Over the past few years, the Languedoc region of France has been the scene of strange instances of wine terrorism. Last July, one of the terrorists was caught after being injured when his explosives accidentally blew up. I’m spending a few days here, sojourning with my wife at a wine estate that a couple of old friends bought earlier this year. The very fact that these friends were able to buy a gorgeous estate filled with Grenache, Syrah, and Cinsault vines in the rocky, dry hills outside of Carcassonne is indeed indicative of the region’s hard times.
“The roots of the problems here go back to the 1960s,” local winemaker Caroline de Beaulieu told me. It all started when wine became a ubiquitous, global product. Languedoc wines had been weak in the 1950s and 1960s, bolstered by stronger wines from the former French colony of Algeria, she said. “But when France lost Algeria, there was no longer any source.”
The lazy commodity grape-growing culture of Languedoc, however, didn’t change. Growers, de Beaulieu told me, continued producing huge amounts of nonquality grapes and simply dropping them off at the local co-op, which made all the wines. In the strange accounting of the region, growers were paid in installments two to three years after a harvest, based on what the co-op sold the wine for. So as wine sales began to tank, it took a long time for the news to settle in. Government subsidies and other political insulation likewise kept the growers from realizing the situation that was about to hit them, as shops around the world stocked their shelves with better, just-as-cheap wines from Chile, Australia, Spain, and Argentina. France’s high wages and mandatory 35-hour workweek have made it difficult to compete on price.
My wife’s old friend, Floris Lemstra, owner of Château Canet, told me about attending a growers’ meeting not long ago at which the results of a study were presented. “[It] found that the cost of making a bottle of wine here in the Languedoc was twice what the wines sell for. The growers were shocked to learn that they were losing so much money with every bottle.” The answer for the EU has been to offer growers 7,000 euros (almost $10,000) a hectare (2.5 acres) to pull out their vines. Many are taking the deal. “It’s a movement born of necessity, because people are going bankrupt, blowing things up, or blowing their own brains out,” said Lemstra. “2009 is the last year of the subsidies. After that, it’s ‘Welcome to the free market.’ In 2010, the people that are still here making wine will be the right people. There is a new generation, as well as immigrants to the region like me, who see quality as the way forward.”
Indeed, Languedoc’s vineyards are the oldest in France, traceable back to the fifth century BCE. California growers would kill for the chalk, limestone, and gravel soils. And while it gets hot here, the influence of ocean breezes and several mountain ranges serves to moderate the temperature. The most famous red wines—made of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Carignane—have an earthy minerality, deliciously chewy tannins, and a preponderance of dark, rich wild berry fruits. Lemstra’s Château Canet wines won’t be in the United States until next year, but there are already bottles from the new wave on the shelves. Take a look at the Domaine Famille Lignères Cabanon de Pascal, a spicy, exotic Grenache, full of cherry and red currant fruit, highlighted with cardamom and dried orange. Or check out the Khalkhal-Pamiès Loriza from the region of Minervois. A blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Carignane, it has a depth of blackberry fruit to go along with a savory, peppery brightness.
Wines like these point to better times ahead for the region. As Lemstra told me, “I’ve put every penny I have and lots that I don’t have into this. If you’re focused on making good wines and selling them at a decent price, I’m convinced this is the place to be.”