Created in 1987, IGP Pays d’Oc is now France’s leading export designation by volume and it is hard to imagine the Languedoc-Roussillon without it. But when it was introduced there was uncertainty and caution about how well the wines would be received. Fast forward 35 years and the IGP Pays d’Oc has become a success story that other wine regions would love to emulate. Here we look at the big steps it has taken along the way.
Selling wines by the varieties they are made from might be how the New World made its way in wine, but it was not the way things were done in the Old World – and certainly not in France. Until IGP Pays d’Oc came along….
When the first IGP Pays d’Oc wines were released in 1987 (called ‘Vins de Pays d’Oc’ at the time), later to become Protected Geographical Indication wines in 2009, no one could have predicted the designation’s resounding success – 25 bottles of IGP Pays d’Oc wines are now sold every second worldwide. The success has to be put into context and stems from the quality revolution that has taken place in the Languedoc-Roussillon over the past 35 years.
IGP Pays d’Oc varietal wines have created a new wine category that consumers across the globe have latched on to and keep coming back for more. IGP Pays d’Oc wines now cover half of the vineyards within the Languedoc-Roussillon region, some 120,000 hectares out of 240,000 and are currently farmed by 930 independent producers and 150 cooperatives.
By making and marketing IGP Pays d’Oc wines by their variety it has freed wine growers to plant vines from a choice of 58 permitted grape varieties, most of which are vinified as single varietals, or as two grape varieties, or a blend. They are still able to use the experience of a region that dates back 26 centuries, and is so strongly influenced by the extraordinary array of soil types – from sandy to limestone, schist, clay and stony gravel – and the Mediterranean climate that is so conducive to fruit ripening.
Thanks to the diversity of soils, grape varieties (58 authorised) and climates, there is a wide range of aromas unique to the Pays d’Oc. It means wine drinkers are able to delve into an extensive range of wines, suitable for all distribution channels, and any occasion, across red, white and rosé wines (45% red, 30% rosé, 25% white). The quality-price ratio is one of the key factors that consumers the world over continue to discover and appreciate.
How it all started
The inspiration for IGP Pays d’Oc wines actually dates back to the early 1970’s when producers could see the opportunity and advantage that winemakers in fast growing areas of the New World, like the Napa Valley, had because they were free to make varietal wines, whereas they were hamstrung by the complexity of the French designation.
Wine growers, belonging to what would become the Pays d’Oc producers’ organisation, were looking to breathe new life into the Languedoc-Roussillon wine industry. They were able to drive through considerable changes thanks first to the ‘Plan Chirac’ initiative in 1973 that resulted in widespread vineyard restructuring, a series of vine-pull schemes, that saw 56,000 hectares of land replanted as part of the ‘Languedoc-Roussillon directive’. All of which resulted in a big decline in entry-level table wines and a large increase in quality wines. Then from 1987 onwards, IGP Pays d’Oc wine growers were able to redesign the regional wine map with the emergence of varietal wines, alongside the terroirs classified as appellations.
“If we hadn’t chosen to go down this route 35 years ago, foreign varietal wines would now be lining supermarket shelves in France,” says Jacques Gravegeal, founding chairman of the Pays d’Oc growers’ organisation
How have IGP Pays d’Oc wines developed in terms of styles and quality?
The premise of IGP Pays d’Oc is simple: varietal wines offer an easily recognisable and understandable buying cue for consumers. The French wine industry had historically chosen another, appellation-centric tack that focused more on terroir dynamics and blends. Languedoc-Roussillon wine growers set out on a mission to claim France’s easily identifiable grape varieties as their own.
None more so than Sète-based Robert Skalli, who also owned a winery in California, and would provide the catalyst for change and the shift from a terroir to a market-led approach. He became the first to market Pays d’Oc varietal wines under the ‘Fortant de France’ brand, with 87,000 hectolitres of wine hitting the shelves in 1987.
“Customers were attracted to Pays d’Oc’s extremely straightforward approach revolving around a varietal-driven statement originating in a demarcated wine producing area, i.e. IGP Pays d’Oc, within the broader Languedoc-Roussillon region,” adds Jacques Gravegeal.
Some 35 vintages later and IGP Pays d’Oc is now France’s biggest designated area by volume, with 6.8 million hectolitres produced, outstripping Bordeaux. It is now the world’s seventh-largest exporter of varietal wines.
IGP Pays d’Oc vineyards run parallel with 200 km of the Mediterranean coastline from the Pyrenees to the Camargue (covering the Aude, Hérault, Gard and Pyrenees-orientales departments). Four prevailing winds – the Mistral, Autun, Marin and Tramontane – buffet the region’s vineyards, keeping the grapes moisture-free and healthy. IGP Pays d’Oc vineyards cover half of Languedoc-Roussillon’s extensive 240,000 hectare footprint, taking in the cool weather patterns of the Pyrenees to the West and the Massif Central to the North, along with the warmer climate along the Mediterranean coast in the South and bordering on the Rhone in the East.
The wine region is divided into three zones of influence:
- the maritime plains along its coastal area.
- the lowlands and rolling hills.
- and lastly the high altitude vineyards.
Each have their own distinct topography, soil types and weather patterns allowing producers to create a wide variety of wines.
Can we take a closer look at the varietals planted and the impact they have had?
The driving force behind the official inception of the IGP Pays d’Oc designation in 1987 was the need to restructure and replant the region’s vast swathes of vineyards as part of a market-led strategy.
Globally recognised grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet-Sauvignon and Merlot were followed by a wide range of varieties dictated by market demand and soil suitability. Initially, the focus was on red grapes but white varietals started to gain traction in the late 1990s, due to the region’s now proven ability to produce highly aromatic styles of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Muscat.
In the early 2000s, and most noticeably after the heatwave of 2003, Cinsault emerged as an ideal variety for producing delicate pale rosés. Mirroring the surge in global demand for rosé wines, IGP Pays d’Oc has considerably broadened its range since then, producing more rosé wines that white, and is now the largest producer of rosés in France.
By 2007 there were 33 authorized varieties planted in the area, mirroring the creative and enterprising spirit of the region’s winegrowers, and their determination to satisfy consumers’ growing thirst for varietal wines. Now there are 58 authorized varieties proudly grown as Pays d’Oc wines, including some unexpected and niche varieties such as Tempranillo, Nielluccio, Gewurztraminer of even Colombard.
What else has been important for Pays d’Oc’s success?
Not only does the choice of vineyard site for each grape variety have to be on point, the most suitable winemaking techniques also have to be implemented. Some practices are tried and tested, others are more innovative. Oak fermentation and maturation, ageing on the lees and whole-cluster fermentation are part of an extensive toolkit that has promoted creative winemaking. Some producers have chosen to take a hands-off approach in the winery, illustrated by an increasing number of unfiltered bottlings and wines with no added sulphites, right through to natural wines.
This ever-expanding range of styles – across the price points and colours – has opened up myriad possibilities for packaging innovations, fostering creative labelling and an array of formats better suited to the needs of today’s consumers across the globe.
The region has also invested widely in organic winemaking with 10% of the production now farmed and certified as organic – making IGP Pays d’Oc the largest French producer of organic wines where synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides are outlawed.
It is also seeing a number of producers, from boutique to large-scale wineries, switch to biodynamic winemaking. Sustainable wine-growing, signposted by trust marks such as HVE (High Environmental Value) and Terra Vitis, is also widespread.
Sustainability does not just imply environmental conservation and IGP Pays d’Oc producers have simultaneously pioneered the development of Corporate Social Responsibility across the region. Aspects such as responsible supply sourcing, temporary labour, eco-designs integrating social metrics for winery buildings and inputs have all been assessed, resulting in a set of practical tools for producers aiming to build on their CSR credentials.
Changes to European legislation in 2009 saw a transition from Vin de Pays to IGP or PGI status leading to further reforms in the vineyard. IGP is one of two official endorsements for wine recognised by the European Union, the other being AOP or PDO. In both cases, compliance with precise written specifications is a requisite. Although Pays d’Oc’s major trait is its scope for creativeness, the IGP designation offers consumers a guarantee of provenance and traceability. As per its own stringent specifications, every tank of IGP Pays d’Oc wine is assessed by an independent panel of tasters. Endorsement is subsequently certified by Bureau Veritas based on random checks for compliance with certification standards.
What obstacles have the IGP Pays d’Oc vineyards had to overcome?
The last decade has brought with it new challenges. Both from consumers in terms of the wines they want to drink and the impact of climate change – even on varieties that are resistant to the heat.
Recent years has seen varieties typically grown in hotter regions, such as Spain’s Alvarinho and Italy’s Nielluccio ‘imported’ to Pays d’Oc so that producers can experiment with them as a means of preserving acidity in the wines; the trials proved successful and both varieties were authorised for the IGP Pays d’Oc designation.
Similar trials and work has been done to help mitigate against issues such as plant protection and disease-resistant vines. Five varieties were permitted (in certain specific proportions) in 2019 to help combat powdery and downy mildew: Cabernet Cortis (a cross between Cabernet-Sauvignon and Solaris) for red and rosé wines; Souvignier Gris (Cabernet-Sauvignon x Bronner) for whites; Muscaris (Solaris x Muscat Petits Grains), Soreli (Sauvignonasse x Kozma 20-3) and Cabernet Blanc (Cabernet-Sauvignon x unknown variety) for white wines. The disease-resistant vines are already being rolled out across the region, though consumers won’t find them mentioned on labels yet – their composition in any given wine not exceeding 15%.
Not only do these varieties allow IGP Pays d’Oc producers to ramp up their environmental credentials even further, and prepare for a warmer future, they also herald even greater stylistic diversity in the wines. Pays d’Oc IGP is the only wine region in Europe to have introduced such a comprehensive choice of varieties for winegrowers to tap into.
How do you sum up the impact of Pays d’Oc IGP wines for buyers and consumers?
France’s wine proposition is traditionally terroir-driven, but the focus does not always suit the country’s wine growers, particularly in the free-spirited southern regions. The arrival of IGP Pays d’Oc has helped producers break new ground and innovate to secure a distinctive identity for the region’s wines, alongside other French household names such as Burgundy and Bordeaux, but also more local long-standing appellations like Corbières, Fitou and Minervois.
Ultimately, the IGP Pays d’Oc designation gives producers the best of both worlds: they can explore the infinite stylistic possibilities afforded by a choice of 58 grape varieties, made as single varietals or blends, or go down the terroir route, and achieve quintessential site-expressiveness using the appropriate varieties.
This enables buyers and consumers not only to benefit from wines with an incredibly high quality-price ratio, but also the easy-to-understand varietal labelling that consumers trust. IGP Pays d’Oc wines are therefore recognized as quality varietal wines with a guarantee of origin, that not only reflect the signature of the grape variety but also that of the winegrower.
This in turn reflects a myriad of possibilities when matching wine with food – offering an endless source for matching any dish and spice.
Ultimately the projects and developments within IGP Pays d’Oc have all been about making quality wines?
Creativeness and thinking outside the box are all part of IGP Pays d’Oc’s genetic make-up, but quality is always uppermost in producers’ minds. IGP Pays d’Oc takes a belt and braces approach to quality. As an official sign of quality endorsed by the European Union, it complies with Europe-wide specifications involving issues such as yields, analytical criteria and provenance. Compliance with these specifications, enshrined in law, is constantly monitored.
The Pays d’Oc also prides itself on going beyond the basic legal requirements and the wines come under close scrutiny before they can be released for sale. Any wine labelled IGP Pays d’Oc has been blind tasted by three of 300 seasoned tasters convened by the designation’s official custodians and independently audited. A unique system of tracking implemented by the producers’ organisation ensures that each wine can be traced back, not just to the winery, but to individual tanks.
Every single tank of wine is tasted before the organisation rubber stamps its IGP Pays d’Oc endorsement. To fulfil such a mammoth task, it has invested in a new complex with a total footprint of 1,300 m2 including the world’s largest tasting room.
The facilities have the capacity to process the 900 or so samples of Pays d’Oc IGP wines tasted weekly. It comes complete with refrigerated storage areas, a tasting zone with 81 posts and annexes for preparing each sample for the blind tastings.
This level of investment and the efficiency of the procedure bear testament to the value the Pays d’Oc IGP industry places in quality and its assessment.
Ultimately, the figures speak for themselves. Twenty-five bottles of IGP Pays d’Oc fly off the shelves every second worldwide. Pays d’Oc is France’s leading IGP and exporter of still wines by volume. The secret to its success? Clear varietal labelling and its IGP Pays d’Oc origin, excellent value for money, sun-ripened aromatics and unrivalled potential for food pairings.
Pays d’Oc: Facts & figures
- Leading French producer of organic wine
- Largest French rosé producer
- 58 grape varieties (of which 27 can be used for rosé)
- 25 bottles of Pays d’Oc IGP sold in the world each second
- 52% sold in France, 48% sold in export markets
- Exported to 170 countries.
- To find out more go to the IGP Pays d’Oc website here.