France’s Languedoc is a study in the untrustworthiness of tradition. The “tradition” of the Languedoc is an aggressive emphasis on quantity over quality, manifest in faceless co-operative production and an indiscriminate planting of vines whether or not the soil and climate are suitable.

The old order of Languedoc wine production led to its bulk-based nickname: the “wine lake” of France. “Plonk pond” works as well.

That old order remains, though in diminished form: EU incentives over the past decade have led to significant uprootings and a roughly one-fifth reduction in overall land planted to vines. Into the remaining, higher-quality sites have moved an inspiring number of new, younger winemakers who are determined to mine some of these ancient lands’ geological riches for all their worth.

The bread-and-butter vineyards that supplied France’s vast market in cheap plonk have generally been in the region’s flatlands. These are easy to farm mechanically (large tractors, irrigation when desired, lots of pesticides), and the exceptional fertility of the nutrient-rich soils guarantees high output. It is at the higher elevations, more nooked-and-crannied, more sensitive to changes in weather, with poorer soils rewarding fewer grapes, that the very good wines are produced.

(Very good is my less than official term for wines that will never gain enormous acclaim, but serve the vast majority of wine-drinking situations better than anything, better even than “great,” since “great” wines require more specialized circumstances for appreciation.)

The Languedoc’s very good wines are reasonably priced – I’ve never encountered a single wine from the area at large, good or bad, with too high a tag – and deliver surprising character, balance and satisfaction. The more Languedoc wines I drink and enjoy, the more respect I’ve come to have for the category of very good. For there are great Languedoc wines – the Pic St-Loup appellation most reliably their home – but the strength of the Languedoc, and the perhaps more lasting worth this younger, energetic generation seems to be eliciting from it, belong to the realm of the very good.

In general, I find this class of wines in named Languedoc appellations based on specific terroirs. Wines labeled “Pays D’Oc” or even “Languedoc AOC” (formerly “Coteaux du Languedoc”) can be fine, but in an overtly generic, simplistic sort of way. In the past I’ve written columns focusing on Minervois and Corbières; today we move east, to the central Languedoc appellations of Faugères and Saint Chinian, the region’s oldest winemaking areas.

These are home to higher elevation sites, often meteorologically and topographically challenging, their sun-baked warmth moderated by the necessary cooling effects of steady Mediterranean breezes. The soil, crucially, is mostly schist, a metamorphic rock of compacted planes, vertically oriented to allow for deep vine penetration and easy water flow. The grapes are usually the classic mix from the area, including grenache, syrah, cinsault, mourvèdre and carignan. Especially for the latter few varietals, old vines are crucial for quality; the good producers don’t ignore this fact.

The wines can take various forms, of course, but some softly offered generalizations are defensible. I’m most taken by Saint Chinian wines’ bracing cut and pronounced minerality, a metaphorical splash of cold water to any palate battered by the blunt, overcooked fruit that clunky, lower-tier Languedoc wines offer up.

Good Saint Chinian wines’ fruit, succulent and slightly caramelized, is unmistakably southern French, but their balancing attributes of salinity, heated cast iron and olive pull its spirit northward. Cool and warm play off each other, respectfully. This is especially true in the northern reaches of the appellation where the soils are mostly schist, as opposed to the denser clay-based soils of its south that produce more generous, girthy wines.

In Faugères, a bit farther north with soils more fully given over to schist and therefore even less fecund, the wines are sleeker, their fat more fully shed. These are the Languedoc wines for drinkers who usually favor the oxymoronically cool friction of Beaujolais, Piemonte or Mount Etna.

Beyond their regional verisimilitude, the wines mentioned below express the energetic, sharply etched profiles of contemporary wines made using low-intervention practices. They are all made by young vignerons who farm organically, and sometimes biodynamically, relying on native yeasts for fermentation and neutral vessels for aging, and bottling the wines unfiltered, with extremely low sulfur additions.

Consequently, the wines taste like they haven’t traveled far from the land itself; the elements read clearly. They are stylish but stripped down, almost steampunky, their inner mechanisms transparently conveyed. Whereas the older way passes off industrial product as populist, producing wines that feel as if they’re hiding something, modern small-scale Languedoc wines prize lucidity and poise. They disclose the raw elements that existed in this place before a false tradition was foisted on them.

One practical note: A surprising trait of all these wines is how dramatically – and positively – they shift over time once opened. In a couple of cases, the transformation is so great that I’d suggest not drinking them until the next day – not that you’d perish or anything, but you’d get only their initial, impulsive hints of flavor and texture. Twenty-four to 60 hours open is ideal, as the components find each other and meld.

Domaine Bordes “Les Narys” Saint Chinian 2013, $18

A primarily sand-based soil, with some schist and limestone, produces a relatively powerful, broad-shouldered Saint Chinian, with lots of raspberry and blackberry flavors resting on soft tannins. The sandy soil resists phylloxera and so hosts some vines that are more than 100 years old, planted to carignan. Those grapes and some grenache support majority syrah (all farmed organically), an infamously reductive varietal which in this wine results in a strange, dishwatery aroma upon first opening. But after 15 minutes that sense is gone, giving way to a racy iron minerality threading through the deep, pulsing fruit.

Domaine Canet-Valette Saint-Chinian 2013, $15

A somewhat wild aromatic character comes through, due in part to long-term cuvaison (extended contact during fermentation with stems, seeds and skins). This quality is tamed by a gorgeously silky texture after decanting, and luscious flavor extraction, the result of assertive pigeage (the “punch-down” of the cap of wine solids, to integrate their qualities into the juice). The blend of organically grown carignan, cinsaut, grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, all harvested on the late side, emphasizes flavors of forest-grown red fruit.

Mas D’Alezon Faugères “Le Presbytère” 2014, $18

A vivid expression of soil’s effect on wine, this schist-birthed beauty is what brought me to my Beaujolais-Faugères analogy: raspy feel in the mouth, with some tannic grip supporting a sleek, welterweight frame. The fruit flavors are more cranberry, alongside olive and scrub-brush notes, roasty. It’s a blend of 80 percent grenache with the remainder syrah and mourvèdre, all from biodynamically farmed vines more than 70 years old. These are fermented long and slow with native yeasts, then aged in cement tanks and used oak barrels, with just a hint of sulfur added at bottling. The longer it’s open, the silkier it gets.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: