Ringo has an everything-goes attitude toward life and food. He is a puggle, a pug-beagle mix, a year old this week, who drives my family nuts with his insatiable appetite for just about anything. We have to toss a few kibbles in his crate to quiet the howlalujah chorus that serenades our family meals. He greets a properly fermented shoe with gusto. Most of all, he loves adventure.
He’s also enthusiastic about wine — at least, he enjoys licking the empty bottles we’ve set aside for the recycling bin. If Ringo were a French winemaker, I think he’d be at home in the Languedoc. Winemakers there share a similar joie de vivre.
This region along the Mediterranean has been known as France’s “wine reservoir,” producing boatloads of drinkable everyday plonk. Languedoc has a reputation for scandal, having historically supplied juice to more reputable regions that want to stretch their pricier wines. Modernity has not tamed the skulduggery: Three years ago, French authorities cracked down on a cooperative that had sold 18 million gallons of inexpensive merlot and syrah as pricier pinot noir to the U.S. wine company E.&J. Gallo for its Red Bicyclette brand.
But that rogue sense of adventure has a positive side as well. Languedoc is unbound by the traditions that have grown around Bordeaux and Burgundy over the centuries, traditions that dictate which grapes should be planted where. There are delimited appellations such as Corbieres, St. Chinian and Minervois, whose laws dictate certain grape blends, but much of the excitement today comes from wines simply labeled vin de pays. Younger winemakers are searching out prime vineyard sites, either for new plantings or for older parcels with well-established vines. They are establishing new frontiers to create distinctive wines.
Adventurous wine lovers should scour retail shelves looking for unfamiliar Languedoc locales such as Larzac, where Julien Zernott and Delphine Rousseau craft compelling, mineral reds from traditional southern French grapes at their Domaine du Pas de l’Escalette. In the Haute Vallee de l’Orb, the Belgian husband-and-wife team of Wim Wagemans and Katja Stickens apply the winemaking craft they learned in Australia to make several wines, including a delicious tempranillo, a grape rarely grown outside its native Spain. In Souvignargues, in the eastern part of the Coteaux du Languedoc appellation, Thierry Forestier makes a complex white from ugni blanc grapes and a compelling red from syrah and carignan at his Domaine Mont de Marie.
Of these wineries, Domaine du Pas de l’Escalette is the oldest, founded in 2002. Forestier started two years later, while Wagemans and Stickens created their Le Bouc a Trois Pattes label in 2008. They are all small family wineries that use no herbicides or pesticides in the vineyard and little or no oak in the winery. Although they (mostly) use grapes traditional to southern France, they are producing modern, delicious wines.
The quality of these wines can startle even those who bring them to market. “I started 20 years ago in Bordeaux, then the Loire Valley, and then I finally went to Languedoc,” says Franck Agostini of Promex Wines. “And wow.”
The wines have a way of expressing a sense of place, Agostini says: “It is amazing to smell the scents of the surrounding area in a glass of wine.”
The Languedoc “is a breeding ground for alternative vintners,” says Ed Addiss of Wine Traditions in Falls Church, an importer specializing in French family domaines. The warm, dry climate favors organic, biodynamic and even “natural” winemaking techniques, and the lack of historic regulation makes experimentation possible, he says.
Adventurous wines for adventurous palates, though I wouldn’t recommend pairing them with an old shoe.