Languedoc/Roussillon 2001

Sales of Languedoc and Roussillon wines, so hot in the U.S. market just a few years ago, have slowed considerably as prices for these wines have risen and as American wine lovers have discovered new sources of inexpensive red wines with a Southern flavor, chief among them bottles from Spain. According to one U.S. importer who spends considerable time in the South of France, there are literally scores of excellent high-end bottlings available for sale, but few importers are willing to buy these mostly limited cuvees because their ultimate retail prices in the U.S. would price them beyond all likelihood of commercial success. (At least a few of these are wines that have fared very well in these pages in recent years.)

Vintages 2000 and 1999 offered decidedly variable quality in the Languedoc and Roussillon, and largely failed to catch the excitement of international markets. But 2001 is another story entirely. With each passing month, 2001 is looking like the most consistently excellent vintage for Southern France in many years. The wines from the Languedoc and Roussillon regions are no exception. Yes, some wines are pricey, but in a highly successful year like 2001, there are also extraordinary values to be found.

In my extensive recent tastings of the '01s I found a high average level of quality, compelling fruit authority, and a combination of density of material and freshness that was too often missing in the 1999 and 2000 vintages. Vintage 2001 is a worthy successor to 1998, the last widely excellent year across most of France's Mediterranean rim. My tastings turned up some stunning values:flamboyantly ripe but vibrant wines with quintessential Southern flavor, many of them under $20 and some significantly cheaper.Best of all, I was able to discover some excellent new estates whose wines are available for the first time in the American market.

What makes 2001 special? As one broker who deals widely in the South put it, 2001 brought the typically ripe tannins of the Languedoc, but with a level of energy more akin to that of Bordeaux.The wines are structured and fresh; their backbone derives more from their tannic spine-which in turn was partly due to the influence of drought-than to high acidity.(High acidity, you may recall, resulted in numerous vibrant '96s, for example, but also a lot of uncharacteristically screechy, lean wines.) To be sure, the best 2001s from the Languedoc and Roussillon show nearly liqueur-like ripeness, and the quintessential wild herbal (garrigue) notes of the South can veer toward roasted herbs. But the wines have vibrancy and intensity of flavor, and the best examples should enjoy an interesting evolution in bottle.

My recent tastings focused on the 2001 vintage, but I have added a few notes on 2000s from estates that have not yet shipped their 2001s.