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Wine in France, Languedoc - Roussillon

Languedoc-Roussillon, the largest wine producing region in the world, lies on the border of the Mediterranean sea, between the Rhone delta and Spain.

Fifty thousand vine growers (out of a population of 2.4 million) spread over an area of 27,400 square kilometers (10,500 square miles) swelter in the intense summers for the sake of producing over 2 billion bottles of wine.

The mild winters and hot summers cooperate with diverse soil types ranging from limestone and sandstone to granite pebbles to host Carignan, Grenache, Merlot and other reds. Not to be left behind the Roussane, Viognier, Chardonnay and other whites add to provide ample work for the 400 cooperatives and 2,800 private wineries in a region from Muscat in the east to Banyuls in the southwest.

Originally the work of Greeks who began cultivation around the 6th century BC, after the Roman conquest viticulture developed quickly, then continued under the Visigoths in the 5th century. As the monasteries of the 9th century grew, so did the hillside vineyards, where the valleys were reserved for grains. The 19th century saw the plains conversion to vineyards as well. Today, viticulture is concentrated in the plains of Aude, Herault and Gard. These three regions produce nearly one-half of France's total grape output.

For many years, the area saw the production of a great many mediocre wines, but a renaissance of sorts in the last few decades has led to the resurgence of extraordinary Syrah. Opaque, purple-colored, with aromas of sweet blackberry spiced by black pepper and cassis.

Over the past 10 years the Vin de Pays d'Oc has also been helping to improve the area's reputation, with its unique regional characteristics, such as the earthy Minervois and Corbières.

Unlike other winegrowing regions, where individual Châteaux dominate, most here are produced by cooperatives that purchase grapes from local growers. These include the delicious Vin Doux Naturel made from Muscat or Grenache. The process involves adding grape spirit which halts fermentation, preserving sweetness and raising alcohol levels to 15-16 percent. The Muscat de Frontignan or Banyuls make for delightful dessert wines that can compete with a Port for aging potential.

Whites too have been making a comeback with the Chardonnay and the Marsanne grown in Argelier, 30km (18.6 mi) west of Beziers. Here the grapes grown in chalky soil are harvested early, then allowed only a few hours skin contact prior to pressing. The result is a fresh, dry white with aromas of apple and oak.

For those who cannot be torn from red, there's the spicy and full-bodied Corbières made from Grenache and Carignan grown in limestone, marl and sandstone. With over 70 million bottles capable of aging 3-7 years there's little danger of running out.

Moving from the hills of Corbières to the Pyrenees one lands in Roussillon, the sunniest region of France. More similar to Spain than other areas, the Carignan dominates to produce reds that are spicy and medium body, with hints of licorice.

The area is the biggest wine producing area of France. Much of the wine is Vin de Pays and many of the wines are made from less fashionable grape varieties. Old vine Carignan can be worth seeking out. This is an area for good value wines with lots of character.

Look for new developments from this large and ancient area of French winemaking.

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