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Languedoc: French wine you may not know

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2011 Mas de Guiot Grenache Syrah, $10

2010 Novellum Chardonnay, $11

2010 Chateau Sainte Eulalie Plaisir d’Eulalie Minervois, $12

2009 Chateau Mourgues du Gres Costieres de Nimes les Galets Rouge, $13

2010 Michel Chapoutier Les Vignes Bila-Haut Rouge, $14

2009 Domaine L’Hortus Coteaux du Languedoc Bergerie Classique, $15

2010 Chateau Puech-Haut Coteaux de Languedoc Prestige, $18


Chateau Mourgues du Gres:

Mas des Tourelles:

France Tourism, Atout France:

Languedoc-Roussillon Tourism:

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Updated: October 13, 2012 6:04AM

You may not have heard of the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region in the South of France and that is nothing to be ashamed of because 20 years ago not many people outside of France knew or cared much about it, either. They knew it as the world’s largest wine region — a third of France’s wine comes from there — but not a very good one.

That last part has changed. The region is now producing some nice wines that are full of bright fruit. They also are affordable. A visit to the region — called simply the Languedoc or the Midi — is a low-key alternative to the more glamorous coastline to the east, the French Riviera.

At the eastern border of the Languedoc, just across the Rhone River from Provence, and about 35 miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea, Chateau Mourgues du Gres probably is what you imagine when you conjure up a winery in the South of France. Rustic and charming, its rolling vineyards flourish alongside large plantings of fruit, nut and olive trees, colorful flowers and fragrant herbs.

In 2011, owners Anne and Francois Collard created an educational foot and bicycle path through their picturesque property, where Anne leads tours. Winemaking is overseen by Francois, a former winemaker at the legendary Chateau Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux. Today the Collards are turning out great wines using Rhone varietals including Carignan, Cinsaut, Grenache, Marsanne, Mourvedre and Syrah.

“In my wines I try to offer a sense of the fruit and bring out some of the minerality of the stony soil — a direct sense of what I can see and smell in my environment,” Francois says. Two hallmarks of Languedoc wines are fruit and minerality. Many of them are low in tannins, too. In addition to Rhone varietals, popular Languedoc grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Winemaking has a long history in the Languedoc, beginning with the Romans, and the region is still dotted with interesting Roman sites. Pont du Gard is the largest surviving aqueduct in the world, and the Roman town of Nimes is packed with preserved structures. Ancient architecture somehow heightens the wine-drinking experience. All around these ancient towns, close to 725,000 acres of vineyards roll — up to the Pyrenees near the Spanish border, and back down to the sea. Wine is everywhere.

The medieval hilltop fortress in Carcassonne is a city unto itself with 60 residents, down from 3,000 in the Middle Ages; and the 11th-century Fontfroide Abbey in Narbonne is equally fascinating — one of the only complete abbeys remaining in France. Both places are legitimate food and wine stops, too.

The abbey restaurant is terrific, and within the fortress city, Comptoir des Vins et des Terroirs wine shop is a true destination. Run by the delightful sommelier Stephanie Delmotte, who offers tutorials on local wines, the place will pack your head with knowledge and your belly with wine.

“These wines are more for drinking soon,” Delmotte says. “They have fruity expression, you don’t have to keep them 10 years in cellar, and you get very good prices.”

Another selling point for Languedoc wines is their diversity. Mountain, lake, plain and seaside growing areas make sure of it. Grapes in the Languedoc get an almost unfair amount of warm sunshine, too, which brings out those jammy fruit flavors. These are not wines to brood over in candlelight. They are wines to enjoy with fun people and good food.

“All the palate, all the wallet,” Delmotte says. In other words, everyone can find a Languedoc wine they can enjoy and afford.

If you are lucky enough to enjoy those wines where they were made, a meal and overnight at the exquisite Le Castellas in Collias is a must, if your budget allows. The jolly sommelier there will guide you to happiness via his charm alone, if not with his adept local wine picks. Also try the charming Domaine des Clos in Beaucaire, which screams “South of France.”

In addition to making contemporary wines, Mas des Tourelles, also in Beaucaire, makes Roman-style wines using the equipment and techniques of 2,000 years ago. The wines are funky and spicy, with ingredients as unorthodox as ginger, honey and seawater. But as the saying goes, “When winemaking as the Romans did. ...”

The Languedoc is the South of France but it is not about yachts or film festivals. It is about the freshness of the land, the warmth of the sun, and simple, accessible, enjoyable wines.

If you did not know of the Languedoc before now you should be glad to make its acquaintance, if not in person at least through your local wine shop.

Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail

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