All ''classic'' wine regions of the world share common features that make them pass successfully the test of time, just like a Cary Grand movie with a Hitchcock scenario. Recognizable styles of outstanding quality that can age gracefully enjoying at the same time interest in the secondary market are the basics. Then, a classic region should be highlighted by icon wines as their ambassadors, commanding top-notch prices. Moreover, a type of formal or even informal, friendly and simple classification system could be required to promote more efficiently the region's wines. So, does Languedoc-Rousillon or Midi share these characteristics in a similar way with other classic regions such as Medoc, Côte-d'Or, the Rhone, Chianti, Rioja or even Napa and Barossa?
One of the key prerequisites for a region to be categorized as classic is delivering identifiable and typical wine-styles. This does not necessarily mean, there is no room for innovation and modernism as showed both in Rioja and Bordeaux's Left Bank with garagistes wines but for starters a recognizable style is essential. The situation is, that such a style does not exist for Languedoc-Rousillon as does for a Medoc or a Burgundy, and no-one can really answer, which is the typical style of a Midi wine.
How can someone differentiate between a Minervois and a Corbieres using words other than supple and rustic, and if we want to go further down the line between a St-Chinian-Berlou and a St-Chinian-Roquebrun, both coming from schist soils, yet claiming different names? It looks that the biggest wine region of the world with close to 300.000ha of vines is too broad and confusing to the consumer; it is the case sometimes that so much diversity can be a negative point.
The ultra complex classification system that ''blends wine and politics'' according to Jancis Robinson MW does not help either, leaving even wine professionals puzzled. Distinction between straight-forward appellations (Corbieres), cru appellations (Corbieres-Boutenac), and appellations within appellations(Terrasses du Larzac) can be a Research Paper for the MW title. No surprise for instance, many producers who could use the Côtes du Roussillon Villages AC prefer instead VDP de Cotes Catalans. The composition of various blends with maximum Carignan and minimum Syrah or other varieties proportions, further complicate things both for producers and consumers. As Eric Asimov comments ''The unwieldy, nebulous regional appellations remain confusing, an overlapping bunch of zones and sub-zones that do little to zero in on characteristics of terroir or geography. Changes are in the works, though it’s not clear exactly when they will become official.''
Following high-profile investments from outsiders such as Jean-Michel Cazes(Lynch-Bages), Christian Seely(AXA) and Michel Chapoutier a renaissance that boosted quality was revealed. This has stimulated a new attitude on local growers sitting up and taking notice on new winemaking techniques, cutting down yields and investing in modernization. But although these new things are evidence of a dynamism in the area they can hardly be considered as evidence of a classic region. Philippe Joncquères d’Oriola of Château de Corneilla describes in a precise way this part of France as ''the main region where the battle between big industrial companies and small, terroir-focused wineries is being played out.''
So, in this huge battlefield, are the wines outstanding enough to match a classic region's criteria? It is true that things look encouraging compared to bad surplus-region image of previous decades but much more is needed to be in the same level as Medoc or Burgundy. Yes, quality has improved dramatically during last few years and some amazing terroirs exist capable of producing inspiring wines such as Pic St-Loup, Montpeyroux, La Clape and Terrases du Larzac but it can be argued that even top producers produce some ordinary wines as well. Jancis Robinson MW admits that during a Grand Cru du Languedoc tasting, although she tasted all 70 wines she could muster enthusiasm about only a handful. This raises an issue of inconsistency supporting the case of Midi being a region of many antitheses.
Classic for a wine-region means that its wines stand the test of time, ageing gracefully developing layered complexity and becoming or transforming into something ethereal, captivating and stimulating. Does this description fit the Languedoc-Rousillon style? In general no, with some exceptions like Cuvée Emile Peynaud from Domaine Gassac that can prove to be very ageworthy. But this is Cabernet Sauvignon not Grenache or Carignan although best examples of the latter varieties from tiny yields age well. It can be expected however that progression to more Syrah inclusion in the blends accompanied by less Carignan or inclusion of old-vine Carignan like in Clos de Gravillas will improve ageing potential.
Andrew Jefford supports the argument that “The notion anyone might buy Languedoc wines as an investment would have seemed laughable until very recently”. He continues: “It seems plausible to me that the best sites of the Languedoc might, a few decades hence, produce red wines to challenge the best from Côte Rôtie, Cornas and Châteauneuf.'' It seems that this describes very accurately the potential and the possibilities but it doesn't define the exact moment that may come in a few decades or may not come at all. If that moment comes it is likely that one or two wines would supplement the Live-ex 100 list but until then it looks more like wishful thinking.
And what about prices and icon wines meaning wines of truly exquisite quality with a track record of some vintages? Regulations state that for top of the pyramid to qualify as a Grand Cru, a region has to achieve a certain minimum average selling price. In case you are wondering the target bulk price must exceed €2.50 a litre while the recommended retail price must exceed €10 a bottle and that is for a Grand Cru! This doesn't sound too premium or classic either.
On the other hand close to 10 wines command high prices as fine wines by any measure, supporting the case about modest pricing for the rest as exceptions to the rule; From Côtes du Roussillon these are Domaine Gauby Muntada Syrah, Calvet-Thunevin Les Trois-Marie and cult wine, even more expensive than Cuvée Peynaud, Clos des Fees La Petite Siberie. From Languedoc, Château de la Negly La Porte du Ciel and Clos des Truffiers and from Herault the well-known Grange des Peres both for red and more expensive white and much praised from critics, La Peira en Damaisela from Terrasses du Larzac. It looks that the price game is split between Côtes du Roussillon and Languedoc crus with Grange des Peres and Gassac in between.
Last in line, the climate change threat in which the question is if Midi will be a loser or winner. If a loser then this will compromise the region's potential and rise over the following decades. Having under the radar the latest research by PNAS it can be seen that suitability for South France up to 2050 is projected to decline all over the coastal regions of the area. Compressed growing seasons will probably yield unbalanced, low-acid wines with very little complexity. On the other hand if inland and higher in altitude the situation may be reversed.
Languedoc-Rousillon has made big steps over the past years rising in both quality and fame. Still the region is too broad to deliver a typical and easily identifiable for the consumer style lacking also in consistency even among top producers. Low prices except for a handful of domains and a ultra-complex classification system further obscure its effort to reach the top classic wine-regions. Climate change may present further implication over the next decades with moving inland at higher altitude being an obvious pure solution. Because no one can predict the future, the possibility for Midi to become classic region cannot be eliminated, but too many things should change needing many years or decades. Nevertheless, the region shows all the characteristics of an exciting, dynamic and promising regions with some amazing terroirs and producers that excel and maybe this is as important as becoming classic.
*Cover picture from http://lapeira.wordpress.com/category/press-and-reviews/, the rest from http://winesbycase.com and http://hogsheadwine.wordpress.com