Southern France's Wine Future Far From Rosé

The South of France's wine reputation rests mostly on rosé.
© Getty Images | The South of France's wine reputation rests mostly on rosé.
The south of France is synonymous with pretty pink plonk, but there is greater potential elsewhere.
By James Lawrence | Posted Monday, 16-Nov-2020

In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron took a trip to China. Several chateaux were invited to provide a few bottles during one of the presidential dinners, including Cheval Blanc and a Grand Cru Burgundy produced by Domaine Louis Latour. Quelle surprise – a motley collection of the usual suspects were trotted out to impress China's political class.

Yet Macron did break with tradition during his presidential visit: he asked ex-rugby player Gerard Bertrand to showcase the best of Languedoc winemaking. Choice vintages of Château l'Hospitalet and Cigalus – both reds – were served alongside a Premier Grand Cru Classé from Bordeaux. "What further proof do you need?" enthuses Gerard Bertand.

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"This categorically illustrates that the Languedoc is considered a fine wine region."

The idea of Macron's predecessors showcasing wines from the south of France on the international stage is certainly an implausible one. For decades, anything cultivated south of Toulouse and Avignon was considered vin de merde by the Parisian set. 

The Languedoc was derided as a region of cheap jug wine; Provence overflowed with coarse and amorphous pink plonk. Bandol maintained a decent, if niche following. But that's about the extent of it; the idea of international delegates being served Languedoc rosé, never mind red, in the 1980s is as likely as Donald Trump marrying Nancy Pelosi.

All that changed in the early 1990s, when a younger generation of globe-trotting winemakers decided to adopt a new approach, bringing a more international outlook and fresh ideas to the Languedoc and Provence. Today, red and whites from the region truly shine.

However, if the hype were to be believed, the area's revival is almost solely down to rosé's meteoric rise to fame.

Rosé in the box seat

I've read more stories about pink wine from the South of France over the past few years than my surgeon has performed colonoscopies. Of course, this is a welcome development: the quality of Provencal and Languedoc rosé has never been higher, and most of it is affordable at under $25. If winemakers like Bertrand want to charge $180 for a limited-production cuvée, then why not?  And as Eric Kurver, owner of AIX Rosé likes to point out, more rosé is currently sold in the French market than white wine.

"Rosé from Provence clearly became what Champagne is amongst all sparkling wine. It is perfectly aligned with the evolution of new wine consumers and lifestyle trends as less formal meals become the norm," argues Kurver.

But there is a major caveat to the triumph of French pink: there is so much interesting stuff happening in the South of France, that the rosé story almost feels like an unwelcome distraction. Or a non-story dressed up in diamond-encrusted lilac.

Who is more interested in the continued growth of terroir-driven red and white wines, most of which are accessible to non-oligarchs? Hands up now. Or whether the likely expansion in expensive rosé and indeed upmarket labels such as Cigalus is sustainable and realistic?

Bertrand, naturally, believes that he has started a revolution. He expects other growers will soon start marketing an expensive copycat in the Clos de Temple mold.

"It has already started," he insists. "This year, several producers in France and elsewhere have positioned their new rosés on a luxury market. Historically, rosé has been under-appreciated. But site-specific rosé is a wine that can age and reach exceptional levels of sensation and emotion."

Other producers and wine buyers maintain their skepticism.

"There is obviously a niche market for expensive rosé from the south of France and I think we will naturally see other producers following Bertrand's lead – nobody can stop it," says Atmann Afanniss, general manager of Les Ma?tres Vignerons de Cascastel.

"But I don't share this vision. We prefer to promote a good balance between price and quality. There is currently a market for expensive Languedoc wines, however, I feel this model is not sustainable. If you have a look at other production areas, you can see that the fall from grace may be significant at a given time."

The red wines of Provence and Languedoc are starting to turn heads now.
© Go Provence | The red wines of Provence and Languedoc are starting to turn heads now.

Aiming for the middle ground

In a sense, Afanniss speaks for the majority. A critical mass of winemakers in Provence and the Languedoc don't aim for the stars; there is now a sizable volume of brilliant wines marketed at under $50. Moreover, average prices are rising in both the cheap and premium segments: bulk red Minervois is now worth more than wines from several generic Bordeaux appellations. Marketing premium brands from the South of France is no longer a completely thankless task.

"Wines like Trevallon and Château Simone have a steady, if specialist, market here and I have tasted some spectacular reds and whites from the Languedoc and Provence/Les Baux recently," says wine buyer Peter Mitchell MW.

"If they can get more recognition, they have a better chance longer term than overpriced rosé."

Indeed, there is much consensus regarding the merits of the best wines being produced in this great swath of land. They are magnificent: nuanced, complex, refined and ageworthy expressions of the area's varied terroir. If there is discord and disagreement, then it concerns consumer perception, rather than quality.

"The Languedoc is a huge area, producing wine at all levels, from the cheap and easy drinking to the more sophisticated labels of its most famous producers," admits Mark Walfold of Le Soula winery in Roussillon.

"However, as the leading vineyards of the Languedoc-Roussillon become better they are commanding higher prices. The most notable example is Grange des Pères, a remarkable wine with an international following. It sells out en primeur at €100."

Walford adds that he has no trouble selling older magnums of his best wine for €150 ($177) to key export markets and Paris restaurants.

Nevertheless, as is so often the case, these wines aren’t the real story. They are a mere drop in the ocean, liable to appeal to a small firmament of enthusiasts. Many buyers argue that the wider collectors market is not yet ready to pay top dollar for expensive wines made in this corner of France.

"We generally offer the Billa Haut wines from Chapoutier's Roussillon outpost to our private clients – a small but solid demand. Other than that we haven't really dipped a toe into the waters. The feedback is that wealthy clients just aren't interested," reports Mitchell.

"For the last 20 years, the Languedoc-Roussillon has been about to become 'the next thing in fine wine', but it never seems to make the final step into mass acceptance."

This is the inherent problem with the hype over celebrity bullshit and rarified, expensive cuvées: it distracts from the real, if perhaps unsexy story emanating from the south of France. Affordable, sub-$50 bottles of excellent wine are where the action is.

"Both wines from the Languedoc and Provence can do incredibly well for us," reports San Francisco-based sommelier Matt Cirne.

"Undoubtedly, wine drinkers are becoming more open minded, and rigid ideas attached to grapes or regions are becoming less and less relevant. Larger appellations that permit idiosyncratic wines are more prone to being embraced by the drinking public."

The intrepid sommelier reels off a list of wines that would have been unthinkable 25 years ago. Sophisticated, dark fruited and herbaceous reds from Fitou at less than $20. Saline, aromatic wines coming from the Cotes Catalanes and the dry, sun soaked reds that are being made in towns like Banyuls and Calce.

"The most exciting wines in this region are very much anti-establishment," says Cirne.

"However, there is certainly not enough money (or wine) around for these producers to make the PR machine churn."

Au contraire mon ami: there is plenty of fun and excitement to be found in the South of France. But super-expensive rosé, delicious as it is, really is the least of it.

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