Head west of the Rhone Valley to the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, where wine quality has been quietly rising. If it’s drinkability, value and diversity you’re chasing, you’ll find all that and more here.
Restaurant Côté Mas in the Languedoc-Roussillon region
“Most wine that used to be made around here was rubbish,” says winery owner Jean-Claude Mas, gesticulating at his impeccably maintained, organically farmed vineyards. “Even a decade or so ago, all anyone here cared about was volume; making as much wine as possible regardless of the quality.”
We are in one of the largest wine-producing regions in the world. Languedoc-Roussillon, in the bucolic south of France, produces more wine than the whole of the US combined. Until recently, the Languedoc neither earned nor deserved respect. It was a region reviled for over-cropping, with uninteresting wines made largely in co-ops, sometimes using grapes from Algeria to lift the fruit intensity. The wines were largely cheap and not so cheerful.
But that was then and this is now – although it is still easy enough to find mediocre wine that is often sold in bulk – and wine tourism is still in its infancy. This is either a good thing or bad, depending on your viewpoint.
The best producers in the Languedoc are riding the crest of a wave. A new generation of innovative winemakers have considerably lifted the quality and profile of the region, which covers much of the south of France, taking in salt marshes, scrub, snow-capped mountains and the sunny Mediterranean coast.
Aime Guibert, the late owner of Mas Daumas Gassac, and Jean-Claude Mas, the tousle-headed, media-friendly owner of the Domaines Paul Mas group, were independently determined to lift the reputation of the Languedoc – and they have succeeded. Today this warm region has new respect and is a magnet for keen, young winemakers without the money to invest in Burgundy or Bordeaux.
Jean-Claude, owner of the Domaines Paul Mas group
The Languedoc-Roussillon region stretches from the Rhone Valley in the east to the Spanish border in the south-west, and is home to more than 300,000 hectares of vineyards. That’s more than double the vines in Australia combined, and it comprises more than a third of France’s total wine production – around six per cent of global production.
The best-known appellations in the Languedoc include Languedoc AOC (formerly known as Coteaux du Languedoc), Corbieres AOC, Faugeres AOC, Minervois AOC, and Saint-Chinian AOC. Much of the wine is labelled Languedoc AOC, while the best sparkling wines are labelled Cremant de Limoux.
Aime, who founded the renowned Mas de Daumas Gassac estate in 1970, died earlier this year at the age of 91, having created a wine regarded as the first serious non-appellation wine (it was simply labelled Vin de Pays de l’Herault). It was a long-living red wine able to fetch prices similar to a Bordeaux-classed growth.
As the region gained a reputation for quality as well as quantity, Aime was followed by labels like Domaine de l’Hortus at Pic-Saint-Loup, Domaine Ollier-Taillefer at Faugeres and Domaine La Croix Belle in the Cotes de Thongue. Also included was organic pioneer Domaine Virgile Joly in the wilds of Saint-Saturnin-de-Lucian and Chateau Saint-Martin de la Garrigue at Montagnac, just down the road from Domaine Mas, the centre of the ever-growing wine empire of Jean-Claude Mas.
The charming and flamboyant Jean-Claude, who owns a dozen estates across the region, turned a pun about being “an Arrogant Frog” into a global business that exports affordable wines – including to Woolworths here in Australia, where wines under the Arrogant Frog and Paul Mas labels are regular top-sellers in Dan Murphy’s and BWS stores.
Despite the presence of large, prosperous towns like Montpellier, Carcassonne, Narbonne, Beziers and Pezenas, this is largely a rural area where the old ways are sometimes considered the best. Australian flying winemakers, including Bill Hardy at Domaine de la Baume, helped educate the locals about the importance of winery cleanliness and other New World ideas. “They taught hygiene, temperature control and other things that helped transform shitty wines into wines that are a pleasure to drink,” Jean-Claude says.
Chateau Paul Mas a Conas
He was quick to spread the news of the new and improved Languedoc. A human whirlwind, Jean-Claude is a former racing car driver, entrepreneur and marketing expert whose family had been growing grapes for generations, but never made wines. Jean-Claude not only transformed his family enterprise, but also the attitudes of many in the region. And he’s not afraid to spend money to maintain a high profile.
His brands sponsor the Limoux Grizzlies, the current French rugby league champions, and when he recently launched a series of expensive hand-painted bottles as part of his Astelia AAA program (named after his three daughters) in conjunction with Daum crystal, he did so in the rarefied heights of a party high up the Eiffel Tower.
His story begins in the hamlet of Conas, outside the splendid Herault Valley town of Pezenas, the home of famous playwright Moliere, where the Mas family has owned vines since 1892.
In 1987, Paul Mas gave 35 hectares to his son, Jean-Claude, who had studied economics and advertising, but wine had become an increasingly intriguing hobby for him.
During his business career, Jean-Claude worked in the US, England and Bordeaux. A career in motor racing stalled so he decided to use his business expertise in the world of wine, having already worked with leading Italian winemaker Giorgio Grai.
In the 1990s, he started blending wines at the family estate in Montagnac and produced a small first vintage in 1995. Some 20 years on, the Domaines Paul Mas brand was named by trade magazine Drinks International as one of the 50 most admired in the world. Today, Domaines Paul Mas owns around 650 hectares and has contracts with growers who farm another 1300 hectares. The company has 12 different estates across the Languedoc, produces around 100 wines and is approaching two million cases across all brands. Around 95 per cent of their production is exported.
“We produce a very diverse range of wines,” Jean-Claude says. “That diversity is down to the unique situation of the region, bound by the Mediterranean Sea to the south and the mountains of the north, and by its geological formation.”
Jean-Claude recently added a wine bar to his cellar door, along with a high-end restaurant, CÔté Mas, for which he has high hopes for a Michelin star not too far down the track. He has adopted the slogan ‘Luxe Rural’ (everyday luxury) to sum up the company culture and philosophy, and today, wines under the Mas, Arrogant Frog and other labels are exported to more than 60 countries.
The Mas estates stretch as far as Limoux, where sparkling wines, including Blanquette de Limoux and Cremant de Limoux, shine at Domaine Astruc. Limoux is not only the westernmost appellation in the Languedoc, but also its highest and coolest, making it well suited to sparkling wine. It is said that the first sparkling wine was produced here in 1531 – pre-dating Champagne.
The various Mas domaines use grape varieties such as carignan, grenache, shiraz and cinsault for red wines, although Jean-Claude says he has more than 60 different varieties in his various vineyards. He plans to eventually run all his vineyards organically and is particularly proud of his sulphur-free wines.
Despite his innovative nature, he admits surprise at the global success of the Arrogant Frog label and associated brands. “I honestly never expected this,” he says. “I think the humour of the name and labels struck a chord. People liked the idea of Old World wines with New World attitude and we are fortunate to be able to use modern technology to help preserve our environment and respect our rural roots,” he says. “Adding a new appeal to a region where grapes have been grown for 2000 years is extremely satisfying.”
But Jean-Claude knows there is work ahead. “A brand has to evolve technically and design-wise in order to keep its style up to date,” he says. “You have to stay in tune with the permanently evolving public.”
Jean-Claude is an unashamed promoter of the Languedoc to the world. “I came back here after travelling because I honestly believe it is one of the most beautiful regions in the world,” he says. “From oysters and apples to asparagus and veal, the quality of the food here is as impressive as the wine. It is a region that has still to be fully discovered by tourists – and that adds to its charm.”
What can Australian drinkers expect from wines from the Languedoc?
Because Languedoc-Roussillon is such a huge region geographically, there is a wide range of grape varieties and styles, although affordable prices are a constant.
As the region has previously been known only for bulk wines, many of the more innovative producers are happy to experiment and innovate. Old-vine carignan, once the workhorse of the bulk-wine industry, is considered by many to be the most typical grape of the region, but you’ll also find lots of syrah, even though it is not indigenous to the region.
Without strict appellation rules to limit experimentation, red grape varieties range from familiar names like merlot and cabernet sauvignon to local heroes grenache, carignan, cinsault and Rhone varieties like syrah and mourvredre. Among the whites, local stars include picpoul and grenache blanc, along with Rhone import viognier among unfamiliar names like bourboulenc and clairette blanche, as well as ubiquitous chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. There is also vermentino, known here as rolle.
Diversification is alive and well in what locals boast is “the largest vineyard in the world”, which spreads from the Aude to the Gard, passing through the Herault. Many of the vineyards are described as “patchworks” with different grapes growing side by side. Many of the wines are blends of two or more varieties; the reds generally fruit-driven and bold.
Those behind the Languedoc AOC appellation, established less than a decade ago, proudly claim that no wine resembles another – the only consistency being the Mediterranean, which influences climate and growth, with mild winters, hot, dry summers, scents from the scrubland and winds carrying sea spray. So, think rusticity, honesty and, best of all, French wines that are still priced for everyday drinking.
Next article: Explore the wine bars of Paris.