Vineyards in the South of France
The story of vines and olive trees, intimately linked for centuries...
In the present day
Today, the vineyard of Languedoc-Roussillon spreads 200km along the Mediterranean coast. Between the steep slopes of the Pyrenees Mountains, gentle valleys, scrubland, lakes and the Mediterranean Sea, the Pays d’Oc offers a wealth of rich soils and varied climates, ideal conditions for the growth of vines. And not only vines but also olive trees which have undergone a revival thanks to the discovery of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Winegrowing and olive tree cultivation have both been reinforced by the development of agro tourism in the Languedoc region. They have an important place not only in the countryside but also in rural and agricultural life. 33 red and white grape varieties, including Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon, reign supreme and have definitively adopted the accent of the Pays d’Oc! Since 2009, the Pays d’Oc wines are recognized at the European level by the label ‘IGP’ label (which stands for ‘Indication Géographique Protégée’ or ‘Protected Geographical Indication’) for the quality conferred upon them by their origin and the way that they are nurtured by the winegrowers.They are exclusively produced from grape varieties from the Languedoc-Roussillon region.
A story that goes back a long way
In around 600 BC, the Greeks planted the first known vineyard in the South of Gaul, when they founded Massalia (Marseille). At that time wine was a means of bartering for amber or pewter.
Little by little, it entered into the daily diet and grew to be seen as a sacred product, on the same level as oil and bread. After the cultivation of vines to make wine, the Phocaeans developed the production of olives and the Romans extended its cultivation throughout the South of France. Many vestiges testify to its importance during the Gallo-Roman era, from Carcassonne to Vaison-la-Romaine.
It was at this moment, with the arrival of the Romans in Gaul, in the 2nd century BC, that winegrowing and wine trading really took off in the region.
Between the 5th and the 11th century, the vineyards were destroyed by successive wars and the decision taken by certain monarchs to limit the cultivation to use the land to grow cereals that the populations needed in order to survive. In the end it was the monks who gradually reintroduced the cultivation of vines throughout the South of France for their religious ceremonies and reasons of hospitality but also as a source of revenue for the monasteries. The Crusaders also played a part in the development of winegrowing by bringing grape varieties, which were previously unknown in Europe, back with them from Asia.
The rise of winegrowing continued throughout the 17th century. The Canal du Midi and the port of Sète allowed wines and alcohols to be transported more quickly. Ships laden down with barrels left from the port of Agde heading for Genoa.
Meanwhile olive trees were being cultivated in the villages of the South of France, almost all of which had an oil mill in those days, and benefited from the development of wine trading and maritime routes.
In the 18th century, the vineyards of the South of France led the field in terms of global production and olive trees were seen as important and necessary for the economy of many regions, especially the Roussillon, the Pays d’Aix, and the Comté Niçois.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the region’s winegrowing and olive tree cultivation were flourishing: the production increased to meet demand, the port of Sète was extremely busy, and the arrival of rail transport gave a further boost to the development of trade.
This favourable economic situation for the vineyards was suddenly troubled in 1852 by the arrival in the region of a microscopic fungus from England called powdery mildew. A remedy consisting in spraying the vines with sulphur was quickly discovered but huge damage had already been done.
Then came the Phylloxera aphid, which destroyed the vines by attacking the roots and this blighted 75% of the vineyards of Languedoc. The solution to build them back up again was to graft the French plants onto more resistant American plants. But scarcely had the Phylloxera problem been resolved before the vines were hit by a second form of mildew called downy mildew, a parasite from America, introduced by the new plants. The ‘bouillie bordelaise’, a mixture made from copper salts, water and lime, was created in 1885 by the chemists Millardet and Gayon. Production returned to its former level at the end of the century. In 1899, the regions of Hérault, Aude and Gard were the three biggest wine producing regions in France, closely followed by the Pyrénées-Orientales in fifth place.
- Interprofession des vins de pays d’Oc
- Books on the History of Languedoc & Wine in France (E. Leroy-Ladurie, • Ph Wolff, • D. Comhes, A. Nouvel, E. Maffre-Baugé, A. Tchernia)