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Sud de France: Incredible white diversity on display

Published:  13 September, 2021

Tim Atkin MW has paid homage to huge breadth of white wine available across the Languedoc-Roussillon and the South West, even comparing its diversity to a South American wine cousin.

Atkin spoke at the Sud de France’s Top 100 Discovery tasting masterclass in London on Thursday, where the trade was treated to a whistle-stop tour of the great whites of the Occitanie and satellite appellations in Gascony.

Known predominantly for its reds, Atkin’s masterclass put the spotlight on the region’s whites, which account for 29% of production – no small number when considering that the combined area spans some 263,000 ha and represents 34% of France’s total vineyards.

“One of the reasons I like this area so much is the enormous diversity of grape varieties,” Atkin said. “There are the big six which are planted around the world: the Chardonnays and Syrahs, etc. But there is also Albariño, White Bourboulenc, Carignan Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc, Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Macabeu, Mauzac, Marsanne, Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu, Picpoul, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Roussanne, Sauvignon Gris, Semillon, Silvaner, Terret Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Verdelho and Viognier. It’s a pretty amazing line-up, almost Argentinian in its diversity. Argentina has probably the longest list of grape varieties anywhere in the world.”

While not necessarily known for its diversity among consumers – Argentina is better known as the home of Malbec – Atkin's point was to the long list of Argentinian wine styles, spanning Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Tempranillo, Bonarda, Tannat, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Viognier, Riesling, Friulano and Torrontés to name but a few. 

In the Occitanie also, some of the region's diverse roll-call of grapes are grown in minute quantities. At the tasting, participants were shown an Albariño IGP from Laurent Miquel in the Aude department, “very unusual in the Languedoc”, as well as an “extremely rare” Carignan Blanc.

It was noted however, how use of comparatively minor grapes like Grenache Blanc and Vermentino are bringing focus and acidity to blends.

This includes the likes of the Château Puech-Haut, Tête de Bélier AOC Languedoc 2019, which took home the laurel for the Top 100 Best white for 2021. A blend of Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier, the wine combined the acidity of Grenache Blanc with the perfume and structure of Roussanne to great effect, with Marsanne lending toasted, honeyed fruits.

The tasting also went some way to demonstrating how the region’s openness to experimentation is a key part of its growing international appeal.

“This is France’s New World, but not in the way it was meant in the 1980s or early 90s, when [the area thought it would] compete with varietal bottlings from Australia, New Zealand or Chile. Now, it’s the diversity and freedom, comparative freedom, that means winemakers are able to work with that they want, which is more New World-like. The approach to legislation is nowhere near as restrictive as other French appellations. You’ve only got to spend time in the Languedoc to know that it’s a lot more fun than spending time in Bordeaux,” our host said.

Atkin went on to highlight some of the prominent whites in the South West. This included a Gros Manseng and Petit Courbu blend from the “fantastic” Plaimont cooperative in AOC Saint Mont, which sits besides Madiran.

“It’s amazing when you think what [the coop] has achieved in Gascony, which was dedicated not so long ago to the production Armagnac. It has really been one of the leaders in switching to young, fresh white wines,” he said.

As well as freshness, many of the wines featured a distinctive character of bitter herbs and fennel notes from the Garrigue. While the idea of bitterness can be off-putting to consumers, it was noted that bitterness and phenolics in wine can also double as a supplement or replacement for acidity. This is particularly true in hot climates where there is naturally less acidity in grapes. In such cases, bitterness can add structure and phenolic weight in lieu of acidity.

“Now, people assume that this region is capable of making some extremely good, even in some cases, world class wines,” Atkin added. “I still think the region is massively undervalued and under-appreciated. I’ve been waiting all my life for it to happen and for it be treated as seriously as I think it deserves to be. Maybe it will never happen, but we’ll keep plugging away.”

For more on France, see our annual report availble now with Harpers' September issue