Reading this blog, it doesn’t take long to figure out that I’m fascinated by a lot of aspects of wine. Scientific issues for sure, and of course the interactions of food and wine. But I also enjoy some of what people might consider the more mundane rules and regulations, like labeling and how wines are classified where they’re made. The trip I recently took to the Languedoc in southern France was a great education in how regional wine classifications are developed and how they can potentially be used to promote regional wines. I knew a little about the wines of the region before I got there, but got to learn a lot more. Oh yes, and taste a lot of them, too. I left a happy man!
My journalist friends tell me it’s a good idea to get disclosure out of the way as soon as possible, so here it is: I was invited on the wine-tasting tour in the Languedoc by one of the associations representing the region’s wine producers. For six days in April, 11 of us were wined and dined, housed on a beautiful estate (seriously, check it out here) and taken through a lot of gorgeous countryside. We got to meet and talk with winemakers, which is always a treat, and visit spectacular places.
So as I was drooling over the itinerary of the trip before I left, I started to wonder why it is that the producers had to go to all this trouble and expense. After all, they had to figure that we winos already knew that the Languedoc produces more wine than any other region in France, and it is probably the most ideal place in the country for growing wine grapes. It has everything going for it.
The climate is warm and the sun shines more than 300 days per year, which makes for optimum ripening conditions and consistent vintages. The Tramontane winds come from the northwest most of the year and keep the grape leaves dry and free of fungus, which means that there’s less need for chemical intervention. At times during the growing season the Marin winds also blow in from the Mediterranean Sea, bringing just a little humidity to intensify the aromas and maturity of the fruit. The topography — between the Pyrenees to the south and the Massif Central to the north — creates a natural basin that funnels the not-too-abundant rain into natural underground reserves for use by the vines. And the stony soil of the region means that heat gets absorbed during the day and released at night, preventing huge temperature swings.
The result is a whole lot of wine, and a lot of really good wine, too. And plenty of it gets exported to the U.S. Most of you have had some. But as I discovered during the tour, only about 10% of the wines produced in the region have legible words on the labels indicating that they came from the Languedoc, which means that most people drinking the wines could have no idea where they come from without a magnifying glass and an atlas. (Contrast this to all the wines labeled as Côtes du Rhône in the adjacent wine region, which lets you know where the wines come from.) Those officially-designated wines were the ones that the Conseil Interprofessioniel des Vins du Languedoc (or CIVL) brought the 11 of us over to taste.
As I’ve explained before, a lot of wines in France are named for the place where the grapes are grown, whether a region (like Côtes du Rhône or Bordeaux) or a village (like Gigondas in the Southern Rhône Valley or St. Emilion in Bordeaux). If a wine is allowed to be named for a place, there are rules about what grapes that wine can contain and how it’s made. These are called AOC wines, short for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. (It sounds nicer in French than saying “controlled origin,” doesn’t it?) While it’s confusing at first to have wines not named for the grapes in them, when you drink a wine with a place name on the label in large letters, you at least know where it comes from.
If a French wine doesn’t have a place as its name, but is named for the grape it contains — like most of the wine produced in the U.S. — then in general it has a lower classification in the French system. The wine can be classified as Vin de Pays (VdP) or Vin de Table (VdT) depending on where and how it’s made. The rules are more relaxed as far as yields per acre, composition of grapes, and production methods (the exception is wines from Alsace, which are a higher classification even though most are named for the grapes. Since the region went back and forth between France and Germany, the wines have more of a German naming convention). According to data from CIVL, 80% of the wine produced in Languedoc is either VdP or VdT. (And while some of the VdP wines of the region are labeled “Pays d’Oc,” shorthand for the land of Oc or “yes” in the local Occitan language, many people don’t know they’re associated with the Languedoc region — which literally means the language (langue) of yes, which refers to Occitan. But that’s another story altogether…)
In order to have the word “Languedoc” on the label in a font size that doesn’t require a magnifying glass (or the name of a village or sub-region of the Languedoc), the wine has to conform to the AOC rules.
There are now three AOC levels for these wines. The broadest of the three is the AOC Languedoc classification, which has the most relaxed rules and even allows single-varietal wines to be named for the grape (as long as it’s an approved grape of the region). This designation was created in 2007 to help raise the profile of the region by creating a so-called reference base for official Languedoc wines. This is actually a big step — sort of equivalent to the Côtes du Rhône designation in the southern Rhône valley. While there used to be a Côteaux de Languedoc classification, it was far more restricted in scope. The new classification means that many more bottles now have the word “Languedoc” on the label than before.
Next up the scale is what CIVL calls the “Fine Wines of Languedoc,” 22 classifications with names based on villages or Langedoc regions, like Minervois (around the village of Minerve), Corbières, St. Chinian, etc. This is more or less the equivalent of the Côtes du Rhône Villages level of wines, a level between the regional base and the finest wines. While some of these had AOC designations before 2007, more were brought up in status since then. This level used to be the top designation of the region, but the 2007 changes created a new level above it.
Top of the heap now are the “Cru Wines of Languedoc,” all red wines and named for villages and sub-regions, in some cases more specific than the Fine Wines. Minervois-La Livinière, Corbières-Boutenac, and St. Chinian-Roquebrun are three examples. There is also one cru, Grès de Montpellier, that’s named for the soil type (grès means limestone in French), and one (Pic St. Loup) that’s named for a mountain.
The official AOC grapes are very much the same as those for the AOCs in the Southern Rhône Valley. Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault for the red wines, and Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, White Grenache, Clairette, and Bourboulenc for the whites. There are a few other white grapes, like Muscat, Maccabeu, and Picpoul that are allowed for particular wines as well. The rosés can contain any of the red grapes, but usually are mostly Cinsault.
So what have we been drinking that we didn’t know was from the Languedoc? The region produces a bunch of wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc (all allowed under VdP rules), and many of those wines make it to the U.S. with the grape names as the wine names on the label. Jean-Baptiste Pietavy, our producer of Domaine de Mairan wines, makes VdP wines with many of these grapes.
There are also plenty of wines that have fanciful names in English that don’t give a hint of where they’re from. Over the past 15 years or so, the region has seen an influx of people from the U.K. (and the U.S., to a lesser extent) looking to make wine. They are taking advantage of the kick-ass growing conditions and more relaxed rules for VdP and VdT, making what they like and calling it what they want to. (And since they speak English and use English names they have an easier time reaching out to the U.S. market.) There are plenty of French winemakers taking advantage of the freedom, too. From a rosé that’s 100% Merlot and named for the winemaker’s cat to a kitchen-sink blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and even Sangiovese that changes each year and is named for the local old guy who plays the accordion in the village square on Sundays (with his photo on the label), you definitely get the impression these folks are having fun.
This isn’t to say that the AOC winemakers aren’t having fun and that they don’t engage in whimsy themselves. But so far, at least among the top-of-the line AOC wines, they’re a little more straight-laced about the names on their labels. I think this may be part of the effort to highlight the region, or maybe the thought is that they have to appear more serious in order to be taken seriously. For now, you mostly see just the AOC designation in large letters, like you do in villages like Châteauneuf du Pape — and you definitely won’t see an old accordion player on the label of those wines.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, CIVL brought us over to taste the AOC wines, and we did — probably 100 of them a day. I’ll discuss those wines in my next post. For now, I’ll just say that I finished the tour amazed, as always, at the variety you can find in wines that seem on paper to be pretty much the same, but aren’t when you taste them. More than anything, that’s what keeps me excited about the wine business (along with getting to drink a lot of wine). This trip was a great reminder of just how much fun wine can be, and how great it is to share with others.
One of the food highlights of the trip was the strawberries. Strawberry season starts in April in the Languedoc, with the Fraises de Garrigue — small, very sweet berries, and proceeding to the Fraises de Carpentras; larger, just as sweet, and perfect for slicing. Both are wonderful in strawberry soup, a dessert I had three separate times on the trip.
I have to admit that I used to look down on strawberry soup. Partly because, as someone who likes to bake, it seemed a little too simple to call dessert. (Even though you don’t want to cook great strawberries, there are plenty of pastry-y and cream-y ways to gussy them up without cooking them.) And even though it was simple, why bother if the strawberries were really good? Why not just eat them plain?
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to appreciate the beauty in its simplicity. I find that as we now have greater access to delicious, locally grown food, dishes like strawberry soup enhance the intrinsic flavors of these foods without much to get in the way. You can also use those strawberries that are just on the edge of becoming over-ripe. You know which ones I mean, they have deep red spots on them and the red comes off on your hand if you touch them. If you’re Martha Stewart, you’ll make jam out of them for dozens of your closest friends. For the rest of us, there’s strawberry soup.
The best one I had on the trip was at Restaurant Le Faitout in Berlou, a village near St. Chinian. Most of the strawberry soups I’ve had in the U.S. had some sort of dairy mixed in. I suppose the dairy covers for some less-than-wonderful strawberries, and allows you to puree the heck out of it in a blender or food processor — both of those devices add air in and make the strawberry puree turn pink, so keeping it pink with added cream or yogurt is fine. Le Faitout’s version was topped with a crème fraîche- enhanced whipped cream, but the soup itself was strawberries and very little else. I thought I tasted a little bit of orange juice, a splash of lemon juice, a little mint, and a splash of Crème de Cassis liqueur. The color was bright red, as you can see in the photo, so Frédéric Révilla, the chef, used a food mill to puree the strawberries, or maybe an immersion blender if he was careful.
The strawberry soup recipe below seems a little elaborate (would you expect anything else from me?) but I think great strawberries deserve the extra care. I use superfine sugar because it dissolves easily, if you can’t find it, run a half cup of regular granulated sugar in the food processor for at least three minutes. (You don’t need a half cup for the recipe, but if you don’t have enough in the food processor it won’t work properly.) The ingredients are basically to taste, which accounts for the way it all gets assembled. But in the end you’ll have the soup just the way you like it.
One of the AOC wines we had at dinner one night was Crémant de Limoux, a sparkling wine that’s made with Mauzac. Our Domaine la Croix des Marchands Méthode Gaillacoise ($18) is virtually the same wine — the same grape made the same way, not very far away. Lightly sweet, with a little green apple flavor, it goes perfectly with the strawberry soup.
Serves 4 – 6
1 quart excellent, beautifully-ripe strawberries
1 teaspoon superfine sugar, plus more if needed
Freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1 large orange
1 teaspoon (or more) Crème de Cassis
4-6 mint leaves, depending on size and taste
2 tablespoons sour cream, very cold
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream, very cold
Equipment: A large bowl big enough to hold ice, a smaller bowl that will fit inside the bigger bowl filled with ice, a food mill fitted with the fine disk, or an immersion blender.
Fill the large bowl with cold water. One at a time, dip the strawberries in the water to rinse, then set them on a plate lined with paper towels to dry a little. Carefully hull the strawberries, cut them in half, and place them in a different bowl. Toss gently with the teaspoon of superfine sugar and let the strawberries sit for a half hour to soften.
Once they’ve softened a bit, puree the strawberries in the food mill or use the immersion blender. If you’re using the immersion blender, do short pulses and make sure the head of the blender is completely immersed in the strawberries — you don’t want to add air into them. Empty the large bowl and fill it with ice. Scrape the strawberry puree into the small bowl that fits inside the larger ice-filled bowl. Add a half-teaspoon of lemon juice to the strawberry puree.
At this point you have to start tasting and adding what’s necessary. The puree will be pretty thick and you want the soup to be, well, more like soup in the end. Juice half the orange and add it, a tablespoon at a time, to the puree until it gets to the consistency you like. You can juice the other half of the orange and add it if you like. Add the teaspoon of Crème de Cassis. Taste it for sweetness. If you’d like it a little sweeter, take out 1/4 cup of the mixture and add a teaspoon of superfine sugar to it, stir to dissolve, then add it to the rest. Add more lemon juice if you think it needs a little zip, or more Crème de Cassis (you don’t want to taste the liqueur per se, but the Cassis makes the soup seem richer).
When the soup tastes the way you want it to, put the bowl in the ice-filled bowl and let it chill for a half hour. Using a mixer, beat the cream and the sour cream together with about a tablespoon of confectioners’ sugar until the cream makes soft peaks. Then chop the mint leaves very finely and stir them into the soup. (The mint leaves can turn brown if they’re left too long.)
Serve the soup in balloon glasses (stemless balloon wine glasses are perfect for this), top with the whipped cream, and serve immediately.