Most American wine drinkers know Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and the Rhône, but many other regions of France also produce wine. Some of the wine is excellent, if little drunk here, though it must be admitted that most is Vin de Pays — little more than a rough beverage to wash down delicious rustic food.
That was long the reputation of the Languedoc, a region in south-central France bordering the Mediterranean and just west of famed Provence. With a million acres of vineyards, the Languedoc is France’s largest supplier of wine.
The name of the region — langue d’oc — refers to the traditional language spoken there, a cousin of French where yes is “oc” instead of “oui.” It is closely related to Catalonian, and also called Occitan. It is spoken by about 15 million people, though these days, they almost all speak standard French, too.
The region, formally known as Languedoc-Roussillon, was long the source of cheap table wines, most made from local grapes including the well-known syrah, mourvedre, viognier, carignan and grenache, but also less-noted varieties such as picpoul and mauzac. They match well with hearty food like the cassoulet of the region.
In the last few decades, however, many growers and vintners have greatly improved their wines, and like those of much of Spain and Southern Italy, the wines have become excellent values as well as quality wines.
The improvement is the result of replanting vines; selecting better sites, varieties and configurations; plus more care in tending and harvesting.
Many local growers have planted “international” varieties like chardonnay, merlot and pinot noir along with their plantings of traditional varieties, both because they do well there, but also to expand the market to those who prefer wines made from familiar grape varieties.
This is especially true in the United States, where people are often confused by the French practice of naming wines by their region (AOC) rather than grape varieties.
The Languedoc vintners have also improved their production techniques, adopting modern technology and sanitation to produce clean, fresh wines.
On top of that, a few have even adopted modern marketing methods, and as a result, you’ll see their wines more and more in the U.S.
One good example is Gérard Bertrand, a famed 6-foot-6-inch former French rugby player who inherited a vineyard where he was raised near the ancient Roman town of Narbonne near Marseille. He has grown his wine business into six wine estates totaling 880 acres of vines on about 2,000 acres of land in diverse regions and terroirs ranging from only miles from the Mediterranean Sea to high up in hills near the Pyrenees Mountains that form the border with Spain.
Bertrand is a charming, friendly man who has devoted his life after sports to producing superior wines — and marketing them well, neither strong suits of Languedoc vintners in the past. He even conducts a famous jazz festival each August.
Bertrand produces a wide range of wines from his five estates and has just acquired another. These are Domaine Villemajou, 350 acres in the Corbières; Château Laville Bertou, 145 acres in the Minervois; Château de l’Hospitalet, 145 acres in La Clape; Domaine de l’Aigle, 62 acres high up in Limoux and Cigalus, 50 acres in the Vin de Pays d’Oc.
The wines include sparkling and sweet as well as table wines. Some of the grapes are grown biodynamically.
Bertrand’s wine business is at Chateau l’Hospitalet. In addition to a modern winery at l’Hospitalet, the property contains a small resort, gourmet restaurant and a rare, American-style wine-tasting salon and gift shops.
Another vintner in Languedoc who has adopted modern methods is Robert Skalli, who also owns St. Supéry winery and 1,600 acres of land in Napa Valley. The Skalli Group owns Les Vins Skalli whose brands are Fortant, Reserve F and Robert Skalli varietals.,
Skalli’s family comes from Algeria, where they were prominent vintners with 600,000 acres of vines. Pushed out after that country gained independence from France, they went to Corsica where they found the Corsicans didn’t welcome new competitors either. They settled in Languedoc in 1964 with a goal of producing excellent modern wines in this ancient land. Early on they produced typical local wines, but in 1974, Robert took over the business and aimed higher.
He traveled to California where he studied with Robert Mondavi, Bernard Portet of Clos du Val and Michaela Rodeno of Domaine Chandon, and decided to adopt the California practice of varietally labeled wines.
Convincing growers to plant varietals, Skalli was the first to create international-style wines from single varieties in the 1980s in Languedoc, producing merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and syrah under the Fortant brand. Many other vintners followed his lead in introducing better quality, varietal wines.
With that success, he also produced appellation contrôlée wines based on local standards and blends, notably Coteaux du Languedoc, Minervois and Corbières.
Skalli is a large producer, unlike Bertrand, but both typify modern, quality-oriented, marketing-driven companies. They and other producers from Languedoc have become major players on the world wine market, a long way from the time when no one outside the region ever drank their wines.
Like southern Italy and Spain, Languedoc has dramatically improved the quality and appeal of their wines to American drinkers in the last few decades. They’re becoming more widely available, including in Napa, and we’ll likely be seeing even more of them in the future.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article has been changed to correct the spelling of Michaela Rodeno's name.