© Copyright 1999 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.
Languedoc is one of the largest wine regions in France in terms of acreage, production and the relative importance of wine producing to the local economy. Until quite recently, though, size didn't equate to respect, and the wines of this region were lightly regarded at best. Languedoc made a lot of wine, but it was almost invariably simple table wine: Maybe one step up from the raw stuff that came from Algeria ... but not a giant step.
As recently as 1981 -- when I was The Louisville Times' City Hall reporter and followed the late and then-controversial Louisville Mayor Bill Stansbury and his cronies on what they called a "trade mission" to Montpellier -- they looked closely at the region's wine as a potential export.
In fact, it took this idea another 15 years or so to come to pass. It's only in very recent times, with a boom in high-end, quality wine around the world, that some of Languedoc's top producers are starting to produce and export fine, dry table wines competitive in a world market -- wines like the four we're tasting tonight.
But while Languedoc's wines may not have always been good, its wine industry has certainly been big. With three-quarters of a million acres of land in vineyards, Languedoc alone has more vineyard acreage than all of the United States, and one-third of all the vineyards in France. A great deal of that is still simple jug and tank wines, however; with one-third of the vines, Languedoc produces only 10 percent of the nation's AOC wines, the top-end products with controlled-appellation status. Again, the wines we're sampling this evening reflect that tip-of-the-iceberg group.
These wines also boast roots very deep in history. The vineyards that thrive on the hilly slopes along a Mediterranean coastal arc from Narbonne east to Montpellier, the wine regions we now know as Corbieres, Minervois and Coteaux du Languedoc claim a continuous history of more than 2,000 years, dating back to early Roman settlements along the coast.
I've always found Languedoc's red wines more interesting than their whites, although the Picpoul de Pinet we tasted this evening shows enough character to earn a place as a highly respectable white.
The reds tend to be dry, hearty and robust, with fragrant peppery aromas and flavors and often a strong herbal quality of lavendar and thyme that supposedly evokes the garrigues, the lovely natural herbal scent that many of you will remember smelling as you hike the countryside around Montpellier.
All of tonight's reds come from the hillsides of the Coteaux du Languedoc, a sort of hilly amphitheater that faces southward in a broad ring that encompasses Montpellier and the seacoast. If you'll visualize the palm of your right hand as a map of the region, with the city of Montpellier and the seacoast as the base of your palm, then you'll find the way to Saint-Chinian at the tip of your little finger, Faugères on your ring finger, Montpeyroux on your first finger and Pic Saint Loup on your thumb.
The Carignan grape is probably most commonplace in the region and is a player in just about all its red wines, but the top labels, including most of today's selections, add -- and are improved by -- doses of Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault and Mourvèdre.
The white wine came from Picpoul de Pinet, which is close to the seacoast just west of Montpellier, not far from the seaport town of Sête.
Hugues Beaulieu 1996 Picpoul de Pinet Coteaux du Languedoc ($6.99)
Pic-Saint-Loup -- named after a scenic mountain peak -- is the easternmost of the top Languedoc regions, and its Syrah-based wines like this one remind a lot of people of the highly regarded reds of the neighboring Rhone.
Chateau La Roque 1995 Cupa Numismae Pic Saint Loup Coteaux du Languedoc ($12.99)
Languedoc's hills start turning into mountains in Montpeyroux, where the region rises up toward France's Massif Central. It's a wild, scenic place, and its dry hillsides have the ability, in good hands, to produce powerful wines of great concentration.
Domaine d'Aupilhac 1995 Coteaux du Languedoc Montpeyroux ($12.99)
Domaine Peyre Rose 1992 Clos Syrah Léone Coteaux du Languedoc ($14.99)
"Rustic" is a word that's used, not always as a compliment, to describe the full-bodied reds of Faugères, but Alquier's wines rise above this regional reputation to make refined and complex wines that are giving wine lovers around the world a new opinion of Languedoc.
J.M. Alquier 1996 Réserve les Bastides d'Alquier Faugères ($15.99)
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