Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Grand new order of things

Anyone who follows the Languedoc wine scene will probably have read about the new wine hierarchy of Grands Vins du Languedoc and Grands Crus du Languedoc. Commenting objectively is tough as little has been announced.

The body concerned is CIVL (Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc) who translate this to “the joint trade council of the wines of Languedoc”. Note CIVL doesn’t cover Roussillon who may be observing this with bated breath. CIVL receive funding from anyone who produces wine in exchange for the right to label it “AOC Minervois” or equivalent, so it's reasonable to assume they represent winemakers interests at all levels. Their President is, after all, Frédéric Jeanjean who owns that giant of a producer Jeanjean.

The problem being addressed is that the Languedoc Appellation system is too complex, the result of gradual developments as more areas and sub-areas qualified for AOC status over the years. It needs simplifying and it needs to be clear to the consumer. In fairness to CIVL it’s a case of they’re dammed if the don’t and perhaps dammed even more if they do. To their credit they've made a move with the launch of the new order of vineyard areas, although some ratification is needed by the INAO – the AOC authority for all agricultural products in France.

The terms “Grand Vin” and “Grand Cru” are going to be recognised by any consumer of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Alsace. The Rhone and Beaujolais regions were more modest with simply named “crus” for the better areas or villages such as Gigondas or Fleurie. While “Grand” is quite a brazen tag, Languedoc wine is now in a global market and bold confidence is needed.

My initial reading of the announcement was like a schoolboy eyeing sports league tables – who was placed where. The Grand Crus are Minervois La Livinière, Corbières Boutenac, Saint Chinian Roquebrun, Terrasses du Larzac, Grès de Montpellier, Pic Saint Loup, Pézenas, La Clape and Limoux (still wines). The Grands Vins du Languedoc are Minervois, Corbières, Saint Chinian, Limoux (sparkling wines), Malepère, Faugères, Cabardès, Muscat areas and part of the Terroirs des Coteaux du Languedoc including Picpoul de Pinet.

My schoolboy reaction was how come Faugères isn’t a Grand Cru (and what have they done to upset CIVL), that Grès de Montpellier covers a large diverse area with few exceptional wines, and I couldn’t think of a wine from Corbières Boutenac. On further research it turns out some AOC sub-areas were created in 2005 including Boutenac and Roquebrun in Saint Chinian. Awarding them Grand Cru status seems consistent with that initiative, although why not Saint Chinian Berlou as well? On a positive note the catch all “Coteaux du Languedoc” disappears.

For wine lovers the real Languedoc is about the vignerons; the small independents or even the more interesting of the larger enterprises such as Paul Mas. The authorities are still sticking to the principle that quality of the terroir and restrictive rules about grape varieties is what matters in a classification. This was appropriate for a time when all wine was made in pretty much the same way before the technology and knowhow revolution. I’m all for terroir, but quality grape growing and accomplished winemaking must be in place first and foremost. Only then can it be about the all important efforts to make the wines express their origins.

For more on this and a winemaker's perspective do read Ryan's O'Vinyards Winemaker Blog


  1. Your final paragraph is the key Graham. Having just spent in the area I can attest on huge variation in the same village never mind area. I tasted some pretty ordinary wines from well known producers, some pretty dire wines from some. Yet their next door neighbours (literally) were producing excellent wines.
    These Grand Cru areas are far too wide. Limoux still wines as Grand Cru? All of them? Not for me.
    I have to support your views on Faugeres too. The village is one of the most clearly distinguished of all Languedoc areas, with some top class producers (better than Limoux imo).
    However, some of the best producers I visited, Cébene / Turner-Pageot for example, did not produce under the village names anyway. So back to the producer again!

  2. Thanks for the link. I'll admit my first reaction was very similar to yours (Why isn't Cabardes Grand Cru?), but honestly, I knew why long ago. Politics and pricing. The Cabardes is too small to be very active in the CIVL assemblees. And we're too small to pull much weight with them in terms of cotisations. And the fine wine producers like me are too small to offset the large, less expensive sales (since price per bottle is one of the considerations for the grands crus). ho hum.

  3. I too am confused. Grand Cru for sub-regions of Saint-Chinian and Corbieres (presumably relegating the rest to the second tier). What about the many excellent growers around the town of Saint-Chinian itself? And Boutenac better than (for example) Montagne d'Alaric? And seemingly no mention at all of Nimes. Malepere goes from VDQS to Grand Vin in the space of a few years(?) Who made these decisions? Presumably, the one who now has several brown envelopes stuffed with cash sitting under the mattress!

    Terrasses du Larzac is a no-brainer, of course - lots of great names in that area. Gres de Montpellier perhaps less so, but it does cover a similarly large area and does have a few stars (La Marfée for instance!).

    All-in-all, though, this new "order" is at best a sidewards step and at worst a backwards one.

  4. Is this making it clearer for the consumer? Or just more confusion? There seem to be so many questionable decisions....just from the three comments above.
    Perhaps more time could be spent reducing the quangos such as CIVL, CIVR, AOC, Sud de France, SOPEXA and Agrimer name a few. Then have one cohesive marketing body for the wines of the south of France. This would severely reduce costs and duplication and surely make it easier for the consumer?

  5. Good commentry Graham. I think we have a problem of the rule-setters living in the past and looking at Beaujolais and the Cotes du Rhone for their only inspiration. the presidents of various sub-regions, some relatively unknown, are jockying for position, hoping that what is decided today will be set in stone for the future. These "crus" are of massive importance to the grape growers - both cooperative and independent. The price for bulk wine, which most of them produce, is determined by such appellations and can quadruple the price of the crop.

    Personally I think the bodies should just define recognisable regions and let the producers prove themselves worthy of the tags. But, as people have said. In every village there are producers making great wines from the same terroir as those making plonk. This league table is really only of interest to the latter. It's still plonk but it's now grand cru plonk!

  6. Indeed Graham. None of this is new anyway, they've been talking about it for years. And the result? Falling back on boringly conservative terminology to satisfy the French market that's been hoodwinked into believing "Grand" means something. Grand Vin de Bordeaux springs to mind, adorning just about every label of any old wine made in that region priced from €2 to €2000 a bottle. As the CIVL's policy of establishing just "Languedoc AOC" (logical in many ways) is taking hold, and hence "Coteaux du L" has become redundant; they've had to go down the other route at the other end for higher quality, so-called vins de terroir. Which inevitably (what else can they do I suppose?) ends up with selecting a lot of unknown village names, which will take time to explain and promote. The main problem ,as ever, is local politics ending up with meaningless compromises and so-called "crus" (meaning either grown or nurtured or believed-in, as in with recognised potential) that cover far too large an area. What's wrong with say the real Burgundy model, where you can see certain grand cru vineyards in front of you on certain terrain, and another one next to it or higher up etc? Tangible differences in terrain, climate etc. that can translate into the glass (although not always of course). Or the top Bordeaux chateaux classification, for all its faults, which is at least based more or less on perceived quality and price performance over a long period of time.
    Gérard Gauby once told me that it was probably too late for a proper "cru" system to be established in the Roussillon, for various reasons I won't go into here, and, anyway, he focuses on making Cotes du Roussillon Villages "Gauby". Meaning you earn your reputation. So, it will of course take time to make these things work and it's clear that e.g. Grés de Montpellier is just too bizarre as a classification and won't help to convince. But e.g. Boutenac might work (especially as they haven't dictated a policy of using lots of Syrah like Minervois la Liviniere, making often charming but samey wines there), there are a few very good wines being made here (see my website). The key is to make sure they don't let through anything that's average or worse, as happened in the past with the AOC system.
    It's true Faugeres already shows more terroir uniformity and some great quality, maybe because it's smaller than the others and is based more logically on a certain soil type etc. There's nothing stopping them developing village crus within Faugeres, as long as they don't make the same mistake and stick to a very focused area including just two or three villages say. E.g. Cabrerolles? Same goes for Cabardes e.g. Aragon? Enough of the rant! Cheers, Richard.