Languedoc is the other province in southern France that boasts a Mediterranean coast, but it might as well be on the French side of the moon—it's big (the largest wine-growing region in France), but it lacks the Q score of next-door Provence. Where Provence has the name recognition, Cannes and enough sunflowers and lavender to romance an army of Peter Mayleses, Languedoc has, well, Perpignan, Nîmes and Montpellier. The booster tourism web site Languedoc-france.info lists among the region's charms hunting, hawking, speleology (the study of caves, of course), nudism and the remnants of the Papal Inquisition of the Cathars—the original inquisition, launched a couple of centuries before the Spanish version, and a model of brutality.
Languedoc is also famous for its plonk. Wine critic Hugh Johnson lamented in 1983 that the region's plains were the "notorious source of calamitous quantities" of weak jug wine from crappy grapes. Up in the hills, a few good bottles could be had—in Pic Saint-Loup or Saint Chinian—but it was poor hunting, especially when the Rhône Valley and Bordeaux were not so far away.
By 1994, though, Wine Spectator labeled the region "the most dynamic wine area of France today." Vineyards had been replanted with interesting grapes and outside investors were buying wine land. And in 2005, although wines from Languedoc (or Languedoc-Roussillon, as the larger region is called) are still hardly known to most Americans, better wine stores are paying attention, and so are the smarter builders of restaurant wine lists.
Two reasons to take note: good value and earthy authenticity. The best wines I've tasted recently from the region are what I think of as real reds, full of the earth. As the quality of wine rises worldwide, there are countless choices of well-made bottles from Argentina to South Africa, Australia to Oregon. But in a sea of acceptability, you thirst for a drop of distinctiveness. The good Languedocs (and there are still plenty of lousy ones) are, for one thing, unmistakably French—tending toward a balanced tartness rather than simple red-berry sweetness and not overloaded with oaky-vanilla flavors (as fashionably made new wines can be in Spain, Oz and California). The best examples possess terroir—the character derived from the peculiar qualities of the local soil. It's hard to describe terroir except as an additional complexity, a sort of richness and depth, that sets a wine apart, much as a top-drawer artisanal Parmesan cheese is superior to a knockoff version or a dry-aged steak to one right off the butcher's block. You know it when you taste it. But the terroir factor makes a good Languedoc red especially delicious with meat.
And because these wines are not monsters, the tannins will not strip the enamel off your teeth, and the fruit will not make you feel as if you're gargling jam—they are drinkable in vintages you can actually find in the wine stores: Bottles from 1998 through 2001 are all good now (avoid the 2002 vintage; the region was savaged by rain and floods). The 2000 Domaine D'Aupilhac Montpeyroux, for example, would go well with anything that had red blood in its veins. A 1999 Canet Valette—a mere $13—is a sweet little deal of a terrene, middleweight red for a casual meal: ribs, meat loaf and the like. The 1998 Carfée is in its prime: It possesses an unusual amount of Rhône-ish black-cherry fruit and the pronounced funk that, to me, is the true pleasure of a really good red. Unless you have a cellar, reds that are drinkable now and possess the sort of character I'm talking about are to be prized.
Mind you, it's hard to sort out the appellations or even find the wines, many of which are not widely distributed. I spotted bottles from this region mis-shelved among Rhônes and even Bordeaux. Few wine stores have sections devoted to Languedoc, so you have to look among wines from the southwest, or the Midi (as the region is also known), or find a few mixed in with bottles from Provence or the southern Rhône. Look for wines from the Coteaux de Languedoc, Saint Chinian, Montpeyroux, Corbieres, La Clape, Fitou and Minervois appellations. Expect to pay $13 to $25, occasionally $30 and up, although I found a simple $6 Saint-Chinian from Maison L'Aiglon that could compete with well-known wines thrice its price. I also found a $50 Roussillon Villages that tasted alarmingly like a wine with fatal Napa envy: monster oak and fruit. Not a trend, one hopes. For now, at least, Languedoc is keeping it real.
Tasting Notes: Languedoc Reds
Eric Asimov, wine critic for the New York Times, noted that while Languedoc is the most exciting wine region in the world, "it's not even consistently good enough to be called underrated." While tasting Languedoc wines is a hit-and-miss experience—when you are lucky enough to even find a bottle—it is definitely worth your time. The tasting notes below are an indication of what you might find. With each wine, there are other years with decent substitutions, but refrain from trying a 2002; the year is not indicative of what the region can produce.
Canet Valette Saint Chinian 1999 ($13): From a new-generation winemaker, a delicious, well-balanced red with lots of character on the nose and in the mouth.
Chateau La Roque Pic Saint Loup Coteaux du Languedoc 2000 ($12): Lots of highly prized terroir here, delicious, with a long finish—a favorite among six tasters and at such a great price.
Domaine D'Aupilhac Montpeyroux Coteaux du Languedoc 2000 ($24): An appealing smell of earth and traces of roses—really. A solid wine with good, tart fruit and balanced tannins.
Domaine de la Coume du Roy Cuvée Agnes Maury 1998 ($30): A curiosity for the end of the meal if you like port: a sweet, bright, tannic red dessert wine made from grenache noir grapes. Tasty now, but seems like it could cellar a long time.
Domaine La Marfée Les Champs Murmurés Coteaux du Languedoc 1998 ($26): Right in its prime: fruity, earthy, balanced. Drink now if you can find it.
Mas Jullien Les Cailloutis Coteaux du Languedoc 1996 ($23): The 2000 vintage of this wine is highly rated, but I found an older bottle and wanted to see if it stood up. A little musty at first, but then it reveals lots of tart character with just enough fruit. But with only seventy-five cases sent to the States, this is a rare find.