Grapes of Occitanie
Think it’s all about Carignan? Think again.
Wednesday 13 October 2021
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Languedoc-Roussillon is home to some of the South of France’s most unappreciated grape varieties. Loved fiercely by local winemakers and their devotees, in the wider world they can be misunderstood, or even disliked, because of their unusual flavours or robust, old-school character.
One such grape catching flack on memes around social media right now is Carignan. Grown widely throughout Languedoc, its vast overproduction adds to the grape’s reputation. However, it’s thought to have actually originated in Spain, where it is still a very much loved grape - particularly in Catalunya, where it’s known as “Samsó” and is grown in rocky schist to highlight minerality and build concentration of flavour.
It’s not an easy grape to love. It ripens late, and mildew absolutely beasts it without proper care and regular spraying (making it difficult to grow as a natural wine outside of a perfectly warm and dry climate). Carignan’s wines have big tannins to dig into too — check out Jason Wilson’s piece for more on this — and special winemaking methods are often used to bring softness, or more likely, it’s used in blends to calm it down.
HOWEVER. When grown in smaller vineyards and on older vines — some over 100 years old, because they’re hardy auld things — what was once lacklustre and overworked can be marvellous. Even eccentric. Acidity and tannins burst through, but in a rope-bridge balance with cocoa, plums and, if aged, vintage leather.
If we want to talk about beleaguered local grapes for a moment longer, then let’s include Cinsault in the conversation.
Cinsault loves hot weather, and that tolerance for high summer sun found it favoured with Languedoc-Roussillon winemakers for generations. It’s sadly lost its shine more recently and is regularly replaced with more fashionable and widely-drunk varieties like Merlot and Syrah. However, as vines are torn up in the South of France, it’s worth knowing that Cinsault is enjoying a fabulous reinvention in South Africa (where it is also the parent grape of their favourite Pinotage variety). Keep an eye out.
But back to Languedoc. Here, Cinsault is often blended with Carignan to bring floral fruitiness to the mix, or used to make rosé wines. Violet and even jasmine springs from a well-made Cinsault-rich wine, along with pops of cherry and acidic redcurrant. It’s also a touch smoky or funky, especially naturally-made or old vine varieties, adding to the complexity (and confusion, but roll with it.)
Ahh, Grenache Noir, or “Garnacha” to those who met it in Spain. One of the most versatile noble grapes. In the South of France, this variety is used in blends to bring spice and herbal aromatics to rich, fruity red wines with depth and oomph.
That spice we’re talking about is like cinnamon and allspice, with touches of menthol and Mediterranean herbs — think sun-dried oregano, lavender and thyme. The most famous French wine made using Grenache Noir as its base is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but in Languedoc it’s blended with Carignan, Mourvedre and Cinsault to make well-rounded, aromatic reds and rosés that pair beautifully with chargrilled meats and seafood.
Let’s get weird. Mourvedre is a small, black-skinned grape loved in hot climates for its tenacity and intensity, two words that don’t immediately tell a person to relax and kick back with a glass.
It’s an oddball, full-bodied and throwing out high tannins and flavours of blackberry, blueberry, thyme and gamey, animal aromas. If this sounds like you’ll be avoiding it, don’t — light the barbecue and open a bottle. You’ll see.
This grape is often used in blends to boost body and add interest. You might have even met it before as “Monastrell” in Spain.
Cabernet Franc is absolutely beloved to some. The parent grape of both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s lighter in body and tannin than both these well-known varieties, bringing instead a brighter look at Languedoc’s terroir.
One of the most famous flavours and aromas within red Cab Franc is of green pepper, which lovers of this wine seek out thirstily. You might also whiff tomato stems and fresh rocket, ozonic wet gravel paths and even chillies.
It’s a characterful grape with an unassuming, almost modest reputation in modern winemaking. However, once you’ve got the Cab Franc bug, there’s no helping you.
In the South of the region, Grenache Blanc is grown with the primary aim of making local “Vin Doux Naturels” — sweet white wine fortified with grape spirit. Grenache Blanc itself is a vibrant grape that produces high-alcohol, green fruit-tasting wines, which means wines that are full of zesty unripe tropical fruits, juicy pears and fresh herbs.
It’s usually blended with Roussanne, a pungent, powerful grape that adds perfume, spice and exotic character. Roussanne is texturally interesting too, finishing with a luxurious silky mouthfeel. However, Grenache Blanc is also often blended with Viognier, Picpoul and Macabeau, all of which grow well in Languedoc.
Picpoul Blanc is named for the wine most famously produced from it — Picpoul de Pinet. Enjoying a moment of fame in the UK thanks to TV chefs pairing it with anything from Christmas dinner starter courses to summer salads, what people love about this grape and the wine it produces is its freshness and easy drinking nature.
Picpoul literally means “lip stinger” and its fresh acidity probably explains this, but it’s real purpose in life is to be enjoyed with shellfish.
Perfumed and often misunderstood, Viognier is difficult to cultivate and makes soft, lush, full-bodied white wines. Full-bodied white wines seem to divide opinion, and in a minimalist world where the trendiest natural wines are casual, spritzy, acidic, short and tart, Viognier hangs out in the corner like a Baroque dresser full of family china.
But who doesn’t love a bit of Baroque? Viognier gives off flavours and aromas of ripe peach, apricot and hawthorn blossom, which can move into animal muskiness. The grape has to sit on the vine until the bitter end of its season, adding to its fussy reputation among growers, so it’s often high in alcohol, which can add spice.
A grape found throughout South West France, Mauzac is mostly used for making Blanquette de Limoux, a local and historic style of dry sparkling wine. If it wasn’t for BdL, we probably wouldn’t have Champagne. Interestingly, to be a true Blanquette de Limoux, the wine must have at least 90% Mauzac grapes in the blend.
The wines it creates are aromatic with meadow grass and wildflowers, with a distinctive apple flavour and aroma that can range from crisp golden delicious to dried apple skins.
Clairette Blanche is one of the oldest grape varieties to be used to make wine in France, and historically it was mainly put to use in vermouth-making, and it prefers growing in limestone soil which lends it minerality and freshness.
Clairette Blanche used to be one of the most widely-planted grapes in the South of France, but is lesser known outside of the region now. However you’ll still find it in Châteauneuf-du-Pape blends and in local sparkling wines, as well as in Vin Doux Naturelles.
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