Wine 101: French Region Deep Dives: The Languedoc

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by the Language of Yes, a love letter to Southern France sent from California. Pioneering winemaker Randall Grahm’s vision leads this Old World, New World winemaking tribute with traditional winemaking methods like passerillage, or post-harvest grape drying. This practice imparts notes of crushed lavender, rosemary, and sage to the Syrah, and hints of strawberry and rhubarb to the Grenache. These wines scored high with critics. To try Language of Yes, Grenache and Syrah, follow the link in the episode description to

In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers dives into the largest wine region in the world, the Languedoc. Known for its distinct rebellious nature and pioneering efforts in the fight against fraudulent wine, the Languedoc is a unique region producing a number of incredible varietals.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and in my algorithm, this new thing called FITSWORD just popped up. It’s basically like a padded sword, so you can learn how to be a Jedi. Okay, maybe not a Jedi, but you get it.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair Podcasting Network, this is “Wine 101.” And my name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. And how are you doing?

Okay, this is our last romp in France, and we need to talk about the largest — one of the largest — wine-producing regions in the world and definitely in France: the Languedoc. It’s a little bit complicated. It’s fun. Let’s get into it.

Okay, wine lovers, I must say — and I do this sometimes because there are certain areas of the world that I just love. And I will say that this is going to sound weird, but the Languedoc or Languedoc or Languedoc is one of my favorite wine regions, not only in France but in general. And for a long time… When I had my wine shop back in the day, the whole idea of our wine shop was that we wanted to provide great wine at a low price. It was a big challenge, but we did it. And I mean, we got more expensive wine as we existed, but the point is, the wines of Southern France – specifically from Languedoc or Languedoc – were plentiful in our wine shop because the wines from this place on our market are very affordable and very expensive. It’s a very wide range, but it’s a really awesome place to get started with just a French wine in general. And I love this place.

In 2010 I had the opportunity to spend a whole week in this wine region. And I went from Montpellier, we’ll talk about Montpellier, all the way to the Pyrenees and enjoyed this entire wine region. And it was just awesome. If you ever get a chance to hit up the Languedoc, definitely go for it. It’s great.

Okay, let’s talk about this place because you’re probably like Languedoc, Languedoc. Have I heard of that place before? So the Languedoc is the biggest wine region in the world. The single biggest wine region in the world. That’s a lot to kind of wrap your mind around. It’s in France. France is smaller than the United States, but there’s this region that basically takes up almost the entire amphitheater-like coastline of Southern France.

It’s kind of squashed in the middle; to the right, to the east you’ll have Provence then you’ll have the Rhône. And to the west, you have a little region called Roussillon and then the Pyrenees, and then you have Spain. And for administrative purposes, Languedoc and Roussillon have been kind of tied together. So you’ll often hear the Languedoc-Roussillon as one large region, but they are separate regions. And one of the reasons why we’re just doing Languedoc this episode, and not including Roussillon, is Roussillon has its own specific personality that is absolutely separate, and with some similarities, but separate from Languedoc. To give you a sense of scale, there are 700,000 acres of land under vine in the Languedoc. And I mentioned the United States. In 2001, there is a stat that this region produced more wine in 2001 than the entire United States. That is mind exploding. It’s like a sea of vines.

And the way it works out here, and the history of this place is wild. It is wild, but the way this works out is that you have this amphitheater-like coastline and as you move inland, you hit what’s called a coastal plain. And that coastal plain has a bunch of vines on it. Then as we go further inland, before we hit the hills, really, we get into what it’s more of terraced-style vineyard space. And then if we go further inland or further into the hinterland of this wine region, we get into some pretty hilly hills. It’s the foothills of the Pyrenees. There’s a lot of outcroppings and this is another area where vines are grown. So the Languedoc over time has developed three different areas of vine growth with three completely different climates and soils to work from.

And how do I say this? The uniqueness and individuality of this particular wine region is that there are so many communes that make wine. There are a few that are prominent enough that we see them on the American market. It is a larger appellation. There is a Languedoc AOC with smaller appellations inside of it, but they’re not so much sub-appellations as they are their own appellations. And not only are they, maybe… They’re appellations, but they’re also sometimes considered crus. Little bit confusing. And the way to really kind of just get Languedoc is just to understand what you see in the wine market here in the States and start there and then you can build from there. Because once you start getting a wine here or a wine there, you’re going to kind of get a sense of Languedoc and it’s going to be a really fun ride.

And another reason why I say all this is [that] this region is known for its distinct, rebellious nature. In that, the winemakers of Languedoc have never really enjoyed the strict — or any — guidelines in regulation on how to make wine. They have taken their AOCs and their appellations with a grain of salt. Also, this is the hotbed of what began the sort of fight against fraud in wine, fraudulent wine, which eventually would lead to literally the creation of appellation systems in the 1930s in France. And it’s a long story and I can’t get into it, but there was a time in Southern France where fraud was so rampant, meaning wines are being manipulated and called something that was famous and all that, but there’s also wines that were being made with not even grapes. And it was just a crazy time. And the winemakers of this area, the vine growers of this area demanded better.

There was a whole riot. There were riots in Languedoc against the government, against trade, against taxes, against imports. And the motto was natural wine because they wanted wine to be naturally made from the grapes that they grew and not from manipulated and fraudulent [grapes], like what’s been happening. It’s a very cool story. It happened in the early 1900s, but it was a really great story where law was passed to begin the fight [against] fraudulent wine. And then these winemakers here did it.

There’s also a documentary out there called “Mondovino.” And one of the first scenes is this older man, a winemaker, in Languedoc, walking with the documentarian. The first thing he says is, “Wine is dead.” So you kind of get a sense of the sort of rebellious nature of the area, and this man, this winemaker, he kept on making wine. He just made wine outside of the AOC laws until he died. It was amazing.

But the thing about Languedoc is, even since antiquity, it’s thought that vines were first grown in this area in around 125 B.C. in a little Roman commune called Narbo, which is now called Narbonne, which is a large, very important city in Languedoc. But the fate of this wine region since antiquity has been overproduction; even back during Roman times, there are reports of so much wine being made that it was overwhelming the distribution market. So a surplus of wine had to be sent to Rome itself to distribute among the people there just to kind of get this thing under control. And that happens over and over and over again throughout the history of Languedoc. And you can imagine that as surplus happens, prices go down.

So the fluctuation of price for wine in this area is kind of chaotic. And at times in history, things are developed to help this region, but they sometimes get knocked back down. For example, canals were built for trade, but by that point, Bordeaux was so popular that it dominated that sort of distribution channel. And then in, I think it was 1855, a railway was formed and this actually started helping out a lot. Before that, all they had was really the Port of Sète, which is right there on the coast, in that amphitheater, near a place called Pinay, which we’ll get into.

So it’s a huge chunk of the country and vines have been all over this place for quite some time. I don’t know, you’re probably going… Do you know what I’m going to say here? The monks and the abbeys and the monasteries were the driving force, just like in Vouvray and other places to kind of organize this entire thing.

In the beginning of this episode, I mentioned those sections of the large wine region and how it has these three distinct sections. This was all part of that effort. But in addition to the monks and the monasteries, there was also a trade element; that Port of Sète was a very important trade port for the Dutch Trading Company. And that’s why we see a lot of these in particular, well, it’s a grape called Picpoul. We’re going to talk about it a little bit, it is all over the coastal area of this wine region. So the way this region is made up, it’s got 20 AOCs in it. That’s a lot. And then 13 in addition, 13 or so, what are considered regional or complimentary denominations. What this means is, for a very long time, this wine region has gone through a lot of changes. And right now this is some of the best moments in history for wine in general, whether it’s France, Italy, America, or whatever, but right now in Languedoc, is a great time to get into it because they’re starting to really solidify their identity.

It’s going to take a minute. But right now, what we have is a large area called the Languedoc AOC. Then within that area are all these other little appellations and crus and stuff like that. But the way to understand and get into this is, I’m going to say a couple [of] things. I’m going to talk about some grapes, and then we’re going to mention some AOCs. These are just going to be the ones that you’re going to see around, that I feel that you’re going… It’s going to help you start to enjoy and understand the Languedoc. I’m not going to be able to get to all of them, but I’m just going to try to highlight some stuff so you can wrap your head around it and actually start to enjoy it.

Okay, so bear with me. Here we go. For the Languedoc AOC, you have just for the entire region, there are seven white wine grapes and seven red wine grapes that are used in the Languedoc. The Languedoc is primarily a red wine-producing region, but they do have great white wine. But the trick with Languedoc is what they call the Holy Trinity and that is Syrah, Grenache Noir, and Mourvèdre. There are other red wine grapes like Carignan, very famous in the region with a long history, Picpoul Noir, Samsó, and a variety you may have never heard of called Lledoner Pelut. And those varieties are often used to blend into the big three or the Holy Trinity. Every red wine region that I talk about is going to have those three varieties — the Holy Trinity — in different proportions with supporting red wine grapes. That’s the red wine situation in Languedoc.

For white wine. It’s just these seven grapes, you have Marsanne, Roussanne, Vermentino, also called Rolle here, Picpoul Blanc, Bourboulenc, Macabeo, and Grenache Blanc. And what’s just so crazy about that list of varieties is it’s a mix of varieties from east and west of this wine region, moving their way in, and finding their spiritual homes in certain AOCs. It’s very cool.

For red wines. The list of AOCs within this larger region are Pic Saint-Loup, a village called, or commonly called, Faugères, Saint-Chinian, Minervois, and Corbières. All of them, except for Pic Saint-Loup are in a similar area towards the western side of this region, going into the hinterlands and into these hills that will eventually go into what are the Pyrenees. They’re not right next to each other. Some of them are just bordering each other, but what’s important to understand here is these wine regions will have the big three in different proportions and each one has their own laws or rules on how to do that. For example, in Minervois, which actually has a really amazing sort of ancient Roman presence going on there… But Mourvèdre and Syrah must account for 20 percent of the blend. And these two plus Grenache must make up at least 60 percent of the blend. That’s confusing. Don’t worry about it. That’s what’s happening here in these red wine regions of Languedoc.

It’s just different proportions of these big three with the other ones blended in, depending on what the winemaker wants to do. One grape that is just all over the place that cannot be denied is Carignan, and Carignan was an old variety around for a very long time in Languedoc, but it’s sometimes going to be a little bit sharp or a little bit harsh, and they were trying to phase Carignan out, although, Carignan was a big player and trying to fix the phylloxera thing in Montpelier, which is in Languedoc. There’s a big university there that really helped out. But today, other than a couple of these wine regions or AOCs, Carignan is being phased out.

But again, when you go into one of them that has Carignan like Faugères is actually used, I think up to 40 percent, it changes the game a little bit because this variety’s not easy to work with, but it does have a major effect on a blend. And as far as white wine is concerned, the most famous you’re going to know is Limoux, which I’ve talked about before, Blanquette de Limoux. And if you want to know more about that, go into the pét-nat episode and also sparkling wines outside of Champagne episode for that. But it’s in a really awesome place in the hilly-hilly parts of Languedoc towards the Pyrenees at a high elevation that they had this one grape called Mauzac they used to use, to do what is considered one of the first pétillant naturel, the first pét-nats. It’s a rivalry. The stories are conflicting with Vouvray and Champagne and all that, but it’s a really good, easy-drinking, soft, affordable, sparkling wine from the Mauzac grape.

And one of my favorite wine regions in the world is Picpoul de Pinet. Picpoul blanc is a high- acid, full-bodied white wine. And in Sète, that port town that I talked about where the Dutch Trading Company had a high presence, that variety did very well, because it was mostly for distilling. Nowadays, it’s all wine and Picpoul de Pinet is the… Picpoul, meaning the white grape of Picpoul of the town of Pinet, which is the town that surrounds Sète in that lagoon-ish harbor there. And the majority of the wines you’re going to get from Picpoul de Pinet are going to be really affordable. I mean, on the level of, like, “What am I looking at? What is this price I’m looking at? And how good is this wine?” kind of thing. Coming in tall, green bottles. And they’re absolutely phenomenal.

It’s said that they have a certain kind of natural pairing with seafood because of the proximity of the Mediterranean. I’ve been there, I’ve sipped Picpoul and slurped down sea urchins and all that. And it actually was awesome. I don’t know if I was experiencing that thing they’re talking about, but it was a beautiful, beautiful pairing. Also, Picpoul is a kind of cool name, it means lip stinger. And the way it’s pronounced and the way it’s spelled is P-I-C-P-O-U-L, and the people of Picpoul de Pinet made sure that spelling was in law for that AOC. Outside of that AOC, it cannot be spelled like that. It has to be spelled the old way, which has some E’s and some O’s in it, which is a little bit confusing. So that’s Languedoc AOC. And those are some of the more important AOCs you want to see within the American market.

But I’m going to wrap everything up with the Pays d’Oc appellation. So there is a just general, it’s like an IGT in Italy, it’s called an IGP, it’s just an indication of geographic location, meaning it can be made anywhere within the Languedoc. And it’s called Pays d’Oc, which means the country wine of the Languedoc, and those wines, wine lovers, are everywhere. Sixty percent of wine that is produced in this region are for non-appellation wines. And yes, it can be hit or miss, but more often than not, if you see Pay d’Oc on a label, it’s probably going to be between $9 and $15. And there is about a 98.999 percent chance it is going to be an awesome wine. This is the land of cooperatives.

Actually, in the story of Languedoc co-ops, I think maybe it started here. There was a big deal with co-ops here. So they’re all over the place. And they’re subsidized now by the E.U., so a lot of really great affordable wine comes out of here as well.

I could talk about the Languedoc for a long, long time, but I am pushing the minutes here for this episode. So I’m going to leave it here, but if you guys have any questions about Languedoc, just hit me up on the DMs and Instagram, @VinePairKeith, and ask me. And one day we’re going to go a little bit deeper into this stuff because there’s a lot more to talk about. And then we have to talk about Roussillon. But for now, go out there and enjoy Languedoc. Don’t worry, the price is just right. Talk to you next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.