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This big wine-producing region in southern France offers many big bargains

by Sharon Kapnick

Sure, Champagne makes spectacular sparkling wines, the best in the world. Yes, Burgundy produces sophisticated, elegant Chardonnays and silky, seductive Pinot Noirs. And Bordeaux remains the benchmark for superb Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends. But these days Languedoc-Rousillon wins my vote for being the most exciting wine region in France.

Languedoc-Rousillon (generally referred to as Languedoc) is a land of superlatives. For one thing, its Frances largest region — 50% larger than California — with some 700,000 acres under vine. (Some call it the California of France.) In south-central France, Languedoc extends from the Spanish border and the Pyrenes on the west, along the Mediterranean coast to the Rhne River and Provence on the east. Today Languedoc produces some 30% of all French wine — about 2 billion bottles a year. And its the largest French exporting region by volume. Almost 20% of French wines in the US hail from the Languedoc.

Languedoc is also the oldest wine-producing region in the country: Grapevines have been traced at least as far back as 125 B.C. near the Roman port of Narbonne. Some say vines were first planted here by ancient Greeks more than 500 years B.C.

Although its Frances largest region, its one of the least familiar to US wine buyers. This region that not so long ago produced oceans of plonk was overlooked — rightly so — until recently. But, with dramatic improvements in the past two decades, Languedoc has been energetically reinventing itself. In the process its become known for good-value, popular international varietals, as well as wines using indigenous grapes that offer distinctive new flavors and personality. Jean-Luc le D, owner of Le Ds Wines in New York City and former sommelier at Restaurant Daniel, says, The Languedoc produces a vast array of quality wines at great prices.

The area has been reinvigorated in part by winemakers from prestigious French wine-making regions — Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhne — and from other countries — the US, Britain and Australia — whove been drawn to the region. Why? Regulations governing the wine industry arent as strict here as elsewhere — they allow more room for innovation and creativity; the range of terroirs, or growing conditions, is wide; and Languedocs Mediterranean climate, with mild winters, hot summers, low rainfall and sun 315 days a year, suits many grapes. A unique combination of Mediterranean sun, wind from the mountains and the sea, and many different vine-friendly soils creates ideal conditions for vineyards. Because pesticides are rarely needed, almost 70% of Frances organic vineyards are here.

The terroir also suits all wine styles. An unusually diverse wine-producing region, the Languedoc offers something for everyone: sparkling, whites, ross, reds and dessert wines.

Sparkling wine dates back to 1531 in Limoux, predating Champagne by more than a century. These are the worlds oldest sparkling wines. Theyre crafted in two main styles: Blanquette de Limoux, based on the indigenous Mauzac (90%) with a little Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc; and Crmant de Limoux, made largely from the international Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc grapes, with just a splash (5%) of Mauzac. Both employ the mthode traditionelle thats used to make Champagne.

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