Sniffing out the underdogs of France’s forgotten wines
Around seven years ago, our restaurant managers sat round a table to make some changes to our wine lists.
The discussion soon turned into a debate. “Well, why do we have to offer a Pinot Grigio?” one asked, to which the response was: “Because it’s a crowd-pleaser, everyone expects it.” Well, what if we didn’t?
Stewart Travers, from Cambridge Wine Merchants, soon jumped to our aid and proposed a research trip to an up-and-coming wine-growing region in southern France, the Languedoc-Roussillon.
We went with open minds and returned with bellies full of wine, cheese and charcuterie as well as the inspiration to completely overhaul our wine lists.
The two reservations we had about developing a wine list focused on just one region were blown straight out of the water. Variety was the first, but we soon discovered that Languedoc-Roussillon is a region with huge diversity of terroir (geology, geography and climate) – from the cool, undulating hills of Hérault to the hot and exotic Pyrénées-Orientals. The result is the ability to produce many different styles of wine, including red, white, rosé, sparkling, Vin de Pays, various AOCs, single varietals as well as excellent blends.
The second reservation was quality – how would the Languedoc fare in comparison to the classic regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, for example?
This was a very pleasant surprise as we found the quality to be outstanding. Not only that, but the Languedoc is attracting some up-and-coming, innovative wine growers who feel too restrained by the classical Old World methods. One example is Vincent Chansault, from Domaine Gayda, whose Chenin Blanc is fermented in 10ft tall concrete eggs. His warehouse looks more like a set from Jurassic Park than a typical winery!
The Languedoc in the past gained a reputation for very average ‘table wine’, though nowadays this is no longer the case. However, the vestiges of this reputation have worked in our favour, allowing us to select some really excellent wines and offer them to customers at an attractive price. The Languedoc truly is the underdog of French wine.
By far the best part of having such a focused wine list is that it has allowed us to develop a strong connection to this region of France. Regular trips to the area mean we have personal attachments to many of our wines. Cambscuisine helped pick a wonderful vineyard at Château Rives-Blanques, grapes which juiced their delightful Chardonnay-Chenin blend. This has also allowed us to become experts on this region. Instead of knowing only a little about a lot, our teams know a lot about a smaller region and are able to make well-informed, personal recommendations.
We take managers and some full-timers to visit the wine growers at least twice a year. The first trip tends to be for new managers, a general introduction to the region, whilst the second trip is for more seasoned managers and focuses on whizzing around six or seven wine growers in just a few days to select wines for our next list. There’s nothing like seeing the terroir with your own eyes to understand the quality and variety that the Languedoc-Roussillon has to offer.
Cambscuisine is a group of seven local restaurants and an event catering operation.