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Wine tasting session at the Chateau Carbonnieux in Cadaujac, near Bordeaux, southwestern France early this month.

To find the best of Languedoc, follow the producer

19/04/2019 - 05:50

THE Languedoc region has regularly been described as the New World of France.

It's a sound analogy. For wine, the Old World is considered a place of intricate rules, intended to preserve traditional styles and combat fraudulent use of appellation names. But it can also be a place where rigid bureaucracies stifle all creativity.

The New World, by contrast, comprises wine regions without traditions in need of protection. Producers can follow their muses, wherever they lead. Anything goes, sometimes to a fault.

That Languedoc, an ancient land where wine has been produced for centuries, would find an apt comparison in the New World is, of course, a paradox.

It also testifies to both the region's long-standing inability to produce much in the way of compelling wine and the appellation system's failure to find logic in either its rules for Languedoc or a meaningful way of subdividing the land.

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While appellations within Languedoc like St-Chinian, Faugères and Corbières may resonate historically, they are virtually meaningless to most consumers. And the jumble of soils and microclimates makes it difficult to find a coherent way of organising appellations.

As a result, some producers see little economic or aesthetic advantage to sticking with the rules, unlike in more established, respected regions like Burgundy or the Rhône Valley. They have happily abandoned the right to use the local appellations in favour of the freedom to experiment.

Instead of the controlled appellations like Faugères, for example, they fall back on theoretically less prestigious general geographical categories like Vin de Pays de l'Hérault, which gives consumers an idea of a wine's provenance while allowing producers the option of working outside the rules of the appellation system.

It's a bit like Tuscan producers in the 1970s who, frustrated by inflexible and counterproductive restrictions in places like Chianti, chose instead to call their wines, no matter how ambitious, vino da tavola, or table wine, a category outside the appellation system generally reserved for simple, innocuous and inexpensive bottles.

Some of these wines eventually came to be called Super Tuscans, and became highly coveted. The appellation names were subordinate in status to either the individual producers or the proprietary names they chose to label their bottles.

In a small way, this has happened in Languedoc. Producers like Mas de Daumas Gassac and Domaine de la Grange des Pères have become well known and respected while working outside the controlled appellation system. Unlike in Tuscany, however, the Languedoc appellation rules have not evolved to become more helpful to consumers or producers.

Without the burden of onerous regulations, the New World of France, like most New World wine regions, has been prone to following fads and trends. In the period roughly from 1990 to 2010, that often meant oaky, plush, powerful wines, as well as popular grapes that seemed as out of place in Languedoc as tigers might be in Vermont.

Languedoc pinot noir? Sure, why not - even though it made little sense to want to grow cool-climate grapes like pinot noir in this warm Mediterranean region, where blended wines traditionally include grapes like grenache, carignan, cinsault, mourvèdre and syrah.

Cabernet sauvignon, the king of international grapes, made its inevitable appearance as well, though with greater success than pinot noir. Parts of Languedoc are those rare places where cabernet not only has the potential to thrive but can also take on a distinctive local character. The best Languedoc cabernets show the local aromas of wild thyme, lavender and other herbs locally known as garrigue.

To get a better sense of where things stand now with Languedoc reds, our wine panel in late March tasted 20 bottles from recent vintages. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant of The New York Times and I were joined by Katja Scharnagl, head sommelier at Le Bernardin, and Yannick Benjamin, head sommelier at the University Club.

All of us were impressed by the high level of winemaking. But more than that, we sensed that producers in Languedoc, as has happened in much of the world over the last decade, have backed away from pushing the boundaries of ripeness in the vineyard and wringing out the last measures of fruit and power in the winery.

Yannick was especially pleased to find aromas of garrigue and dried citrus in many of the wines, which gave those bottles a sense of distinctiveness. Nonetheless, we did find a few that still hewed to the big, bold, oaky style. We tended to reject those wines, as we did bottles that Katja called "made wines," in which the hand and methods of the winemakers were more evident than a sense of place.

Our No 1 bottle, the 2015 Domaine de la Grange des Pères, one of the producers working outside the appellation system, was lively, complex, textured and deliciously inviting. It was a blend of 40 per cent syrah and 40 per cent mourvèdre, with the balance divided between cabernet sauvignon and counoise, a grape most often seen deep in the blend of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Grange des Pères has often been called Languedoc's cult producer, a description borne out by its US$99 price, the highest in our tasting.

Our No 2 bottle was the 2014 Causse du Bousquet from Mas Champart in St-Chinian, an equally inviting wine, with lovely aromas and freshness. This wine was primarily syrah, with smaller amounts of grenache, cinsault, mourvèdre and carignan. It was also just US$27, and our best value.

The 2014 Faugères from Léon Barral was our third favourite. Didier Barral, the vigneron, did an excellent job of balancing ripeness and spicy red fruit flavours with acidity in this cuvée of 50 per cent carignan, 30 per cent grenache and 20 per cent cinsault.

Our top 10 included a couple of outliers. Clos Marie is a solid producer in the Pic-St-Loup area. As harvest was approaching in 2016, part of its vineyard was devastated by a hailstorm, and it lost much of its crop. Neighbours rushed in to offer portions of their harvest to Clos Marie, which made the 2016 Trois Saisons from those grapes.

The result is an earthy, crunchy blend that was fresh and lively. I don't think Trois Saisons has been made again since then, which is perhaps good news about the weather since then.

The other anomaly was the 2017 Clin d'Oeil from Mas des Chimères. The 2017 vintage was difficult, and the producer judged the grapes not up to standard for making an age-worthy wine. So this 100 per cent grenache cuvée was made as a onetime thirst-quencher. Its succulent, easygoing flavours make it absolutely delicious.

Despite regional efforts to restructure the appellation system, it's hard to feel confident it will have immediate meaning for most consumers. For the New World of France, consumers will depend on best practices in all New World wine regions: Follow the producer.

Come to think of it, that's the best practice in Old World regions, too. NYTIMES