LANGUEDOC'S GREAT LEAP FORWARD

Quality—not quantity—is the new message from France's Languedoc.


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Quality—not quantity—is the new message from France's Languedoc.

Three years ago, the Languedoc, historically known as a vast producer of rough vins de table rouge, was on a high. Sales of Vins de Pays d'Oc varietally labeled wines were booming. California producers were piling in, buying grapes and wine. The Mondavis, not content with buying grapes for their Vichon brand, were looking to invest in a premium vineyard. Encouraged by their new-found wealth, growers were investing in new equipment, new buildings and new cars.

Today, it's all very different in this Mediterranean region. The collapse of the local wine market has been as dramatic as the fall in the Nasdaq. Californians have plenty of their own wine and are almost nowhere to be seen. The Mondavis, still buying for Vichon, have announced they have abandoned, for the time being, their plans for making a premium wine from their own land. Wineries in Spain and Italy are selling cheap wine at one or two francs per liter to French wine merchants. The growers, still paying off their new investments, are getting desperate.

Upheaval in the Languedoc
Last March, tempers flared. Languedoc farmers and wine producers took to the streets and the autoroutes, where they burned toll booths and inflicted damage estimated at $1.7 million. The anger, directed at wine buyers bringing in tanker trucks full of cheap wine from Italy and Spain, was vented on the autoroute company, since there were no tankers to be seen.

The protests achieved something. The French government, always scared of revolting peasants, agreed to buy and distill 66 million gallons of unwanted and undrinkable wine. But the government demanded something in return: a reduction in vineyard yields and a decrease in the amount of land under vines. They were telling the farmers, in effect, "make wine worth drinking."

What went wrong? Two things, according to Marc Baudoin, managing director of Les Vins Skalli, one of the big producers of Vins de Pays d'Oc. "First of all, consumption in the French market decreased, and continues to decrease, especially at the lower level of wine. Secondly, Bordeaux has increased its sales in France, by dumping wine at cheap prices on supermarket shelves at the expense of Languedoc. If a French consumer is faced with a choice between Bordeaux and Languedoc, he's automatically going to buy Bordeaux."
 
The town of Beziers, one of Languedoc's commercial centers.

The Bright Side: Increased Quality
Yet in these dark times, there is a silver lining. Irène Tolleret, marketing director of Val d'Orbieu, the largest producer in the region, says that there is now "the strange situation of vineyard prices going up at the same time that grape prices are coming down." That's because big French producers—many from Bordeaux or Burgundy—can see the potential of Languedoc.

Famous names, such as Domaines Barons de Rothschild from Bordeaux and Antonin Rodet from Burgundy are moving in and buying up land. Four or five years down the road, they want to be able to sell their branded Vins de Pays d'Oc from fruit grown on their own properties. They don't want to have to worry about grape price variations. They want continuity and reliability of supply, and are prepared to pay for it. And what they are going to produce from their newly acquired lands are going to be quite different from the traditional offerings from the region.

It can be described in one word: quality. While so much of the wine that was the cause of the protests is of a low standard, there are many indications that the region is finally becoming aware that its future potential lies just as much in producing quality wines as in filling plastic jugs, tankers and wine casks.

That potential was noticed some years ago by that New World wine giant, Australia. Both BRL Hardy and Southcorp are important players in the region, not just as grape purchasers, but as vineyard owners as well. Southcorp, after a couple of false starts, has purchased the largest acreage of Chardonnay in France from Englishman James Herrick. Hardy's, meanwhile, has been around for more than ten years as owners of Domaine de la Baume, just outside the city of Béziers. What started almost as a folly by the Hardy family, has now become big business: they're selling large quantities of wine to the U.K. market, and are just now starting to sell in the U.S.

For Ashley Huntington, the Australian director and winemaker at the domaine, "the Languedoc certainly has the potential to produce better wine at a better price than Australia." The latest step in that direction is the first release of wines from the Domaine de la Baume itself: an elegant, spicy Merlot/ Cabernet blend and beautifully aromatic Viognier/Chardonnay blend. Neither wine is available yet in the U.S.

Better Than Bread and Butter
Seeing what lay inside the 19th-century barns that house the Domaine de la Baume winery was once a complete shock to the locals of the Languedoc. The high-tech, spotlessly clean wine factory was a first for the region when it was built. But what was revolutionary when Hardy's started out is now commonplace in the Languedoc. The most recent change is the appearance of rows of barrels to age the top cuvées that producers like Domaine de la Baume are now adding to their bread-and-butter volume lines.

These top wines are as much about marketing as about wine. Companies talk about repositioning themselves, about brand awareness, about marketing investment. Yet while the talk is filled with jargon, in the cellars the winemakers are crafting some exciting wines. Two of the leading French players in the region, Les Vins Skalli (formerly Fortant de France) and Mas La Chevalière, have recently launched wines that are premium—not just in marketing terms, but in wine quality terms as well.

So That's What's In a Name
Interestingly, both firms are using the names of their owners to brand the wines. So Les Vins Skalli has introduced Robert Skalli wines, while Mas La Chevalière's new premium range is named after its Chablis-based owner, Michel Laroche.

Laroche is one of those who believes firmly that the future for the Languedoc is quality, not quantity. "There's no other way," he says. "You need to produce quality and sell it for more money." He adds that "in the next 10 years, at least 240,000 acres of vines will have to be pulled up because they can never produce quality."

At his modern winery just outside Béziers, only a few miles from Domaine de la Baume, he has gone back to basics in his search for quality. His approach involves the growers from whom he buys grapes. "It's obvious that to make a good wine you need good fruit. But here we don't have vineyards, so we need to have close contact with our growers. We need to be able to choose to take only ripe fruit, because the style of wine we are making is fruit-driven."


Michel Laroche, from Chablis, is bringing a new emphasis on quality to the Languedoc.

So paramount is fruit sourcing that Laroche has introduced a range of single-vineyard wines from specific growers. There's a Chardonnay Peyroli from a vineyard at 1,200 feet near Bedarrieux, made in barrel in a traditional Burgundian style. There's a limited production (7,000 cases) Syrah called Roqua Blanca, a ripe, velvety wine, and a Merlot called Labech, which is earthy, firm and concentrated.

The Buddy System
Likewise, partnership with growers has always been an important part of the equation for Skalli. For many years, he has run a competition, with outside judges, to find the best fruit among his contract growers. And in his two new ranges, the Robert Skalli range and the "F" range (a reference to Francis Skalli, Robert's father), he has moved from just selling a mass-market brand (Fortant de France) to also producing what he calls "up-scale" wines.

Badouin talks about the very specific requirements for the fruit which goes into the top "F" range, currently consisting of a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay: "We only buy grapes from three types of soil which are suited to the style of wine we want to make. We choose fruit only from older vines. And we insist that our growers restrict their yields. And when we have the grapes, we have a long, slow vinification process. Then we age the wines for 18 months in barrique."

Judging by taste, the new Skalli and Laroche wines represent a huge leap up from the simple, volume wines that still represent the bulk of Vins de Pays d'Oc. Even so, they are still bargains; the projected U.S. retail price of the "F" wines is only $15.

As at Skalli, other producers of Vins de Pays d'Oc who do not have their own vineyard land are involving growers more and more in the decision-making process so that they can guarantee quality grapes. That belief is echoed by Guy Sarton de Jonchay, who is head winemaker for Barton & Guestier. "We buy some wine direct, but our main strategy is to have what we call 'pilot wineries', which make the wine for us under our own direction. We have what we call the B&G technique. It's something those wineries can then use when they make their other wines, so they get a benefit from it."


The neat stacks of barrels at Skalli are also new to the region.

Even at these less expensive levels, there has been a noticeable increase in quality. "We're looking for authentic fruit tastes, for balance, and we don't use wood," says Florence Ruaud of B&G. That is apparent in B&G's fruity, crisp whites, especially the aromatic Sauvignon Blanc, and the ripe, earthy Syrah.

It's an approach that is also shown in the wines from Terroirs Club, a marketing group of two cooperatives, which has annual sales of 1.5 million bottles. As Béatrice Peeters, the managing director of Terroirs Club explains, they realized the need to be more consumer-driven. "The cooperatives realized that to sell good quantities of wine from the Languedoc you need to make top-quality wine but at a good price. Otherwise, why will consumers buy Languedoc wines when they have the whole world to choose from?"

The main U.S. brand from Terrior Club is called Les Marionettes, which covers a range of varietal wines. Stars include a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, a perfumed Chardonnay/Viognier blend, a rich and ripe Marsanne, a structured Syrah and a ripe, dense Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cooperatives still dominate the Languedoc region. Some—and they are easy to spot by their dirty yards and stain-streaked walls—are still churning out wine fit only for distillation. But an increasing number, like the two that make up Terroirs Club, have changed their ways. Another that is looking to the market and not to the past is Foncalieu, which is based around the region's oldest cooperative at Maraussan.

In an approach similar to Terroirs Club, the enormous Foncalieu (which produces 26 million bottles annually) has created two branded ranges of wines for the American market. One is called Oppidum, after the Roman hill fort near Narbonne. The other is Montagne Noire, named after the dominating mountain that is the final southern outcrop of the Massif Central. The Oppidum range is particularly attractive, featuring an aromatic, spicy Viognier, a concentrated Syrah and a finely structured Cabernet Sauvignon. All these wines sell for under $10, some for under $5.

These are all wines that compete head-on with wines from the New World. They have no French mystique of terroir to protect them. With their varietal labeling, the only comparison is on quality and price. Compared with their California quality equivalents, they are undeniable bargains. The new premium wines show that wines from the Languedoc can also have serious aspirations.

The heady days of three years ago, when the region could sell all it made, have gone. today's more competitive atmosphere is revealing that there is more to the region than just quantity, and that drinkers can enjoy the wines of the Pays d'Oc for their quality as well.

Want to know where to stay and what to see on your visit to the Languedoc? Pick up a copy of this month's issue!

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