The Grape Varieties
Due to the climate, most of the white wines of the region have a medium to heavy mouthfeel, full of ripe-fruit flavour. Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier (jointly and separately) are great examples. However the wonderful local seafood demands some lemony, fresh whites and this is where Vermentino and Picpoul come in. The lighter regulation of IGT/IGP, combined with eth Languedoc’s love of experimentation, means that you can also taste wines from varieties that are not typically from the Midi region.
Muscat is mostly famous for its role in vins doux naturels – the loacl version of Port. However this family of (mostly) white grapes also make dry table wines that have the singular quality that they smell and taste like… grapes.
Bourboulenc is used a little in the Southern Rhône, but it has found its home as the star of La Clape wines. Although bone dry, its wines have notes of exotic fruits and blossom.
Piquepoul means ”lip-stinger“ because it is so acidic. This sharp and refreshing grape is used in brandy (Armagnac and Cognac), Vermouth (Noily Prat), sometimes in blends and most famously in the Picpoul de Pinet seafood accompaniment.
Vermentino is also known as Rolle. As well as being a great blending grape in the Mediterranean vineyards, it is Sardinia’s signature varietal. Saline and mineral, it has lime and stone-fruit flavours.
Marsanne has a rich and complex profile. It is usually blended, adding oranges, figs, almonds, beeswax and nut aromas to the “assemblage”.
Roussanne adds a silky texture to blends, as well as spicy and bready topnotes to its tree-fruit base.
Viognier makes heady, over-ripe, bruised-fruit southern European classics. Often high in alcohol and low in acidity, this sumptuous chewy fruitbomb can be found as a varietal, or in duocépages or blends.
Grenache Blanc is a mutation of Grenache Noir, and it excels in the vins doux naturels such from Roussillon, but also contributes to dry whites in the Mediterranean areas (where the winds protect it from mould). It can be powerful and persistent, with nectarine and herby notes.
Grenache Gris, with its pink skin, has a pleasant oily texture, and shares the flavour profile of the rest of the Grenache family.
Chardonnay is both an imposter and a local grape (in the Limoux region in the South West corner of the Languedoc). Southern Europeans Chardonnays have a satisfying mouthfeel, green apple and exotic fruit flavours.
Sauvignon Blanc is most famous as the elegant, vegetal and grapefruity cultivar from Bordeaux, Sancerre and New Zealand.
Chenin Blanc’s spiritual home is the Loire Valley (where it make steely, flinty classics), but it can produce great (ripe tree-fruit) wines in the warmer climate of South Africa too.
The red and rosé AOC wines are based on the 5 grape varieties of the Rhône: the GSM combination (Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre) accompanied by Carignan and Cinsault. A few other varieties are sometimes included in the blends – some names that you may recognise from Châteauneuf-du-Pape such as Counoise and Terret Noir. IGT/IGP wines might also include the Atlantic varieties of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Syrah is a thick-skinned grape that features peppery spiciness, black fruit (including blueberry) and savoury olive notes. Its full body and generous alcohol level mean that it excels as a varietal or in a blend.
Mourvèdre has a rich layered profile of dark berries, chocolate and smoky coffee. There is often a gamey flavour that can divide opinion.
Grenache Noir is an elegant, food-friendly grape from Spain that features bright red fruit, mint and liquorice. It blends beautifully too, and thrives in hot climates. There is a hairy version too…
Cinsault is often used in rosé wine because of its front-palate explosion of red fruits and white pepper.
Carignan was almost lost to France as it became deeply unfashionable in the 1990s. Luckily the old-vine versions gained a new following due to its dense cranberry and raspberry fruit qualities (as well as some black fruit), backed up by baking spices and savoury hints.
Alicante Bouschet is famously one of the rare “teinturier” grapes – that means that it has pink flesh. Typically from Southern Spain or Portugal, the wines taste of black fruits, tobacco and black pepper and are usually blended with other cultivars as they can be a bit rustic.
Merlot is the velvety, silky grape variety that gives Bordeaux blends its red fruit flavours, smooth tannins and animal notes.
Cabernet Sauvignon, also more common on the West coast of France, supplies the vegetal hints, blackberry flavours and acidity to famous Left Bank crus.
AOC/AOP vs IGT/IGP (vins de pays) and Vin de France
The AOC/AOP certification ensures that the wines are typical of the region, and controls irrigation, alcohol levels, grape varieties, hillsides, harvest dates, yield per hectare and other factors. Wines with the IGT/IGP (vin de pays) label have fewer restrictions, but must still be harvested and vinified in the region specified.
AOC Pic Saint Loup is the jewel in the crown of the Northern Languedoc. Its red grapes are harvested from around the eponymous mountain, on Jurassic limestone soils. The elevation ensures the cherished “diurnals” which lend the wines beautiful balance.
AOC Saint-Chinian has a secret weapon: altitude. The elevation of the vineyards – as well as the loose schist soil – gives these wines an extra freshness and complexity.
AOC Faugères offers wines with that epitomise the “garrigue”: a herby, vegetal quality that tempers the rich sunshine fruit flavours and helps the bottles marry perfectly with many local dishes.
AOC Les Terrasses du Larzac has had official status since 2014. Its northern boundary is the Causse du Larzac which includes the Mont Saint-Baudile. Only reds are produced, and a range of Rhôdanian cultivars are allowed in the blends, as well as the big 5.
IGT Saint-Guilhem-Le-Désert is located in the foothills of the Cévennes mountains, North-West of Montpellier. It has a long list of approved grapes, including Atlantic and Continental varieties. The limestone soil provides excellent drainage.
IGT Val de Montferrand is on the Westernmost edge of the Saint-Guilhem-Le-Désert IGP region.
IGT Coteaux du Salagou, situated on the hillsides around a man-made lake, benefits from the cooling effects of this large body of water.
AOC Corbières is situated quite a bit south of Montpellier – its Northern border is a line between Narbonne and Carcassonne. The (mostly red) wines are famously jammy, fruity, heavy and high in alcohol.
AOC Minervois reds are a little more refined than those from its Southern neighour of Corbières. Expect a little garrigue and better balance.