Focus on the Languedoc

Although prices for some top Languedoc wines are climbing beyond the $30 level, most reds from this part of Mediterranean France still sell for less than $15, making the better Languedoc bottles the world's sexiest inexpensive wines. On my recent tour of the Languedoc in early May, I encountered the full range of styles for which this vast region has become known: slightly fruitier versions of southern Rhone wines like Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas; midweights that resemble spicy, hot-year Bordeaux, but with less tannic structure; aromatically complex bottles with the density and floral, dark berry and grilled meat flavors of Northern Rhones; and thinner, rustic, more roasted wines that call to mind the hot-country reds of Spain.

Despite the high points-and most of the estates I visited produce very good to outstanding wine-the Languedoc is still very much an emerging region, at least as far as its capacity to produce world-class wine is concerned. Although stars rise every year, consistently good sources are still the exceptions. For starters, relatively few wineries have the modern vinification facilities (including the ability to control temperature from vinification all the way through to bottle storage) necessary to produce fresh wine in this sunbaked part of France. But with demand for the region's wines strong, and prices rising, more and more estates have the cash to upgrade their winemaking plants.

Potential pitfalls. During the course of my visits and group tastings, and in sampling many additional bottles in New York, I found too many gritty, overextracted wines. Extractive techniques were often the wrong way to handle the thick-skinned grapes of 1998, a drought year. Many producers have only recently begun to adopt barriques to age their wines, and doing this successfully is often a matter of trial and error requiring several vintages of experience. I tasted numerous wines that were clearly overoaked or were allowed to lose their fruit before being bottled.

High yields also leave vineyards vulnerable to rot during periods of humidity and rain. And where crop thinning at veraison does not eliminate the less-ripe bunches, the result at harvest time is often an exaggerated range in the ripeness of a vineyard's fruit. I've come across too many Languedoc wines that awkwardly combine pruney and green components, even from years known for their ripeness.

The Languedoc also has a widespread problem with chloranisols such as TCA. I use TCA as shorthand to describe a group of compounds in the chloranisol family that manifest themselves in the same way as bad corks. Certain insecticides and sealants used until fairly recently to treat wood surfaces in many wineries in France, particularly in Bordeaux, can penetrate and corrupt the wood surfaces of a winery in a humid, poorly ventilated environment: the beams in the walls or the ceiling, the wood pallets, and, eventually, the barrels. In a polluted environment, it can take years for a winery to recognize that the problem has reached the wines themselves; often, the wines can be identified as flawed only when they are tasted at a neutral site, or in peer group tastings alongside unaffected bottles from other cellars. By then, fixing the problem requires radical action that taxes the financial capabilities of a small estate.

Many Languedoc estates purchase their used barrels from chateaux in Bordeaux, and, given the widespread problems with chloranisols in Bordeaux in recent years, this relationship may be a major source of the problem. It does not take many tainted barrels to compromise a cuvee's fruit aromas and dry out its fruit. In the Languedoc this spring, I encountered one or more wines from a good dozen estates that showed a distinct mustiness on the nose, and a green, hard dryness in the mouth and on the finish-in most cases, I believe, a direct result of TCA. Fear of buying bad barrels has led many Languedoc estates to increase their percentage of new wood (not necessarily with positive results, if the underlying raw material cannot support the oak treatment), while others told me they have switched to using old Burgundy barrels.

The good news. When growing conditions are right, yields are moderate, and winemaking facilities are adequate, the top producers of the Languedoc make flamboyantly rich, satisfying wines. As the Languedoc's most talented winemakers continue to reduce yields and to replace the ubiquitous carignan with nobler varieties like syrah, cabernet and even merlot, they are producing darker, fresher, stronger wines with greater finesse and stability in bottle. Now is the perfect time to discover the best estates of the Languedoc, because the current vintage in the market, 1998, is of generally high quality, and the next one, 1999, though wildly inconsistent, has produced a number of extremely heady and successful wines. Most Languedoc wines offer considerable early appeal (many '98s, though, are atypically backward), but the most concentrated and balanced of them promise to develop in bottle for five to ten years, or even longer.

The 1998 vintage. This was generally a strong year across the Languedoc, although summer heat and drought conditions blocked the maturing process in many sites. Harvest conditions were generally good, and in some spots the fruit ripened quickly during a compressed time frame. Grape skins tended to be thick, and there is a distinct dry edge to the tannins of '98, even where they are light. (Overextracted wines may always remain tannic and dry, but those vinified with a lighter hand have a habit of mellowing with bottle age.) In a drought year, when the phenolic maturity is blocked, wines can be austere early and slow to express themselves. But the best reds of 1998 have the structure and balance to develop slowly in bottle. However, the whites in '98 generally lack delineation of aromas; they are often substantial in the mouth but dull.

An early look at 1999. This vintage is considerably more uneven, though it appears at this early date that top-flight wines will exceed those of '98 in quality. The growing season was characterized by a humid, showery summer that necessitated constant vigil and vineyard treatments. Rains in September brought rot in some sites, and a destructive hailstorm on September 6 (the same weather system that wreaked havoc in St. Emilion on the night of September 5) caused localized damage in and around Lentheric (in the Faugeres appellation), Pezenas and Saint-Pargoire. As in St. Emilion, where the fruit was not yet ripe when the hail hit, the grapes had to be brought in early in rather poor condition, and some estates reported significant crop losses. Generally speaking, the incidence of rot was more widespread on the plain around Beziers and at sites closer to the Mediterranean.

The best '99s have more of everything than the best '98s: more fruit, higher grape sugars, brighter acidity, better phenolic maturity. (As one grower in Aniane put it, "Sixty percent of the vintage is rotten, and the rest is great.") Many growers who performed well describe their '99s as uncommonly well balanced. The best of these wines will be showy early on, but should age gracefully. Potential production was generally higher in '99, with some swelling of the grapes from the rains, but estates that practiced strict triage typically will bottle about the same amount of wine as in '98. For the white wines of the region, the vintage conditions produced an uncanny combination of ripe fruit and juicy acids. At the level of the top producers, the '99 whites give out vibrant and often atypically floral fruit aromas, in direct contrast to the flatter notes of crabapple, honey and white chocolate that too often plague white wines from Southern France.

A brief word on nomenclature. While microclimates vary considerably among the important appellations of the Languedoc, many of the most interesting sites of the region are on limestone-rich soil along a line of hills roughly paralleling the coast, stretching from La Liviniere (the favored village for Minervois) in the southwest corner of the Languedoc, through Saint-Chinian, Faugeres and Montpeyroux, to Pic Saint-Loup, north of Montpellier. All these appellations lie considerably inland from the Mediterranean, and frequently benefit in summer from cooling northerly breezes off the mountains. Faugeres and Saint-Chinian were the first two areas in the Languedoc to be granted appellation controlee status (1982), followed three years later by Minervois, Corbieres and the broader appellation of Coteaux du Languedoc. There are also a number of villages within the greater Coteaux du Languedoc appellation that are allowed to append their names to that of the appellation, including such favored spots as Pic Saint-Loup, Montpeyroux, Saint-Drezery, La Clape and La Mejanelle, the latter two located on the Mediterranean.

I limited my tasting visits in May to Coteaux du Languedoc sites in the departement of L'Herault. Although I did not visit estates in Minervois or Corbieres, I did conduct group tastings that included many dozens of these wines from the '98 vintage. I have provided notes on the standouts. As a rule, I have included notes only on those unfinished '99 reds I tasted sur place, at the 20 or so estates I visited. Note that many of the Languedoc's top wines are still bottled as vins du pays, either because they are made at sites not specifically delineated by the INAO or because they feature grape varieties, or percentages of varieties, not approved for their appellations. I have also not generally reported on the host of varietally designated VdP wines made in the region to capitalize on the wine-drinking world's slakeless thirst for cheap bottles from sunny climes. With a few notable exceptions, these wines are of little interest to serious wine lovers: the mostly skinny merlots, the weedy cabernets, and the watery versions of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay are among the grimmest wines to be found in the market at any price.