There’s a lot to say about Languedoc-Roussillon, much of it unkind. Nicknamed the “wine lake” of Europe for its primary role in (over)producing wine in bulk to be sold cheaply, the region encompasses the most square mileage of any wine region in the world. It recedes from the western edge of France’s southeastern corner along the Mediterranean Sea — not quite Provence, not quite the Rhone, not quite Spain, so where’s the romance?

And with a continuing drop in Europeans’ French-wine consumption, the Languedoc-led glut is a national crisis — government programs support conversion to industrial alcohol and the pulling up of vines. Few of this area’s wines score auction attention or wine magazine top-100 roundups. (Hold your emails; there are exceptions to this generalization.)

But wine-industry ignominy, near-total restaurant wine list absence, overall consumer ignorance or interest in sexier regions, and consequent low prices are all terrific reasons to explore a wine region. Especially when the varietals are familiar, the flavors are approachable and so many of the worthwhile producers are committed to renewing their land’s reputation through sustainable farming practices and conscientious viticulture that have for so long been absent.

Many of the Vin de Pays, or VDP, Languedoc wines that make it out of France and into Maine are serviceable or more than — in balance, expressiveness and plain ol’ taste, and available for $7 to $10. They’re ideal weeknight-forget-about-it red wines. Ask at your favorite wine shop where the cheap Languedoc wines are, and you can just have a bottle or two around for whatever/whenever. You and your food will be a lot happier that way than with the blindfold pick with the cute label you pick up at a convenience store, and for even money.

Then it gets interesting. There are many, many different appellations in this region, including St. Chinian and Cotes-du-Roussillon south-ish, up through Corbieres and Minervois midway and veering west, then on and up to Pic-St-Loup (my favorite) and Costieres-de-Nimes.

The red varietals include Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan. Sometimes, these make the wines taste like the lusty, gutsy southern Rhone blends of the same grapes, and sometimes it doesn’t. (That’s how we know that “terroir” exists beyond the realm of concept alone.)

The Languedoc wines I’ve enjoyed recently express a richness and spicy profile that I find ideal for colder months. They can veer rustic and wild, but in some cases can be surprisingly refined. Sometimes they remind me of Cotes-du-Rhone, sometimes Bordeaux, sometimes (strangely) the Loire; always, France.

That’s maybe the highest compliment one can pay them — despite the flattening mass-production efforts of much of the Languedoc, the short starter list (not short list) below contains wines that not only represent sense of place, they represent one of the best places on Earth. These should get you started, but they’re unlikely to be where your own Languedoc adventures end.

Clot del Pila 2010, Cotes du Roussillon, $12 (Devenish): Hand-harvested Syrah, Grenache and Carignan from a single vineyard overlooking the Mediterranean, this represents so much of what the new Languedoc-Roussillon is hoping to associate itself with. It expresses a rural character, but is also supple and elegant. It’s got the richness of Raisinets and the grip of black licorice offset by splintering brightness at the end with cedar, cocoa and lots of spice, especially cinnamon. So much is going on here, yet not a hair’s out of place (the distinction between homogeneity and integration) as the languid tannins play out all leisurely-like.

Mas Carlot Les Enfants Terribles 2010, Costieres de Nimes, $15 (SoPo): From one of the better-known and better-loved appellations, this 50-50 Mourvedre-Syrah is a little wilder (hence the name) and significantly more structured than the Clot del Pila. (Thank you, oh sacred Mourvedre.)

Its scents are so enticing, so promising of the primal contentments of plunging, earthy red wine, I could spend an hour just sniffing it (and yeah, I do have other things going on in my life). From the nose to the tongue come first powerful cassis and licorice, then tar and pencil shavings and iron. These are good things. A what’s-this? flavor at first was discovered by my wife to be dill pickle; she was put off by that (I was attracted). But either way, after being open 15 minutes, the wine’s sheer exuberant grape-i-ness was more prominent through the finish.

Arbalete and Coquelicots 2010, Minervois, $14 (Wicked): The name means something like “Crossbow and Poppies,” an explicit homage to Guns ‘N Roses, though I’m not sure why. Unfiltered Grenache (70 percent) brings on waves of raspberry and a touch of cherry-tinged medicine at first, and from there it grows, perhaps due to the 30-percent Cinsault: Bacon fat, bitter chocolate, fennel seed and a what’s-for-dinner twiggy/barky thing that I just adore. Somehow, this is the wine that reminded me of the Loire or even Cru Beaujolais — bright acidity and Gamay-like grip, soft tannins, 12.5 percent alcohol as opposed to 14 percent in the other two mentioned above, and my instant desire for grilled sausages.

 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]