The Languedoc--long France’s capital of cheap and cheerful bistro wines--is a going to great efforts to redefine itself, both in terms of pushing toward better quality and more literally, changing appellation laws and names and attempting to bring more clarity and distinction to the region’s terroirs. In almost every case this is a work in progress, but the Terrasses du Larzac seems to have started off with a clearer direction than most.
Not because of a particular variety, however. Terrasses du Larzac uses much the same grapes as elsewhere in the Languedoc, and only red blends consisting of three or more of the official primary varieties (Syrah, Grenache Noir, Mourvedre, Cinsault, and Carignan) may receive the AOP designation.
The region is in the foothills west-northwest of Montpellier, the penultimate major appellation in a row of that stretches northeast from Minervois to St. Chinian to Faugeres, filling a gap between the latter and Pic St.-Loup, but separated from both. The soils--limestone and clay, with more iron and sandstone in some areas--aren’t dissimilar from those of some of those same regions, nor are the sunny expositions of its south-facing slopes. However, the vineyards’ 800m elevation and a large diurnal temperature variation do stand out, keeping grapes from ripening too quickly and losing too much of their acidity. The region’s best wines have a freshness that, while definitely “cheerful,” does not wallow in the lowest-common-denominator sinkhole that we might commonly associate with the word. Rather, the best examples are fresh and generous, but not at the cost of sophistication and interest. These aren’t heavy wines. The fat has been trimmed, but the remaining muscle is not that of a boxer, but a dancer.
Is it the terroir, or the mindset? Terrasses du Larzac’s separation from other, more established appellations does seem to have attracted a certain sort of producer. Notably, 65% of the region’s producers are certified organic, for one thing, which suggests some agreement of interests and priorities. Former wine retailers Marie and Frederic Chauffray chose the area for their Domaine de la Reserve d’O for just that reason, attracted by vineyards where they could practice organics (and in their case, biodynamics) without worrying about chemicals spilling over from neighboring vineyards.
Of course, freshness and elegance are not universals here, and some producers shoot for a more “serious” wine--in this case meaning bigger, fruitier, and more international. This seems to be a tendency--natural, perhaps--for producers who also bottle wines under broader appellations. Many of the region’s 80 producers also make IGP or even Vin De France wines, either whites, single variety reds (whether varieties otherwise allowed in the appellation or not) or blends including varieties not permitted as major partners here, such as Merlot. If a producer is making one or more wines under these “lesser” denominations, it seems natural (if not necessarily laudable) that they might want more stuffing--ripeness, concentration, oak, and the like--into higher-priced wines from their more specific appellations. Mas de Brousses would be one example where their Terrasses du Larzac wines do indulge in a bit more power, in contrast with their Pays ‘Oc Chasseur des Brousses, a plummy Merlot blend. Their top wine, Mataro, owes its muscle to an unusually high concentration of Mourvedre (about 80% in the 2011), an interest stemming from winemaker Xavier Peyraud’s family connections with Domaine Tempier in Bandol.
Among the negoçiants or producers who operate in other appellations at the same level, expression varies. It would be hard to pick out Gerard Bertrand’s Terrasses du Larzac as such compared to his other wines, for example, as the house style – international, ripe, and polished – predominates. On the other hand, negoçiant Calmel & Joseph has a portfolio that likewise stretches across a number of Languedoc appellations, but wherein each wine’s expression favors its terroir rather than power, or merely representing a ladder of price points.
While many of Terrasses du Larzac’s producers have had American importers for some time, it will very likely take more than a little time for the name to gain any recognition here. Even now, labels featuring the designation are just starting to trickle into the market, as the appellation only received approval in October of 2014. (Earlier examples of the region’s wines appear under the Coteaux du Languedoc appellation.) In any case, it’s valuable to excuse the region from being a Languedoc hyphenate like Languedoc Pic St. Loup, Languedoc Pézenas, and the rest, if these convivial wines are to become their calling card. It’s certainly exciting to see the wines taking their place in the market via pleasant, sophisticated conversation rather than trying to out-shout the rest of the cellar.
Some Recommended Terrasses du Larzac Producers:
Domaine de la Reserve d’O: The BilBo may mark the lightest end of conviviality, without sacrificing vinosity and interest; the La Reserve d’O and Hissez O the meatier, more complex side; All three are eminently enjoyable.
Mas Des Brousses: A preference for Mourvedre marks their regular Terrasses du Larzac and Mataro, their flagship wine, with more cocoa and roast meat aromas, respectively.
Pas de l’Escalette: All three of their wines show a delicious mix of red and black fruits. The Les Clapas supplements those with slate and graphite notes the Le Grand Pas with elegance and silkiness on the palate.
Calmel & Joseph: A negociant working with vineyards across Languedoc; their Terrasses du Larzac is another Mourvedre-based example, which manifests itself in garrigue and cooking spice aromas.
Mas Jullien: Long-lived, elegant wines.
Gerard Bertrand: A ripe, dark-fruited, more polished example.
You’d be well advised to seek out these wines. The seeking may entail some sustained effort on your part, but the wines merit that….