Languedoc plays the quality card
Published:  27 August, 2008

These are dramatic times in the Languedoc. A region that has built its reputation on cheap, varietal vins de pays is growing increasingly concerned with its image. The talk in the south of France these days is not just about dutifully supplying the world's supermarket buyers with the price-fighting own-labels they demand. Now the emphasis is on AOC, and in particular the new appellation contrôlée of Languedoc.

Nobody is suggesting that the Languedoc (or to give its fuller geographical name, Languedoc-Roussillon) is likely to end its reliance on vins de pays any time soon. Indeed, in 2006, vin de pays wines accounted for about 68 per cent of the total harvest in the region, according to figures from CIVL and French customs. But with the region's export sales suffering in virtually every major market, it is hardly surprising that producers are trying harder to impress wealthier consumers.

The decision to replace the Coteaux du Languedoc AOC with an expanded "Languedoc" appellation was approved last spring. This base-level AOC has been extended to include Minervois, Cabardès, Fitou, Limoux as well as everything previously encompassed by the original appellation.

It followed hot on the heels of the "Sud de France" labelling initiative, designed to give Languedoc's confusing collection of vins de pays and AOC wines a unifying marketing tag in export territories. The scheme was applauded locally as an example of how producers could cut through bureaucracy and sub-regional rivalries and unite in a pragmatic, consumer-focused initiative. The irony is that the scheme has met with lukewarm support internationally (with many critics pointing out, not unfairly, that Provence and Gascony are also in the south of France).

Will AOC Languedoc do better? Christine Molines, export manager for the CIVL, clearly hopes so. As she points out, individual AOCs further up the quality pyramid have been required to toughen their own rules as a result of the general shake-up in the region, so in theory, a Minervois or a Faugères should be made to more exacting standards in 2008 than was the case in 2006.

It has, she says, been a long journey to get this far, and attitudes - in Languedoc and elsewhere - will not change overnight. But she argues that "the majority of people" are pleased with the reforms. "You need a little time to adapt and understand the process and we're communicating a lot with them," she says.

"AOC Languedoc will be the base of the pyramid and the other appellations will have to be above in terms of quality. It means that each appellation has to modify their own decree."

== Easing the confusion ==

The Languedoc has a winemaking history to compete with any of its aristocratic rivals in France, but created its first AOC as recently as 1948, when Fitou was born. Molines accepts that consumers are not as familiar with the various appellations as they are with, for example, Chablis, Burgundy or Bordeaux. The brutal truth is that the region's country wines probably score more highly in terms of consumer recognition: Vin de Pays d'Oc has a consumer franchise (though not a retail price) that would be the envy of Saint-Chinian or Pic Saint-Loup.

Molines is not predicting that more Languedoc wines will, as a proportion, be produced under the AOC system. The ambition is merely to be more successful with the small percentage of Languedoc wines that have appellation contrôlée status. "Vins de pays exist by themselves and AOC wines are on their own, but we have a lot of common concerns. This is a chance for the Languedoc to be able to promote both systems."

Critic Jancis Robinson MW admits to some bemusement over the creation of AOC Languedoc. "This development presumably gives those individual appellations such as Pic Saint-Loup and Picpoul de Pinet, which used to fall within the embrace of Coteaux du Languedoc, a step up in status, effectively equalising them with other stand-alone appellations such as Minervois and Corbières," she says. "But it seems a great shame to me that there is a danger of Roussillon culture and wines, so very distinctive and different from those of the Languedoc, losing their identity.

"The wines sold as Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon-Villages will be easy to spot as all-Roussillon wine, but from now on presumably we may encounter AOC Languedoc wines that contain all-Roussillon wine, or Minervois mixed with Côtes du Roussillon, or Minervois and Corbières combined in the same bottle. The new super-region takes in virtually all of the central south of France, from the Spanish border almost to Avignon. I can't really see the point, except for the odd big bottler who wants to build a branded AOC Languedoc wine." 

But Anne Burchett, managing director of Castel UK, has more sympathy for the reforms : "The idea of having Languedoc as opposed to Coteaux du Languedoc is an effort to simplify the situation," she says. "I find it hard to get my head around all the sub-appellations, which are even harder for consumers to understand.

"Even the growers don't know what comes from other regions, but they expect the consumer to know in great intricate detail what the wine contains."

Castel's output in the region is heavily weighted towards vins de pays. "In the Languedoc-Roussillon, the AOCs are less well known by the consumer than the vin de pays varietals," says Burchett. "It's just that consumer demand meant that the varietal bias grew and grew while the AOCs remained fairly niche."

== Favourable reviews ==

Confusion over AOCs in the region will not be entirely eliminated by the recent reforms, even if they do go some way to simplifying the situation in the minds of trade buyers and consumers. But this would be academic if the wines sheltering under the AOC umbrella were uninspiring. Despite falling exports, a shrinking vineyard area and violent unrest among some in the viticultural community, the Languedoc is making wines that are reviewed favourably around the world.

Dan Jago, who heads the drinks department of UK retail giant Tesco, believes that much of the work done in the region to demarcate production areas and give individual AOCs their own identity gets "lost in translation".

"Consumers would like to have the unique selling points of regions communicated to them in a simple way rather than merely the fact they exist," he says. "The Languedoc makes some fantastic wines, and if you explore some of the Rhône varietals being used in blends, I think Languedoc has got some lovely things down there, involving more than a few international wine people."

But Jago is hesitant to say that a reformed AOC structure will, by definition, result in a sales increase. "It will inevitably be promotions that bring people into the category in the first place, and people will come back to it if it delivers a fantastic, refreshing glass of wine."

Peter Greet, who oversees the buying team at Direct Wines, the world's biggest direct-mail merchant, approves of AOC Languedoc. "The AOCs are amazingly good value," he adds. "People have been saying it for years, but it's true. In the run-up to this vintage, they've been incredibly good value."

Castel's Burchett believes the region is genuinely living up to the promise that first got the international wine trade excited a decade or more ago. "It's still probably one of the most exciting regions to be a winemaker in," she says.

"Where we have perhaps failed is in our marketing approach. Ten years ago, there was a lot of papering over the cracks because it takes time to turn a region around. A lot of what was done was done on a small scale and given a lot of exposure - it was a work in progress.

"In the region now, we have a much more professional approach to winemaking. Most co-operatives have completely upgraded their equipment and you have a network of consultants and flying winemakers. The fruits of what happened 10 years ago are now pretty obvious in the quality of the product. The problem is that an elusive, massive French brand with added value for the consumer has failed to materialise. I remain convinced we have at least the same potential as Chile and Argentina to create strong brands and something that's easy to understand."


=== Languedoc-Roussillon exports (AOC and vin de pays products) ===

Value share Value change (05-06)

1 Germany 18% -15%

2 UK 15% -7%

3 Canada 14% -4%

4 Belgium 14% -3%

5 Netherlands 12% -17%

6 Switzerland 5% -6%

7 US 5% 0%

8 Denmark 5% +2%

9 Japan 4% -2%

10 Sweden 2% -28%

Sources: CIVL/French Customs/GTI


=== Rising prices - and tensions ===

For Languedoc vins de pays, marketing and commerce have often been controlled by retailers. The region has been exploited for years by buyers in search of quick-fix, unremarkable wine they can shift in large volumes at low prices, without offering the prospect of a more mutually profitable relationship. They have relied on the fact that co-ops will often settle for low prices if they at least have the security of their vats being emptied.

In the eyes of some, buyers have abused the region's good nature. Whether they will be able to do so in the future is an open question.

The fact that the 2007 harvest has been generally short around the world has had the inevitable effect on prices. This has been compounded by a lack of cheap white wine from Charentes, where resurgent Cognac (and German sekt) producers have snapped up supplies. Mildew in Gascony has driven demand towards the Languedoc, and there are reports of banks offering short-term loans at favourable rates to producers who want to speculate on the rising price of the wine in their vats.

As basic vin de table prices go up, there is a knock-on effect with vins de pays and AOC wines.

One producer told Drinks International that long-term contracts were being effectively torn up as growers hold out for higher bidders. In a region where so many producers have faced ruin, and which will contend with more uncertainty when the EU stops sanctioning crisis distillation of unsold stocks, such opportunism is perhaps only to be expected.

If the Vignobles de France proposal comes into effect, allowing producers to source grapes and blend wines from across the country, Languedoc producers can expect intensified price pressure from producers of cheaper wines in other parts of France. This, critics argue, could lead to the elimination of terroir characteristics from lower-priced French wines in general.

Jacques Gravegeal, president of the Union of Producers of Vin de Pays d'Oc, says: "The Vignobles de France will have the consequence of destroying the quality revolution that has taken place over 20 years in our region."


=== Famous five: how Languedoc brands have fared ===

== Arrogant Frog (Domaines Paul Mas) ==

Described as " Old World wines with New World attitude", the range was created by Mas, a widely acclaimed varietal winemaker, to capitalise on Britain's peculiar relationship with the French. Achieved good publicity, but not among the current front-runners in the French sector of the UK.

== Cuvée Mythique (Val d'Orbieu) ==

Differs from most rivals with its premium price tag. A Vin de Pays d'Oc regarded as one of the flagship wines of this association of some 180 growers.

== Fat Bastard (Guy Anderson Wines) ==

A marketing phenomenon in the US . Wines are sourced from the Gard, Hérault and Aude, the result of a joint effort between Anderson and French winemaker Thierry Boudinaud. The name is also intended as a taste descriptor.

== Mont Tauch ==

Respected co-operative in Fitou, producing AOCs under its own brand name as well as vins de pays. Exports to the UK and Scandinavia but also has a widespread following in France.

== Red Bicyclette (E&J Gallo) ==

Gallo's vin de table is intended as an approachable entry to the French wines sector for the more nervous US consumer. The wines are produced by the Sieur d'Arques co-operative and have made good progress in the US, but they haven't yet had quite the same impact in the UK.

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