When I first heard the word "Languedoc," [lahn GWEH dock] my thoughts were sucked into the gutter of Deep Throat. Something about its vague reference to the tongue made my mind dance with impure thoughts, especially when associated with wine.
But Languedoc is far from a porno flick; it's actually a wine region in France. And a good valued one at that. Think of this region as the "up-and-coming" neighborhood, where deals still exist but you share the block with some questionable yet colorful characters. Not many people know about this expansive hidden treasure in the South of France. For many years, the region -- the largest in France at 600,000 acres of vineyards -- was associated with cheap jug juice, so the public was slow to embrace the concept of "good" wine from Languedoc. But some of the best wine values in France, worth twice their price, are emerging out of this rather undistinguished, vagabond area.
Located in the mid-coastal region on the Mediterranean, Languedoc sports a really hot yet unpredictable climate heavily affecting the vintages. Unlike California, where weather patterns are more consistent, Languedoc's vintages are key to finding the best wines. To avoid disappointment, rely on 1998, 1999 and 2000.
Because of the heat, the majority of Languedoc's better wines are red, mostly blends of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre, yielding smooth, luscious wines of depth and character. Ill-regarded in earlier years, these grapes hit the big time in the '90s when wine producers such as Mondavi and Chateau Lafite began grabbing grapes from Vin de Pays d'Oc, the general appellation for wines of Languedoc.
Languedoc's A.O.C. appellations, France's guarantee of quality, number fewer than other regions because winemakers only recently began focusing on quality. Most of the grapes passed muster before, but most winemakers didn't take the extra steps needed to create the best juice they could achieve. In order to maximize grape flavor, winemakers use a method called crop thinning. This entails cutting grape bunches from the vine to concentrate the flavor into fewer grapes. In A.O.C. regions, this practice is normally required to maintain the quality reputation. Some reliable regions to look for: Corbieres [COR bee YARES], Minervois [MEN er VWAH], Faugeres [FOE jair], Coteaux [CO TOE] de Languedoc, and Pic Saint Loup [PEEK SAINT LOO], a sub-appellation of Coteaux du Languedoc.
As far as finding some of these gems, the chances of finding anything from Languedoc at the grocery store equate to a lottery win. The key to finding any and all esoteric-but-worth-the-effort wines is to head to your local wine shop. Those guys know wine and are there to help you sort through the literally thousands of Languedoc producers. Seek and explore -- wine shops are your friends.
Chateau L'Euziere L'Amandin 1999 Coteaux du Languedoc Pic Saint Loup ($15) : Yes, it's a mouthful of a name, and a mouthful of flavor, reminiscent of Welch's grape juice, but for adults. Blackberry on the front end and black pepper on the back end. Nice, soft tannins. Absolutely yummy.
Lurton 1998 Les Salices Syrah Vin de Pays d'Oc ($9) : Full frontal fruit that immerses your tongue gleefully in its flavor. This wine is the poster child of a Languedoc deal: soft tannins, cherry and a fun, lingering finish.
Chateau la Roque, 2000 Coteaux du Languedoc Pic Saint Loup "Cupa Numismae" ($19) : Wow! A fragrant and bold Syrah and Mourvedre blend with beautifully balanced acidity and aromas and flavors of sweet plum and cherry. Easily worth twice the money.
Taylor Eason is a regionally based wino who studied the juice in France and Italy. Comments? E-mail email@example.com.