Through both Languedoc Living (great site by and for anglophones in Languedoc) and friends who live in Quarante, we learned about Emma Kershaw’s wine and tapas tasting event. On a pleasantly cool July day we drove about an hour deep into the Corbières mountains to the tiny village of Coustouge. There we found La Maison du Rire (The House of Laughter), and a smiling and laughing Emma at its front door.
She welcomed us all (we from Carcassonne and our friends from Quarante) into her house. Outside, the house looks like a modest stone village building. Like the Tardis (for the Dr Who fans), it is much bigger on the inside. She told us that she and her wood-working (ebéniste et menuisier) husband, Chris, had gutted all three stories of the 19th-century building. They reconstructed it with large airy rooms, massive renovated exposed beams, and beautiful wood bannisters, windows, doors, tables, cabinets and countertops.
Emma welcomed us to a handsome set table next to her open kitchen.
She started by orienting us to the Languedoc Roussillon region (in which we live!). Languedoc Roussillon is a formidable producer of good wines. About a third of all the wine produced in France comes from this region; that’s 5% of what is produced in the WORLD! There are over 21,000 wine-growing estates here (which means that we just have to give up trying to master it all).
Emma told us that this region was productive and well-regarded even in Roman times. During the time of Domitian, so many citizens in Rome preferred the wine from what we know today as Languedoc Roussillon that the emperor forbade the establishment of any new vineyards here. Couldn’t have the provinces be better than the home town.
Both the start of and remedy for the phylloxera catastrophe of the mid 19th century took place in this region. The Great French Wine Blight was caused by the North American phylloxera aphid that decimated the roots of European vines. The infestation was first noticed in the Gard, in the north-east of Languedoc. Because the phenomenon was not well understood, or even acknowledged, for many years, about half of France’s vines were killed.
The solution also came from North America. It was discovered that grafting European vines on to American root stock yielded vines that resisted the aphid, and produced grapes identical to those produced pre-phylloxera. The first successful grafted vineyards were in Languedoc.
This phylloxera history helps explain a sticky reputation for the wines of Languedoc. The current reality is that very many of the vintners of Languedoc Roussillon produce very good and even very fine wines. But the lingering reputation is that the region’s wine production was and is all about quantity over quality. After the devastation caused by phylloxera all around France, and indeed around Europe, wine production collapsed. Once the new grafted vines started producing in Languedoc, the vintners couldn’t keep up with demand. They prioritized volume, given the parched market, over quality. Good business, but bad wine.
In the 1980s, the French government decided to remedy this quantity over quality situation. It enacted incentives to pull up poor-quality vines and to replace them with a more balanced polyculture that included olive trees, orchards and other complementary agriculture. About 27% of the vines were replaced. Today, we see vineyards everywhere; it is hard to imagine 27% more!
To this day, in Europe it is not allowed to irrigate vineyards (except as part of establishing new plants). One reason for this is that, with irrigation, the grape yields could double almost overnight. This would create a glut of lesser-quality wines. There is no desire to return to high quantity / low quality production.
After a bit of history, Emma turned to our mouths. Simply and elegantly, she helped us experience the taste zones on our tongues and in our mouths. A sugar cube pressed on the middle or sides of the tongue yields no taste of sweetness; but on the tip of the tongue, 100% sweet. In contrast, a bit of lemon juice is neutral on the tip of the tongue, but alive on the mid-to-back edges. This little exercise makes it clear why the most fun and full way to taste wine is make sure that it flows over all parts of your tongue.
Emma’s humorous and energetic style made all this information more than palatable. Happily, she didn’t delay too long getting to the wine and food. I won’t and can’t describe the tastes and aromas of the wines and foods she shared with us. (You’ll just have to come experience this yourself!). With each wine (one sparkling, two whites, one gastronomic rosé, three dry reds, one sweet red), Emma helped us articulate the aromas (nose) and tastes. She explained how the wine was made, where it came from, and the goals and passions of each winemaker.
Then she brought in plates of tapas that she had prepared specifically to demonstrate how the food can marry well with each specific wine. For example, the tart and slightly salty plate of local lucque olives, conserved garlic (l’ail confit), and tapenade enhanced the citrusy sparkling Blanquette de Limoux. (By the way, if you have a source for sparkling wines from Limoux, you will find delightfully fresh and affordable alternatives to Champagne.)
Here are the wines we tasted.
When Emma said that there are over 21,000 wine producers in Languedoc Roussillon, we asked for her advice about how might approach such a daunting quantity of sources and wines. Sensibly, she said that we can take advantage of the numerous wine festivals, dégustations (tastings), wine walks (events during which you hike through vineyards from winery to winery, enjoying food and wine at each stop), and talking with our local caviste (wine shop person).
This is the kind of homework that like to do!