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Things to do in the Languedoc:   Drinking Wine and Making Wines:   terroir

Many concepts familiar in France are unknown or misunderstood elsewhere. One of them is the idea of terroir.

As the name suggests, an important part of it depends upon the earth (terre) the nature, composition and texture of the soil. But there is more to it than that. Another important element is weather - temperatures, hours of sunlight, humidity, winds, and so on. Another is the traditional methods of picking and making the wine, sometimes depending not only on the season but the phase of the moon. Then of course there are other factors like the varieties of grape used, and the esoteric expertise often kept within families for generations.


It is for this reason that French wine bottle labels have traditionally not mentioned the varieties of grape used to make the wine inside. It made no sense, since everyone who mattered already knew about the grapes, and the grower, and the soil, and the weather, and all the other mystical factors that constituted the "terroir". Only the philistines needed to be told and, as the French well knew, they had neither taste, nor interest, nor purchasing power - so why bother?

In fact in wonderfully typical style the French not only did not bother to mention on the label what grapes varieties were used, they made it illegal to do so for AOC Wines. This single fact encapsulates the vast gulf in understanding that separates the French view of the world from the Anglo-Saxon view of the world.

Jamie Goode ( say: "terroir is an ethos or philosophy. It's a unifying theory encapsulating a certain approach to wine that encompasses the almost metaphysical circle of soil, nature, appellation and human activity. In more simple terms, it is the site-specific characteristics of a wine".

As the French see it, the world is now being turned upside town by wine drinking philistines with large disposable incomes, who have learned a little about grape varieties, and not much else. They watch with horror as New World wines mop up a growing world market while France pours its wine into vast unwanted wine lakes. Do not expect to endear yourself to anyone in France by making assertions of the type "I like Chardonay". There is not a single person in the whole country over the age of 5 who will be remotely impressed.

It has to be said that there are two sides to this argument, and both have merit. On the one hand there is no doubt that complacency, over-regulation and trading on cachet rather than quality have damaged French wines in recent years. On the other hand you know that if a French wine tastes of vanilla or blackcurrent it is because of the terroir and the skill of the wine maker. If a Californian wine tastes of vanilla or blackcurrent you can reasonably assume that the maker simply added some vanilla essence or blackcurrent flavouring.

If you are interested in making a balanced judgement about the different approaches then make a point of seeing a documentary film called "Mondovino" which deals with the growing disparity between traditional French and modern global tastes and methods.

The Languedoc is mainly limestone and sandstone, but granite can also be found. If you are interested in terroir, you will need to know a lot more than this about the soil of the vineyard you are considering. Similarly  Languedoc weather is typical of a Mediteranean Climate (mild winters and hot summers), but again this is almost meaningless as a guide to any particular wine - despite what the fashionable wine label might try to tell you.

French Wine Growers Riot at Beziers Against Doctored Wine
French Wine Growers Riot at Beziers Against Doctored Wine Giclee Print
Beltrame, Achille

Click on the following link for recommended books on wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon Next.


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