A brief history of Languedoc

Several wine regions in France refer back to Roman times with the aim of giving themselves an appearance of antique respectability. In the Languedoc region however, wine was being produced long before the Romans arrived, precisely during the 5th century BC. There is some doubt as to the origin of these pioneers: were they Greeks or Phoenicians? In any event, wine was present here well before the Romans invaded and more than a century before other parts of what was then known as Gaul. The region around Narbonne later became a Roman province during the 2nd century BC.

Narbonne, a regional capital of the Roman Empire

Narbonne, which was then a very significant port in the North-West part of the Mediterranean, was also connected with Italy and Spain via the Via Domitia and could thus trade with all parts of the Roman Empire. During the 4th century AD, Ausone, who came from Bordeaux and left his name to the famous contemporary wine estate in Saint Emilion, wrote this about Narbonne: "All that travels in the universe uses your wharfs." And one of the main goods echanged there was wine, which served both as an esteemed drink and a trading commodity. Initially the wine came mainly from Italy but, as from the rule of Augustus, this was progressively replaced by local wine. This is certified by the hundreds of dolia (large earthenware jars used for making wine) found in a Gallo-Roman farm at Loupian, near the town of Sète. And archeologists tell us that this was an average sized estate producing annually around 1500 hectolitres of wine, whereas the largest produced four times as much. This production peaked during the Flavian dynasty at the end of the 1st century AD. Its nature was probably rather different from what we know today in Languedoc as the vines were planted at a very high density of 10,000 plants per hectare: over double what exists today. This wine was exported in considerable quantities as we know by the large quantity of amphoras (30 litre earthenware jars used for storage and transport) made and signed by local potters to be found not only in Rome, but also in Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, and even as far away as India! Among the first grape varieties to be introduced were those of the muscat group that could well correspond to the grape known then as Apiena Uva, or the bee's grape, since it attracted them with its sweetness.

Abbeys and Frontignan

The troubled period that followed the decline of the Roman Empire saw local economies become just that: local. Ensued a reduction in wine production and it was not before the 8th century and the founding of the first monasteries that wine regained some prestige. Abbeys and monasteries harboured knowledge at that time, including knowledge of all things agricultural. They covered the area between Corbières and the Cevennes, from Lagrasse to Aniane, including Fontfroide, Saint-Guilhem et Saint-Chinian. Where they were implanted, the monks developed viticulture, often following precepts previously established in Burgundy. One of the first localities to emerge was that of Frontignan. A chart dating from 1117 states that "Guodel Tolosa, a bourgeois from Frontignan, bequeaths 12 arpents of vines planted with muscat to the Abbey of Aniane"The 13th century saw a re-emergence of forgotten know-how, sometimes passed on by Arabs, then by teachers at the University of Montpellier. This was the case with Arnaud de Villeneuve, who, as the story goes, theorized the fortification of wine by the addition of alcohol. He took cures at Frontingnan and said of its wine that "it makes one ten years younger". Frontignan was described at that time as a fortifier, just like Malaga in Andalusia, yet, unlike todays Muscat de Frontignan, it did not contained added alcohol: its power and sweetness was derived from dried grapes which were selected in phases according to their ripeness and then left to dry on the vine.

Trading in this exceptional wine took place thanks to the growth of the port of Sète, and later by the Canal du Midi which opened in 1671, enabling wine to be shipped by barge from Frontignan to Bordeaux and thence to Northern Europe. By the end of the 17th century, its reputation was such that two Swiss citizens, the Flatter brothers, spending time in Languedoc, wrote: "Frontignan is a small town on the banks of lake Thau...in the suburbs of this locality they harvest that famous Muscat that is renowned all over the world". In 1712, in order to prevent fraud, barrels of Muscat de Frontignan were branded with the emblem of the town that was modified with each vintage. As a proof of its reputation, Frontignan later became one of the first French wines to be sold in glass bottles, one of which is known as "la Frontignane" and is still used in Bordeaux!


The emergence of specific localities

This was also the period that saw other Languedoc localities acquiring reputations, particularly for red wines. This was the case for Saint-Christol that belonged first to the Hospitaliers of Saint John and then to the Order of Malta until the late 18th century. Both religious orders distributed their wines in various countries, using their networks and shipping from the port of Aigues-Mortes. They had even reached the table of the French King Louis IX and, later, in 1788, the barrels were also branded to prevent fraud.  Another historical site was Saint-Georges d’Orques, very favourably commented by Thomas Jefferson in 1804. This lover of wine, the third President of the United States of America, asked his Secretary of the Tresury to reduce taxes on wine, saying that "we must encourage the trading in quality produce to avoid alcoholism". One could say that the same remains true today. In the 1850s, the French agronomist Victor Rendu classified Saint-Christol and Saint-Georges amongst "the fine wine sites" of the Hérault département, together with Saint-Drézery. But we should not consider that the production of these sites has remained unchanged since then: the main grape varieties at that time being neither grenache, mourvèdre or syrah, but the now obscure terret noir, followed by the now even rarer piran (ribeyrenc), whereas carignan, then spelt with a final "e", is presented as having been recently introduced from Spain. Rendu describes the wines of Saint-Christol as quite powerful, as does his predecessor André Julien who, in his Topographie de tous les vignobles connus (1824), spoke of "firm and deeply coloured wines that are of good taste and quite strong". He continued thus: "The wines of Saint-Christol are very suited to export as they fear neither distance nor heat"

The rise of mass production wines

When Thomas Jefferson travelled through Languedoc in 1787, he discovered "plains covered with wheat" and hills  "with olive trees, sainfoin, pastures, some vines and mulberry trees". Fifty years on, the landcape had changed radically since vines had gained the plains at a speed that suprised contemporaries: "it would seem, by endless plantings, that the vine is going to possess all the land, taking over every suitable part of the territory, pushing before it cereals and fodder crops and all those that the Mediterranean sun renders too variable." The urban and industrial development that took place in France as from around 1840 fuelled this change. Thirst for wine increased and average adult consumption of wine went from a couple of dozen litres to 50 litres in 1848, then to 80 litres in 1880. France became covered in vines. In the Languedoc, the merchant class saw the opportunity and invested as from 1820 in modern, high-yielding vineyards that produced the dark red wines in demand at the time. Peasant farmers followed suit as this was a way to earn a living. This expansion of the vineyard area literally exploded with the arrival of the railway which reduced the cost of transporting wines to Paris and the North by at least 80%. Languedoc's vineyards covered 295,000 hectares in 1852, then 463,000 in 1875, with yields that were close to 100 hectolitres per hectare. For over a century Languedoc was virtually a mono-cultural region.

Phylloxéra and its consequences

An early alert was the arrival of powdery mildew in 1851, and it had taken about ten years to find a way of partially controlling this. A far more redoubtable enemy was phylloxera, initially identified in the Gard in 1863. In neighbouring Hérault, between 1871 and 1879, 15,000 hectares of vines were being destroyed each year. This administrative region became a vast experimental field for possible means of prevention, with over 300 recipes being tested. These varied from flooding the vines to placing live toads under each plant! The solution that was finally discovered was to graft the vitis vinfera varietes that produced European wines onto American root-stock that had developped natural resistance to the pest that orginated there. If Languedoc was the first region to be affected, it was also the first to replant, a process that was encouraged by a penury of wine that ensued this plague and which sent prices soaring. Replanting concentrated on the plains with hybrids and high-yielding varieties. "Landowners, to reward the high levels of investments made to replant, needed huge crops from high-yielding varieties that were not chosen for their refinement [1]". One of these "unrefined" varieties was Aramon that could produce "up to 200 litres per hectare in a good year [2]". By 1900, whilst France had lost 30% of its vineyards since 1870, Languedoc had done more than resist: its vineyard area had even invreased by 10% and was producing 40% of the country's wine. The landscape had altered, and for many decades, with the vines descending from the barren hills to flood the fertile plains that were so much easier to cultivate. The vines were trained in lines that facilitated the use of horse-drawn tools and, later, tractors. In terms of the wines, these were indeed plentiful but mediocre in quality, pale in colour and low in degree and would soon be reinforced with stronger stuff imported from the then French colony of Algeria. Thus Languedoc became France's "wine factory".

1907, the revolt of the growers

Once the way of blocking phylloxera was found, another dangerous problem arose: chronic over-production. In 1868, Jules Guyot forsaw that if "the shortage of ordinary wines is replaced by abundance...the considerable propsperity of the Hérault could well rapidly become distress[3]". But, up to 1900, after decades of under-production as a consequence of phylloxera, nobody took this warning seriously. Yet in 1901 it came to be true as the price of a hectolitre of wine fell to 8 francs, a quarter of the price in 1880 and way below the cost of production. The regenerated vineyard produced generous crops in both 1900 and 1901, to which were added imported wines from Algeria, not to mention two large cider harvests. For the very first time in ages, the French market was unable to absorb this production. Resorting to distillation in Languedoc did not solve the problem either since cheap spirits were now being produced in the North from suger-beet or cereals. Growing social tensions were temporarily calmed by smaller harvests that followed, before exploding from 1905 when a series of generous harvests caused bulk prices to fall below 7 francs.

For those who had placed all their efforts and investments in the vine, this situation became untenable. And this concerned not only the small-holders, but also the vineyard workers and the major landowners who had invested massively over the past 20 years, not to mention all those who depended less directly on this production. They got together under the leadership of Marcelin Albert, vine-grower and café owner, a sincere and pacific public speaker who had been defending since 1900 what he called "natural" wine against those who were cheating and "poisoning" consumers. The true causes of this crisis were perhaps as unknown to them as they were to the government which claimed, following a report in 1907, "that the viticultural crisis is not due to over-production". Protesters' anger focused on merchants who were producing fraudulent wines from all kinds of substances. One should remember that, at the peak of the phylloxera crisis in the 1880s, pure wine had become "a myth,a memory of bygone days[4] " and all manner of substances were being used by some to deal with penury: a combination of some or all of the following; dried grapes, sugar, grain spirit, glycerine, sulphuric acid, colouring agents, etc. By 1900 these ersatz wines had almost vanished but they crystallized widespread discontent: the enemies were the frauders, supposedly tied to large-scale sugar-beet producers from the north and with government complicity. This all exploded in 1907 when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Languedoc and in Roussillon. A revolt caused by poverty also became a political movement, closely connected with socialism and regionalism. The people were hand-in-hand with their local representatives, such as Dr. Ferroul, then mayor of Narbonne. Huge demonstrations turned to insurrection in Narbonne on June 19, 20 and 21 and were repressed with bloodshed by the French government headed by Georges Clemenceau. The hastily passed law of June 29th that year calmed things down.


One crisis follows another

This law created an obligation to declare harvest volumes and stocks, established controls on wine transport and set up an anti-fraud system. If it succeeded in appeasing, it hardly modified the fundamental problem of over-production, simple giving "the illusion that only government intervention could save wine production in Languedoc, whereas it was market imbalance that had caused the crisis[5] ". Languedoc wine producers did draw other conclusions from this crisis however, notably the fact that they were all in the same boat and had created a corporate spirit epitomized by unions and cooperatives, backed up by influential local politicians and revealed by strong actions. But other crises would come like new seasons, together with brighter intervals when the contexts were more favourable. War years created other periods of penury through lack of labour and, in the case of the First World War, by the huge quantities of wine taken up by the army. During the mid nineteen-twenties, the vineyard was back on track again to the point where the market became saturated once again partly though large quantities coming from Algeria. The world-wide crisis following 1929 once again sent wine prices into a tailspin. The government, encouraged by Edouard Barthe, member of parliament for the Hérault département, took measures such as prohibiting plantings, limiting yields, freezing stock, mandatory distillation and sustaining cooperative wineries whose numbers grew fast between 1919 and 1939. Lack of manpower was not the only consequence of the First World War, and, to a lesser extent, the Second World War: there was also a dearth of chemicals for fertilizers and hay for the horses as stocks and horses, then tractors and trucks, had been requisitioned. Reconstruction took time but, as from the late 1960s, the spectre of over-production was once again on the prowl. Despite the ripping up of hybrids and the Aramon variety, mechanization and extensive use of chemicals increased yields. When importations of Algerian wine ceased in 1969, this was replaced by wine from southern Italy. Above all, Languedoc remained stuck in the rut of a system that had not seen that wine markets were changing: large volume everyday wines were fading fast to be replaced, progressively, with quality wines in far lesser quantities. In an increasingly liberal economy, regulations and subsidies would no longer be sufficient to keep vinegrowers afloat. Once again stocks piled up and the region got very hot under the collar in 1967, 1971, 1975 and then 1976 ending with a shoot-out at Montredon that caused 2 deaths.

A new deal

"I am quite sure that the intelligent people of l'Hérault would prefer to take advantage of their land and climate to progressively reform their vineyards. They will be just as skilled at producing fine wines as they have been in producing large volumes...they can surely understand that they would be better off producing 40 hectolitres at 30 francs than 100 litres at 10 francs". Languedoc would need a century to take on board these words of wisdom written by Victor Rendu in 1866! But, once it did, the change would be impressive indeed. Poor quality vineyards were massively ripped out and the quest for quality was underway. The hills and slopes sprouted vines again, hybrids and low quality varieties gave way to quality varieties, wineries were modernized, appellations were reformed or created and the rapid growth of the Vin de Pays (now IGP) category, boosted by export markets, put Languedoc production in phase with current market demands. Yesterday's pioneers such as Aimé Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac, who started in 1979, have been succeeded by a generation of dynamic and ambitious producers. Negociants and cooperatives have modernized their acts and battalions of independent producers, of local or more distant origins, have added a spirit of adventure and originality that the region has never seen before. Languedoc has achieved in 40-odd years what has taken centuries in other regions! The past 20 years have seen the region finishing the job of removing over-productive vines (now 150,000 hectares have been ripped up), but especially that of convincing the trade and consumers that it is not only capable of producing decent wines at very reasonable prices, but also more complex ones that are now sought after from a series of "star" producers. The terrific progress made in the quality of the wines can easily be put to the test by vertical tastings of certain appellations going back 20 or 30 years. The pages of the inglorious past have been turned and a new image, and with it the esteem of consumers, has replaced it. Wines of Languedoc have never been so good, so make the most of them!


Sébastien Durand-Viel


Photo credits: Aurélien Aumond

[1] Antoine De Saporta, Vineyards and wine in southern France: 1874

[2] id.

[3] Jules Guyot, A study of French vineyards: for use in training on viticulture and winemaking: 1868

[4] Anonymous, what one is really drinking when one thinks it is wine: 1883

[5] Marcel Lachiver, Wines, vines and vinegrowers – a History of French vineyards: 1988