You can’t win titles like “Best Sommelier in the Loire Valley” — or place runner-up in the national version — without an exhaustive knowledge of individual appellations and their seemingly endless, often minutely different, rules and specifications. It was no wonder that Pascaline Lepeltier cinched the Master Sommelier exam here in the U.S., and I was excited to sit down with her to taste and chat at the Maison de la Région Languedoc-Roussillon.
The region is, in her words, “complicated.” There is no defining variety, like Pinot Noir in Burgundy, and there is a long history of making generic wines that were, according to her, “Not the wines of our parents, but our grandparents.” Overproduction has been an issue since the 19th century — the climate is just too good for growing grapes. These days, though, other countries as close to France as Spain and as far away as Australia, can make similarly innocuous wines for less.
“There is no choice then for vignerons to survive, but to improve the quality,” Lepeltier says, referring to both individual producers and the various local co-operatives. There is an opportunity, though, in the relatively wide availability of very old vines. In Burgundy, a plot of vines planted when Baby Boomers were born would command major-league prices, but across the Languedoc-Rousillon, plantings of century-old Carignan and Macabeo are relatively affordable.
This has not gone unnoticed, and one of reasons the region is so dynamic is because of an influx of what Lepeltier calls, “foreigners.” Although there are certainly people coming from Ireland or the New World to snap up old wineries, Parisians, Burgundians and the Bordelaise have all taken an interest, bringing with them a new sense of how to produce wines of quality.
In her opinion the single thing that will distinguish the Languedoc from other wine regions, in France and internationally, is very simple: “Individualité.”
What the Languedoc had lacked for much of its life was personality. When you compare its evolution to that of Burgundy, Champagne or even the Rhône, the discrepancy is that all of these regions had a set of strong personalities that dictated the perception of the region as a whole. In her six trips to the region, she has found no shortage of these individuals, and although her deep knowledge of the minutiae was obvious, many of the wines she was excited about made their wines in the more broad Vin de Pays or Vin de France appellations.
It can be confusing for the consumer, as some of the most sought-after wines, like Grange de Pères (which is bottled as Vin de Pays de l’Hérault) are labeled generically, so Lepeltier's advice is, “know your producers.”