I’m just back from a short trip to the Languedoc in south-west France, where I got to taste plenty of wine and explore some of the region’s many appellations. The quality of wine was consistently high throughout, testimony to how the area is well capable of reaching much higher levels than its cheap and cheerful image suggests.

In order to change that image, there have been changes to the organisation of the region over the last few years. The all-encompassing appellation Coteaux du Languedoc is now called Languedoc AOC and there are new appellations, such as Picpoul de Pinet, with more in the pipeline to emphasise the distinctive characteristics of smaller areas. The most significant change, though, was the creation of Languedoc IGP, which allows up to 55 grape varieties, enabling winemakers to experiment while maintaining a guarantee of quality.

lunch at Domaines Paul Mas, the largest winery in Languedoc, producing 16 million bottles a year

lunch at Domaines Paul Mas, the largest winery in Languedoc, producing 16 million bottles a year

In the company of other wine merchants from the UK, I tasted a range of wines from over fifty wineries. With the white wines, winemakers were all determined to move away from the ‘flabby’ wines sometimes associated with the region. From a variety of grapes – Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Picpoul, and Vermentino (also called Rolle here) – I tasted consistently fresh, light wines that still had a spicy depth to them. Characteristic to the region, they also all offered good value.

Red wines generally fell into two categories: those made from old Carignan vines and from Syrah dominated blends. The former were usually made using carbonic maceration to reduce tannins and, although they were all of good quality, after a while they tasted the same: fruity entry-level wines. The quality lay in the Syrah wines, backed up by Grenache and/or Mourvèdre: chocolately and spicy with rich black fruits and, where Mourvèdre was in the blend, an inviting smoky earthiness.

Syrah vines St-Chinian

Syrah vines at Château Prieuré des Morgues in the St-Chinian appellation

The exciting revelation to me on the trip was the quality of the rosés. Surprisingly, Languedoc is the biggest producer of rosé in France and the standard has improved greatly in recent years due to much better temperature control during fermentation. Often made from Cinsault, these were dry, refreshing rosés with real depth and structure.

Unfortunately, not that many of the wines I tasted are available in the UK, though hopefully hangingditch might be able to have some in the New Year. Here are some of my highlights for those of you lucky enough to visit this beautiful and distinct region:

Château Wiala (Fitou) – one of the great pleasures of a trip like this is meeting the winemakers. Wieke Seubert was a lovely, friendly German lady who seemed genuinely astounded that a wine which had been awarded a silver medal by Decanter would be unavailable in the UK, and understandly so: the Sélection, a blend of Syrah, old-vine Carignan, and Grenache, was outstanding: spicy black fruits with an edgy kick to it
Château Viranel (St-Chinian) – the Tradition, a Syrah/Grenache blend, had an enticing floral and aromatic nose with vibrant red fruits and gentle spices on the palate. They also produce a delightfully sweet Vin de Liqueur; like Vins Doux Naturels, a Vin de Liqueur is a fortified sweet wine, but with an extra sweetness to it
Domaine Sainte-Croix (Corbières) – English winemaker Jon Bowen studied at Plumpton College and worked in Australia, before settling in Languedoc. Organic and fermented with wild yeasts, the wines were up-front and expressive, especially the Grenache/Mourvèdre Celèstra – full of smoke, tobacco, earth, and leather, with tannins and acidity backing up the liquorice and black fruits
Domaine Moulinier (St-Chinian) – Les Terrasses grillées was one of the highlights of the trip. 100% Syrah: chocolate, black fruits, and vanilla – almost like ice cream – on the nose, with liquorice, pepper, cloves, and juicy fruits on the palate
Château Grand Moulin (Corbières) – a medium-sized winery producing rich reds; their highlight was the Terres rouges, an ageworthy Syrah/Grenache blend, oaky and spicy with powerful black fruits
Domaine Regazel (Corbières) – a small winery (just 12,000 bottles a year) run by two brothers. The Petites mains was a distinctive rosé made from Syrah and Grenache, refreshing and fruity yet with a lingering, almost austere dryness: a complex, serious, and rewarding rosé

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