New Languedoc/Roussillon Releases

It been a while since my hopes for a group of wines were so thoroughly dashed by what I actually found in the bottle. I approached the current crop of releases from the Languedoc and Roussillon with the knowledge that 1999 was a difficult year for this vast area of southern France and that the drought year of 2000 brought its own challenges. Still, ploughing through 200+ new wines was really tough going: a surprisingly high percentage (60% or more) of the bottles I tasted cannot be recommended. These lesser wines show virtually every defect imaginable: rustic, unclean flavors of brettanomyces or TCA; oxidation notes; evidence of completely underripe fruit (sour acids, strongly herbaceous flavors, thin texture); cooked fruit notes, sometimes juxtaposed with a distinctly green, underripe aspect; oak treatment far beyond what the underlying material can handle; very dry tannins. Change comes slowly in the Languedoc and Roussillon, and relatively few estates both recognize the importance of crop reduction and possess the equipment to vinify and age their wines without compromising their raw materials.

The 1999 growing season featured an uncharacteristically tropical, showery summer that set the stage for vineyard maladies, especially where vine yields were high. September rains triggered widespread outbreaks of rot in many areas where mold was not already a problem in August. Highly localized, damaging hail struck parts of the Languedoc in early September, requiring some estates to pick grapes that were in poor condition. Some growers, however, especially those in spots that received less rainfall in September, maintain that their '99s are even richer than their '98s, with better acidity. Yet, the preponderance of the '99 reds I tasted show either roasted, overripe flavors without real depth or intensity, or an utter lack of ripeness; some wines come across as bitter and green while others are simply dull and flat. In many instances, I tasted two or more new releases from estates whose wines have done well in these pages in the past without finding a single recommendable bottle (I should add that I tasted nothing new from Peyre Rose, which sold off its '97s and has not yet shipped its '98s). The one bright spot in this report is that the best Languedoc and Roussillon wines remain well worth buying, especially when priced in the $10 to $20 range.

Two thousand was a hot drought year that featured an extended late-summer period of particularly searing heat. In some spots this resulted in a blockage of the maturation process; in others flavors quickly became overripe and acidity levels plunged. The resulting wines combine roasted flavors and a distinctly green character. Some cooler, breezier areas, particularly spots further from the Mediterranean, such as Saint-Chinian and the hillier parts of the large Minervois appellation, managed to escape the worst of the heat and drought. The challenge for producers was to be able to let the fruit hang until physiological maturity caught up with analytical maturity. Beginning with reasonable crop levels was a key to getting thorough ripeness, but in general crop levels were extremely high in 2000. This was also a vintage that required careful vinification. Those who macerated their grapes as they normally do often came up with dry or even hard tannins.

A few early 2001 roses I tasted hint at the fresher fruit quality produced in this vintage, and all reports indicate that 2001 was the Languedoc most successful vintage since 1998. But an assessment of these wines will have to wait until at least next spring.