As I rode through the rows of late winter pruned grapevines, I tried to envision them in late summer, laden with heavy clusters of fruit. I’d love to go back to Languedoc just before harvest and tour the area with an expert “wine farmer” who could point out which fields hold which varieties of grape. We could stop and taste the different grapes just before they get trucked off to the winery for the magic that turns them into wine. Maybe next time.
In the meantime, here’s a primer of the main grapes that are contained in our samples of wines from Languedoc. After the more sober description, I’ve included (in italics) some descriptions from www.paysdoc-wines.com, the creator of a poster I picked up over there. The site is in French, so I had Google Translate turn it into English (?). The translations, as is often the case with the machine version, yielded some humorous and poetic fare.
Roussanne and Marsanne are so often found together, I think of them as fraternal twins. They both originated in the northern Rhone Valley and every description of one seems to contain the phrase “often blended with” the other. Roussanne’s berries are distinguished by their russet color when ripe — roux is French for the reddish brown color russet and is probably the root for the variety's name. The aroma of Roussanne is often reminiscent of a flowery herbal tea. In warm climates, it produces wines of richness, with flavors of honey and pear and full body. In cooler climates it is more floral and more delicate, with higher acidity. In many regions, it is a difficult variety to grow, with vulnerability to mildew, poor resistance to drought and wind, late and/or uneven ripening, and irregular yields.
The grape most likely originated in the Northern Rhone region where it is widely planted today. While not as temperamental as the Roussanne grape, Marsanne is prone to underperform in less than ideal sites. In climates that are too hot, the grape can overripen and produce wine that is very flabby. In places that are too cool, the grape cannot ripen fully and produces wine with a bland and neutral flavor. In order to maintain a high level of acidity, winemakers try to harvest Marsanne just before it hits full ripeness. The round, medium-gold to amber Marsanne berries make deep-colored wine that is also fairly full-bodied, sometimes described as almost "waxy". Where growing conditions are right, Marsanne aroma can be somewhat heavy, suggesting almond paste, herbs, or citrus.
Grenache blanc is thought to have originated as a mutation of the red Garnacha in Spain. It then spread across the Pyrenees to France, finding a second home in the Rhône. Its wines are characterized by high alcohol and low acidity, with citrus and/or herbaceous notes. Its vigor can lead to overproduction and flabbiness. However, if yields are controlled, it can contribute flavor and length to blends, particularly with Roussanne.
In Languedoc “gris” means “pink.” This lightly tinted grape lies between Grenache blanc and Grenache noir in color and is used mostly to make rosé wines. Vermentino (Rolle) Vermentino (called Rolle in France) is another grape that probably originated in Spain, though it is now primarily in white wines of Italy and the islands of Sardinia and Corsica. It is a late-ripening variety that adds a bright acidity and citrus and mineral notes to the white blends of Languedoc.
Southern bewitching varietal that is sure to captivate. It seduces with aromas of hawthorn, apple, hazelnut or chamomile.
Viognier originated in the Rhone and is the only permitted grape in the great wines of Condrieu. In the Languedoc it is used to make simple vins de pays or is blended with Marsanne, Roussanne and others to lend a floral note.
Viognier: the gem
Object of all desires, it can be fresh and fruity, floral and more to find gourmet but still rare and mysterious hints of violet, acacia honey and gingerbread.
Red (Purple, Blue) Grapes
Syrah has a long documented history in southwest France. DNA studies have found it to be a cross between two earlier French parents - Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. Syrah is the backbone of the famous red wines of the Rhone valley, where it is known for its notes of spice, pepper and smoke. It is now the 7th most planted wine grape on the planet when you include the version they call “Shiraz” in Australia and South Africa. It is a workhorse in wines of the Languedoc.
Although it feels like not to understand his surroundings, he enjoys his star. It becomes even irritating by his arrogance. Age softens, but he needs the maturity to keep life spicy and explosive.
The French sites don’t often own up to this grape’s origins in Aragon, Spain, where it’s known as Garnacha. Grenache is the most widely planted red grape in the world, giving blackberry and spice notes to the blends where it is usually found.
Black Grenache: the former (l’ancien)
Because of his mind transmission, it leaves part of himself wherever he goes. His stubbornness to preserve its integrity led him to be hyper communicative order not to leave without saying. In an assembly, it gives fullness to all those involved.
The variety was probably introduced to Catalonia, Spain by the Phoenicians in around 500 BCE. Under its Spanish name, Monastrell, it is the backbone of the inky purple wines of Jumilla, Spain. In France it is a component of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. In Languedoc’s climate, this grape develops powerful, spicy flavors with aromas of blackberries, pepper, licorice and black olives.
Mourvedre: the seducer
It adapts to all situations and always knows face the difficult times. It brings balance and welcomes all who come near. The company delighted him, and his cheerfulness is a pleasure to drink!
Carignan is believed to have originated in Spain in the Aragon region and under its other Spanish name, Mazuelo, it is a component of Rioja's red wine blend. From Spain the grape gained prominence in Algeria and fed that country's export production to France. Upon Algeria's independence in 1962, the French supply of Carignan wine was cut off and growers in Southern France began to plant the vine for their own production.
A native of the Mediterranean, this variety is a heavy and reliable producer, but it often lacks tannins and is often blended with Carignan and Grenache. Often used in rosés.