There are changes afoot in Southern France. Rarely now will you see large plastic jerry cans being filled up with good old plonk for €1/ltr from what looks like a remodelled petrol pump at the local winery. Today, certainly in the appellations that have any level of international recognition, you are more likely to de welcomed into a pristine visitor tasting room and shop, where you'll see rows of smartly labeled bottles ready to be purchased. Head off the beaten track and of course you'll still find plenty of very small scale producers making wines just for local consumers, but such has been the investment and influx of winemaking expertise into the Languedoc and Roussillon regions in recent years that there are many forward-thinking commercial operations producing exceptional wines for the international market.
This was highlighted to me on a recent 3 day trip to the region. I have long been a fan of the wines from Southern France, but what struck me was just how quickly producers are now moving to keep up with global wine trends. New grape varieties are being planted, new vineyard management regimes being introduced and wineries being updated with state-of-the-art equipment. It's not that long ago that vineyards in much of the Languedoc weren't trellised, instead being traditionally grown as bush vines. Today most vineyards are organised into laser-straight rows of vines grown along wires. This makes vineyard management easier, and also allows for greater mechanisation. There has also been a move to replanting with more commercial grape varieties. For red wines you are now as likely to see Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or even Pinot Noir and Malbec as you are the more traditional Grenache, Syrah, Carignan etc. And what's more, you'll probably also see the grape variety/ies proudly listed on the wine bottle label.
All this mechanisation, gleaming new stainless steel filled wineries, re-planting and foreign winemaking knowledge may lead you to the conclusion that the wines are all likely to become a little more generic, and that the rustic charm will be lost, but fear not, alongside this large scale investment is a whole new wave of thinking when it comes to winemaking. Many producers are now striving to produce something rather more natural, to let nature run its course and reduce intervention. By this I'm not so much referring to the growing 'natural wine' movement but to the move towards more organic, sustainable agriculture. A recent move by the Corbieres appellation requires producers in the region wishing to have their wines certified AOC from 2024 onwards to demonstrate that they are working sustainably, organically or biodynamically or in conversion. Moves like this will, hopefully, ensure that terroir as much as winemaker intervention will continue to determine the end product.
For sheer variety of wine styles there are still few regions that can compete with the Languedoc and Roussillon (although few are as large), and I for one think this is where you'll find some of the best value wines from anywhere on earth. The best news of all, however, is that your risks of getting a 'bad bottle' from this area of France are diminishing all the time.