A Guide to the Wines of Languedoc and Roussillon

Languedoc Roussillon wine France
Vineyards in Roussillon, France / Getty

The regions of Languedoc and Roussillon are coastal Mediterranean swaths in the South of France, stretching from Provence to the Pyrenees at the Spanish border. On a map, the area doesn’t appear formidable, yet one in every three appellation-designated French wines are produced here.

These independent provinces were coupled into an administrative region called Languedoc-Roussillon to streamline management of politics and economies in 1982. In 2016, they joined the Midi-Pyrénées to become a larger region called Occitanie.

Despite the administrative affiliation, the history, culture and wines of Languedoc and Roussillon evolved on separate tracks.

Long considered a hub for value wines, Languedoc and Roussillon’s reputations have significantly improved in recent years. New talent attracted to lower land prices has helped fuel the area’s revival.

Faugeres wine
Vineyards in Faugeres / Photo by Sami Sarkis via Getty

Overview

In 2019, the two regions produced 313 million gallons of wine, according to statistics provided by the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc (CIVL) and the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon (CIVR). Languedoc produces 90% of the wine in their combined area, and Roussillon claims the other 10%.

Winemaking parallels can be drawn to the New World, where creativity and experimentation with grapes and styles thrive.

“The situation has changed on nearly every level: quality, innovation, distribution, marketing, sustainability” says Caryl Panman, co-owner and -manager of Château Rives-Blanques in Languedoc, of the regions’ revivals.

Panman points to an influx of ambitious “neo-vignerons” looking for affordable land and winemaking opportunities in this “El Dorado of wine.” Plus, some local growers are “thinking big,” adds Jan Panman, Château Rives-Blanques’ co-owner and -manager. Many are leaving behind cooperatives and negociants to bottle their own wines.

Maison Cazes Roussillon
Amphorae at Maison Cazes in Riversaltes, Roussillon / Courtesy Maison Cazes

Emmanuel Cazes, wine ambassador at Maison Cazes in Rivesaltes, calls Roussillon the “land of new opportunities.”

Roussillon, once a major producer of sweet wines and high-crop, carbonic-macerated Carignan, suffered a decline in sales in the 1990s. This forced producers to reflect and innovate.

“We have several assets to help us move into premium wines: low crop, old vines, a hot and dry climate, terroir diversity,” says Cazes. “It was just a matter of finding inspiration and energy with a new generation of producers.”

These forward-thinking producers embrace Roussillon’s native varieties like Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Grenache Noir. Languedoc has around 33% of France’s organic vineyards and makes up about 10% of them in the world. For example, from 2017 to 2020, more than 27% of the vineyards of Occitanie converted to organic practices.

The Appellations of Languedoc

Languedoc produces an array of red blends, though producers also craft rosés and white wines plus traditional method sparklers.

Languedoc has 23 Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée or Protégée (AOCs/AOPs), covering about 16% of production. Wines that don’t fit into this quality tier may be classified as Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) selections.

Regional appellation Languedoc AOC forms the base of the classification system. This broad category covers red, white and rosé wines. Producers that use this designation may blend wine made with grapes from both Languedoc and Roussillon.

Within that frame, there are 10 subappellations. Important appellations include Minervois, which produces red, white and rosé wines; Corbières (red, white, rosé); Picpoul de Pinet (white); Terrasses du Larzac (red); Pic Saint Loup (red, rosé); and Saint-Chinian (red, white, rosé).

There are 5 commune or village appellations: Minervois-La-Livinière, Corbieres Boutenac and La Clape, Faugères and Fitou.

There are 4 sweet wine appellations. The best-known is Muscat de Frontignan.

There are 3 sparkling wine appellations, all in Limoux: Blanquette de Limoux, Crémant de Limoux and Blanquette de Limoux Méthode Ancestrale.

There are also regional and subregional designations, historic and heritage site appellations. Three additional IGP designations catch the rest: Aude, Gard and Pays d’Hérault.

Chateau Rives-Blanques Limoux
Left: Vineyards at Chateau Rives-Blanques, Limoux. Right: harvesting at Rives-Blanques / Photo courtesy Chateau Rives-Blanques

Known primarily for sturdy, concentrated reds, Minvervois is one of Languedoc’s most well-known appellations. Rugged terrain pushes into the foothills of the garrigue-covered Montagne Noire.

The landscape of Corbières is even more dramatic, with mountains and valleys that stretch to the Mediterranean. Fitou, which comprises two slivers of land in Corbières, was Languedoc’s first appellation and founded in 1948. Both appellations focus on red blends and rosé.

For traditional method sparkling wine, Limoux rules, whether it’s Blanquette from the local white grape Mauzac, or Crémant de Limoux based on Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir.

Terrasses du Larzac, founded in 2014, shows promise. Syrah thrives in Pic Saint-Loup, a northern appellation in the foothills of the Cévennes. Saint-Chinian and Faugères have rocky sites at dizzying elevations. Clairette du Languedoc and Picpoul de Pinet specifically produce crisp, fresh white wines.

The Appellations of Roussillon

Roussillon forms an amphitheater facing the sea. Surrounded by three massifs and cut by three rivers, its terroir varies wildly.

There are 14 AOPs that allow producers to grow 24 grape varieties, as well as two IGPs.

Much of the appellation system reflects Roussillon’s history of sweet wines. Still today, Roussillon makes 80% of France’s vin doux naturels (VDNs). These fortified sweet wines retain their natural sugars after fermentation is stopped by the addition of a spirit.

The five AOP VDNs are Rivesaltes, Maury, Banyuls, Banyuls Grand Cru, and Muscat de Rivesaltes. Since the 14th century, winemakers have cultivated Grenache to use in red, white or rosé wines, plus Muscat. Grand Cru Banyuls, considered the finest expression of the style, is only made in good years.

Roussillon’s dry wines have increased their prominence. Export markets now demand them, which helps offset a drop in VDN consumption. The broadest dry wine appellation is Côtes du Roussillon, the base level for red wines made largely from old-vine Carignan, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and occasionally Cinsault.

Carignan is Working Its Way Into the Spotlight

Côtes du Roussillon Villages produces red wines exclusively that tend to be of higher quality due to lower yields. Maury Sec, Collioure, communal Côtes du Roussillon Villages (Caramany, Latour de France, Lesquerde, Tautavel) and Côtes du Roussillon Villages Les Aspres produce ageworthy wines at great value. Winemakers here prioritize terroir over international trends.

In Agly Valley near Maury, known for its black schist soil, a natural wine scene has developed around the deeply flavored, mineral-driven reds and whites. They are sold as Côtes Catalanes IGP.

History

Viticulture has been a staple of southern France for thousands of years. The Greeks and Phoenicians brought vines to the area around the 6th Century B.C.E. The Romans later grew the industry, forever intertwining wine with the local economy.

Expansion of viticulture continued after the completion of the Canal du Midi, which connected the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, in 1681. The arrival of the French railway system in 1868 further boosted the region’s fortunes.

Vineyards Roussillon
Vineyards near the town of Tautavel in Roussillon / Getty

Like elsewhere, Languedoc and Roussillon suffered from phylloxera in the late 1800s. The 20th century saw winemaking dominated by local co-operatives, while overplanting created conditions for the notorious wine-lake surplus and depressed prices. By the 1970s, a vine-pulling scheme paid farmers to rip out less-suitable vineyards to focus production on favored sites.

While Languedoc is tied deeply to France, Roussillon retains its connection to Catalonia, an autonomous community in Spain’s northeast. Roussillon’s denizens share a common language and political past that dates to the Crown of Aragon in the Middle Ages.

For hundreds of years, both countries claimed governance over Roussillon until Spain ceded it to France in 1659. Today, Roussillon’s customs, culture and food, including grapes and styles of wine produced, retain their Catalonian connection. Street signs in the capital city of Perpignan reference both languages.

Soils and Climate

Languedoc and Roussillon have warm, dry Mediterranean climates defined by hot summers and mild temperatures throughout the rest of the year. Heat and sun might otherwise overripen grapes, but top vineyard sites stay cool thanks to their elevation and coastal breezes from the Atlantic and/or Mediterranean.

Soils testify to ancient geological chaos with varied, complex layers that rarely repeat. Everything from clay and limestone to schist, granite, marls and sandstone can be found. Many of the regions’ top wines come from the rocky soils of mountain foothills.

Grapes

Languedoc and Roussillon embrace native varieties like Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. Flavors capture the rampant garrigue that grows throughout both regions. Styles range from bold, concentrated and chewy to light and pretty, depending on the producer and mix of grapes used.

In Roussillon, all three colors of Grenache have a foothold: Grenache Noir for reds and its lighter-skinned counterparts Gris and Blanc for whites.

Maison Crazes wine
Left: Grenache Noir grapes. Right: Barrels at Maison Cazes / Photos courtesy Maison Cazes

Languedoc’s winemakers grow Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, Roussanne, Marsanne, Vermentino and Viognier to use in dry white wines. Muscat is the most important grape for VDNs, especially Muscat de Frontignan. Some 20% of Languedoc’s wine production is in white wines.

They have also prospered during global rosé mania. Languedoc accounts for 34% of France’s pink wine, and approximately 11% of rosé production worldwide.

Miren de Lorgeril, president of the CIVL and winemaker at Maison Lorgeril, says the wines of Languedoc have “evolved in a very positive way…this evolution is reflected not only in the success of the Languedoc appellation, particularly its rosé, but also in the diversity of appellations.”

Languedoc embodies the new French wine scene, de Lorgeril says, one that’s “dynamic and rebellious, whose objective is to shake up a wine world that is a little too wise and cerebral.”

Published on June 14, 2021
Topics: Wine Basics