what's happened with Pinot Noir in the last decade. While there are still high-alcohol, velvety showstopping examples, lighter, more acid-forward and food-friendly examples are gaining popularity because they're really pleasant to drink.
Enter Languedoc and the casual wine drinker's wine. The vast majority of the wines produced in the region (in places like Minervois, Faugères, Saint-Chinian, and Corbières) are red, typically made from a blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre, carignan, cinsault, and/or petit verdot, though whites and rosés as well as sparkling wines are represented. Indeed, some of the best wines I tasted were rosés, made from the same grapes as the red, fruit-forward, very fresh, and dry as a bone. These are wines made for drinking, not for cellaring, which suits me just fine.
Each separate appellation has several microclimates and soil types, so to try and lump together an appellation by saying "Faugères wines are minerally while Minervois wines are spicier," might be true, but only in the broadest strokes—you'll find a wide range of wines from all regions, though they tend to share the common trait of lightness, freshness, and balanced spice.
Once I got past the crazy amount of sunshine and dry heat, the most striking characteristic of the region was its incredible variety of soils. Orange clay mixed with pudding stone, limestone fragments and shale from ancient oceans, sand and pebbles, all within driving distance of one another. The aroma of the garrigue is everywhere—the mix of savory herbs and plants on the Mediterranean scrublands—earth, barnyard, lavender, and resin all make their way into the air and into the wines.
You'd think that a dry, hot climate, plentiful sunshine, winds coming in off the Mediterranean, and very little rainfall would be trouble for agriculture, but in fact, it's these elements that lead to high quality grapes and a relatively simple form of agriculture. Old vines in arid climates have long, deep root systems designed to bring water up from under the earth instead of relying on rainfall.
Dry winds carry surface moisture away from grapes and leaves, naturally preventing the disease and rot that forces the use of pesticides and fungicides used in other regions—most of Languedoc's grapes are grown sustainably, biodynamically, or organically, not necessarily for any moral or philosophical reasons, but simply because there's no need to grow them any other way.
There's good news in all of this. Because the entire region has great grape growing weather, there's really no such thing as a "bad" Languedoc appellation. There are great wines, good wines, and perfectly drinkable wines produced all over, which makes buying Languedoc wines a pretty safe bet, even if you haven't tasted a particular bottle before. That they're inexpensive to boot doesn't hurt, either.
Looking for wine recommendations? Check out my picks for 17 great value wines from Languedoc over this way.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.