NARBONNE, France – Just about everywhere I’ve gone in the last three days here in Languedoc, winemakers lament how this vast region in southern France has suffered for decades from its image as a bastion of quantity over quality wines. They say it parenthetically, however, because there seems to be a great deal of momentum these days for repairing that image – about getting the word out that some first-class wines are being made here. Languedoc is, in fact, the world’s largest wine-producing region, with more than one third of its production shipped abroad. While the U.S. market is growing, it accounts for only five percent of exports, behind China and Canada, both at eight percent. “In the U.S., we have no real image,” said Jérôme Villaret, managing director of the CIVL, the region’s trade organization. Beyond, perhaps, the most broad and basic Languedoc AOC appellation, the wines are largely unrecognizable to most casual American wine drinkers. Ask them about Corbières, Faugéres or Limoux; about Pic Saint-Loup, Picpoul-de-Pinet or Saint-Chinian, and they will draw a blank. As one agent doing business in the region told me, this would be like asking the average Frenchman to understand the difference between Napa and Sonoma.
And yet, as I am finding in my travels here, there are some superb and original wines being made by passionate, smart and creative winemakers producing authentic terroir wines, many of them under $20. One need only pay a visit, for example, to Claude Jourdan’s Domaine Félines Jourdan overlooking the oyster farms on a vast saltwater lake to realize that her fresh, briny and deliciously fruity Picpoul-de-Pinet can (and should) give Muscadet a run for its money for fish and shellfish. Or spend some time with Regis Valentin at Château de Lancyre in Pic-Saint-Loup to see what he does with the white roussanne and marsanne varieties and with a range of reds based on syrah, grenache and other grapes. Or taste and talk with Pierre Bories, right, at Château les Ollieux Romanis in the Boutenac area of Corbières, or Charles-Walter Pacaud at Domaine La Croix Chaptal in the Terraces du Larzac, to see how they are giving new direction and distinction to carignan, a traditional red variety that, in the right hands, produces wines of finesse and elegance.
These are just a few of the winemakers who have impressed me, many of them growing grapes organically in Languedoc, which, with its dry climate, is producing almost a third of its grapes this way and leads in organic production in France. Today, I’m off to Saint-Chinian and Minervois in search of what I hope will be more revelations in this vast and largely undiscovered land.