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Complexity or a complex?

Published:  23 July, 2008

The Languedoc's quality revolution of the past 20 years is one of the true good news' stories of the French wine industry. From the commercial success of its numerous vins de pays (VdP) varietal wines to the critical success of some of its AOC (and VdP) super-cuves, one of Europe's oldest wine regions this side of the Alps has finally come of age. However, it has also generated its fair share of bad news this year, with stories of the actions perpetrated by disgruntled vignerons - which include numerous public demonstrations, an attack on a tanker of Spanish wine and the destruction of public property - suggesting that not everyone has benefited from the revolution' and that some are increasingly struggling in a world that simply doesn't want their wines.

Despite living in such turbulent times, it seems that those in the Midi are in the mood for further change. The inhabitants of the south of France may have protested, almost to a man and woman, about the local governor's now-defunct plan to change the region's name to Septimanie - complete with a TV-am-style sunburst logo - but when it comes to wine, new names, new AOCs and new marketing plans are coming to fruition.

The biggest change of the last few years takes in two distinct areas. First, the three main interprofessional bodies in the region - CIVL (Languedoc), CIVR (Roussillon) and Oc Wines (VdP d'Oc) - have joined forces in the UK market to focus their marketing activity under the banner South of France Wines. Second, numerous new sub-appellations - crus, in common winespeak - have sprung up across the region, spreading from Coteaux de Languedoc to Limoux.

The reasoning behind uniting the generic activity of the three regions is straightforward. The market is getting tougher, and we need to ensure that we are creating a clear message. This is not about homogenising the diversity of our wines, it's about finding solutions to the challenges we face,' says Christine Behey-Molines.

And it's difficult to find someone who thinks this strategy is wrong. According to Jean-Claude Mas, one of the more successful independent operators in the region (imported by Stratford's Wine Agencies), We are forced to do it - it is not a choice. We need to communicate our wines, and we are up against the millions spent by Gallo and Constellation. Consolidation in this area is essential.'

A new super-AOC

The use of South of France' as an umbrella term, though, is more than a rallying call. Producers are being encouraged to put the banner on bottles, as well as on promotional material. Juliette Allain, marketing manager for Vignerons de Languedoc (part of Val d'Orbieu), whose members include 15 cooperatives and 18 producers, has put the phrase on the successful Cuve Mythique brand. From a marketing point of view, it's straightforward. It lets people know where the wine is from - which is often somewhere they've spent happy times on holiday - and it also cements in people's minds where places

like Corbires and Minervois are, and what Vin de Pays d'Oc actually is.'

There is a mood in the air, however, to take this cooperation to a more fundamental level, with the bottom of the AOC pyramid set to expand to a hitherto-unseen size. The proposed change is that a new super-AOC be created, encompassing both the Languedoc and Roussillon and allowing the blending of wines and varieties from close to the Spanish border all the way up to Montpellier. Known as AOC Languedoc (Roussillon is clearly the silent partner here), the proposed appellation is intended to allow the region to create more high-volume brands benefiting from myriad different grape varieties from multiple terroirs, thereby increasing consistency and fruit profile.

At the other end of the pyramid, there is also a number of changes: old appellations are being expanded (in the type of wine produced, not in size), and new ones are being created. Limoux, previously limited to crmant and blanc, has gained a rouge (previously sold as a vin de pays), while Faugres, previously solely for rouge and ros, has added blanc to its armoury (previously sold as Coteaux de Languedoc Blanc). So far, so uncontroversial. Both regions are well regarded, have established markets for their wines and, especially in Limoux's case, a logic as to why their wines should gain an AOC. As Georges Pous, who looks after Domaine Castel Negre, says: We are situated in a very interesting spot where we get both Mediterranean and Atlantic influence. We grow both the Mediterranean grapes, like Syrah and Grenache, and the Atlantic grapes Cabernet and Merlot. We are now the only appellation in the Languedoc where you can put both in an AOC wine.'

The other new appellations for 2005 - the first of the new wines, from the 2004 vintage, should hit the shops early next year - are crus' (sub-appellations of existing AOCs): Boutenac (formerly AOC Corbires), Roquebrun (formerly AOC St-Chinian) and Berlou (also formerly AOC St-Chinian). Also included in this group but born two years earlier, with the first of the wines already on the market, is Gres de Montpellier (formerly AOC Coteaux du Languedoc).

All the crus have slightly different grape requirements and slightly lower yields (mostly down from 50 hectolitres per hectare to 40) than their big-brother appellations and are designed to recognise the special terroirs' they each possess. Boutenac is the first of a potential 11 sites in Corbires to be recognised as such. One of the driving forces behind its creation is Grard Bertrand, the former rugby player who runs the eponymous wine company that spans the Languedoc's regions. In 1987 my father led the discussion with the INAO for Boutenac to be recognised, but the syndicat got involved and asked for another 10 terroirs to be recognised, and this slowed things down considerably. In 1999, the process was confirmed and assessments made. The process was finally completed for the 2004 vintage.' Boutenac can boast a terroir reminiscent of that of Chteauneuf-du-Pape, with its large, round gravel, and most of its 60 producers are making wines a cut above ordinary Corbires, boasting power and concentration.

The reason behind recognising the other two new crus, however, appears not to be so clear. Roquebrun, recognised for its startling schist terroir, is certainly a good wine region, but with just 12 producers and being dominated by a large co-op (with around half the production), it must be asked if it can ever, as an AOC, make enough noise to be properly recognised by the consumer. Berlou is even more extreme, with just a large co-op and two producers (although one, Domaine Rimbert, is undoubtedly excellent). Three producer-strong crus may work in Burgundy, but in St-Chinian it is far less certain.

The Bordeaux complex'

All of these AOCs have taken around 10 years of work (and in some cases more) to come to fruition, so the question must be asked: is it worth the effort in a region that appears to have more pressing needs (not least a liberalisation of the blending rules, as advocated by numerous companies)? Allain feels that the new AOCs, including Berlou, can work. It is not a lot of wine we are talking about here,' she says, and there are consumers that are always looking for something new, something special. And this provides it.'

Mas, a firm believer that the number of AOC wines should be slashed and kept only for premium products, is less sure.

I do feel it is a bit of a "Bordeaux complex",' he says. Some producers here are scared of being looked down on by regions such as Bordeaux, so they create complexity where none is needed. It is an expensive process.'

Although the creation of Gres de Montpellier can be seen as a success - and the quality of its producers, such as Terre Megre, Abbaye de Valmagne and Domaine Clavel, almost ensured it would be - the jury is still out on its new brethren. One thing is for sure: this will not make the Languedoc's problems go away, being more of a reward for its best producers rather than help for its most poverty stricken (which, in truth, may be no bad thing). If the crus eventually get the recognition of those of Beaujolais, for example, it will be worth it, however. As for the proposed super-appellation: as with most changes to French wine law, don't hold your breath.