Languedoc wines set to get the respect they have long deserved

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 December, 2014, 11:23am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 11:18am

If the arrival of Chinese buyers is anything to go by, the Languedoc - always an underperforming French wine on the world stage - may be about to see its luck change.

It's been nearly seven years since the first Chinese purchase arrived in Bordeaux, with Château Latour-Laguens going under the hammer in January 2008. In three years, the value of Bordeaux imports into China had risen 191 per cent.

Since then, the fortunes of this iconic French region have seen a few precipitous falls, but it remains the largest presence in the Chinese market.

With this in mind, observers of Languedoc wines must be happy to learn that Château La Bastide, near to the ancient walled city of Carcassonne, with 61 hectares of vines and more than double that in parkland and forest, should be in Chinese hands by January.

The final agreement for the sale is with the French land agency SAFER, but it looks likely that Beijing-based HC International Wine Assets Management, already a distributor of French wines in China, will be given the all-clear for purchase.

Château La Bastide produces a wine bottled under the Corbières appellation, an area that accounts for 42 per cent of all AOC wines from the Languedoc. It makes well-priced, sunshine-filled bottles, and yet currently less than a quarter of its wines make their way outside of France.

La Bastide is something of an exception, with 95 per cent heading overseas. Choosing to buy a property with such a successful distribution network suggests that HC International is not planning to follow the strategy seen in Bordeaux of buying estates to import the entire production into China. Instead, it looks to benefit from its existing reputation.

The new owners might also have been attracted by the fact that, in 2013, the Languedoc was top of the list of French wine regions for exports by volume. But the average value of bottle remains low, and it continues to be overshadowed by the big three of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhône.

I rarely look to the Languedoc if I am buying an expensive bottle, despite grenache, carignan and mourvèdre being some of my favourite grapes when they are wrapped up in a Châteauneuf du Pape.

But recently, two moments made me reassess this approach. The first was with a glass of intense, taut chardonnay from Domaine de l'Aigle in Limoux. This is one of the most thrilling chardonnays I have tasted all year and is from a region that I have increasingly started to love, set in the foothills of the Pyrénées mountains.

The second was a lunch with the winemaker behind this bottle - Gérard Bertrand.

A former professional rugby player, Bertrand has achieved the seemingly crazy feat of converting almost 364 hectares of vines to biodynamic farming.

What's more, it's not converted into one easy-to-farm mega vineyard, but piecemeal, plot by plot, across seven different estates in a variety of Languedoc appellations.

This is a man who has already proved he likes a challenge. Around six months ago, he issued a three-year guarantee to consumers buying his Naturae range.

"Natural wines" (meaning bottled without the use of any sulphur or any other additives to offer protection against oxidation or bacterial spoilage) are often criticised as experimental oddities.

But the Naturae range, imported by Summergate into China, is aimed at a far wider audience, and the guarantee is a smart attempt to shoot down critics before they get revved up.

His approach to biodynamics is similarly ambitious. Starting 10 years ago with Domaine de Cigalus, Bertrand became convinced of the difference it made to his wines, and felt - and I quote - a moral obligation to extend it across as many of his vineyards as he was able.

He has now achieved that with Châteaux L'Hospitalet, La Sauvageonne, Tarailhan, Aigle, Aigues-Vives, La Soujeole and Clos d'Ora. This doesn't mean dabbling in corners of the vineyards - all of them are either already Demeter-certified, or in the process of being so.

"Just seeing how much organic food and wine has been accepted by supermarkets gives me hope for humanity, but biodynamics goes further," he said over lunch in a smart bistro in Bordeaux.

"It brings an awareness of the spiritual dimension of wine to all who work with it, and binds us together with nature. It forced me to question my approach to things beyond wine. I have come to realise that it's not just our winemaking that is changing, but the desires of consumers all over the world," Bertrand said.

"They are starting to ask more of the products they buy; for them to be healthy, to taste good and to do no harm to the wider world."

His 364 hectare plot makes Bertrand the largest biodynamic producer in France (and globally, as far as I am aware).

It's an impressive achievement that is going to bring the Languedoc the respect it has deserved for so long.

Jane Anson is a Bordeaux-based wine writer