Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Exploring Languedoc Wine Country in "Virgile's Vineyard"

I picked up “Virgile’s Vineyard” during a January trip to the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. Virgile Joly, the subject of this wine narrative, was eager to give me a signed copy. We’d dined together in Montpellier and I tasted through his wines at Millesime BioFair, a trade show focused on promoting organic and biodynamic wines.

Virgile struck me as a genuine man, devoid of all pretension. He listens closely before speaking, and when he does speak his words are rich with meaning. I liked his wines, too, especially his Saturne, a red blend from the Saint-Saturnin area of the Languedoc.   

I let my thoughts about the Languedoc simmer for a few months before I picked up this book and relived my experiences through Patrick Moon’s language. This book was originally published in 2003, but a new edition came out last year, which includes an 10-year retrospective epilogue.

Moon hails from England, but he spent a year-long sabbatical in an old Languedoc home that he inherited. The premise of his book is quite simple: Moon roams the Languedoc from January to December, and each month is shaped into a chapter. As the title suggests, Moon follows Joly around his vineyard and tries to learn as much as he can about vinegrowing, winemaking and the local oenological peculiarities. He prunes vines, picks grapes and, of course, drinks a lot of Languedoc vino.

Moon’s vocabulary is undeniably British. His diction is highly elevated and his language is flowery and effusive. When surrounded by bottles of wine and awe-inspiring vineyards, writers (myself included) are prone to getting carried away, and Moon gets carried away quite often.

But there’s something very pleasant about getting lost in Moon’s overflowing banter: “The vines were, of course, completely bare at this time of year — some neatly pruned, others still a ragged tangle — but the delicate, silvery grey foliage of the olive trees gently counterpointed the starkness of the rugged, fir-clad hills immediately behind me to the north.”

The book is quite informative for those interested in learning more about the entire vineyard-to-glass process. Moon shares what he learns as he learns it, which is helpful when talking about vineyard management methods, sugar and acid levels and fermentation chemisty.

Moon spends many pages reflecting on the farm-to-table way of life in the Languedoc: “Where vegetables in England might advertise their country of origin, here I find baskets that cite specific villages, even farms, in their pedigrees. Only the oranges come from as far afield as Spain. My naïve request for basil is simply laughed at. If it isn’t seasonal, it isn’t here.”

January clouds roll over a vineyard near the Languedoc town of Calce, France.
I really appreciate reading the historical and cultural tidbits that the Languedoc locals share with Moon. For example, I connected with Joly’s comments about the sometimes rough relationship between estate winegrowers and large cooperatives: “We’re not in competition; we’re complementary… Different products, different roles. You see, for me, a healthy market means a lot of people drinking wine on a regular basis. And that means a lot of decent quality, affordable wine for everyday consumption, rubbing shoulders with the best. Which is not to say that the co-op doesn’t make some very good wines…”

One of his guides, Krystina, is full of information about the Languedoc’s important role in the world’s history of wine. Here’s Krystina on the Greek connection with the Languedoc: “Wine proved a great success with the locals, you see. And very soon the Greeks were planting the Languedoc’s first cultivated vines and making the first local wines. Same with the olive trees, because olive oil wasn’t just the cornerstone of their cuisine, they also needed it for lighting, medicine, important religious observances, you name it. Absolutely vital.”

For millennia, hardworking men and women have cultivated vines and crushed berries in this rocky, sun-drenched terrain. But, unfortunately, the region’s reputation suffered as many producers churned out lots of bland juice for the bulk market. “The region was making forty-four percent of the country’s wine from only twenty-three percent of its vineyard area,” Krystina tells Moon. “It was selling on price not quality.”

Luckily for winemakers and consumers, the idea that the Languedoc is home only to mass-produced plonk doesn’t hold up anymore. Sure you can still find insipid wines, but more and more producers — like Virgile Joly — are producing exciting, terroir-driven wines that deserve your attention.

If you’re a lover of wine, travel, food and Southern France, this book also deserves attention.

Click here for a GoPro video edit from my Languedoc travels. 

4 comments:

  1. The Virgile Joly story continues in the "sequel" Arrazat's Aubergines - focussed primarily on the exciting cuisine and food products of the Languedoc region of southern France but taking in much wine-related material along the way. Best wishes and thanks Patrick Moon

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  2. Sorry not anonymous - just couldn't figure out the other options!! Patrick Moon

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    1. Cheers Patrick! I'll check out the sequel.

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  3. Where can I buy the sequel? Amazon only has £28 second hand copies!

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