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A Short History of Wine in the Languedoc, Part One

Wednesday 03 February 2021

The history of wine in the region began more than 2500 years ago. This is the first part of a fascinating history. The other parts will follow...

A Short History of Wine in the Languedoc, Part One
The Origins

Like much of Western Europe, Languedoc had indigenous vines of the vitis vinifera family that were growing on the plains and hillsides when the Greeks decided to establish towns along the Mediterranean coast, starting with Massilia (Marseille) and Agatée (Agde) in the 6th century BC. It is currently being discussed that Béziers may be even older than these other cities, but since it was inland, this may not be the case. Remains of Etruscan and Greek amphorae prior to the arrival of the Greeks in Languedoc show that the local Gauls certainly appreciated wine, but there is no evidence that they ever took the step towards its production. These same Greeks brought with them their own vines which they planted. They also introduced the olive tree around the French Mediterranean coast. 

Traces of grape pulp dating from around 600 BC have been found in an old olive press discovered in the area of the present-day town of Lattes, south of Montpellier. It is difficult to know exactly which vines were used to make wine at that time. However, there is more information about the Roman domination of the region.

The Romans began their conquest of southern France in 125 B.C. They gradually moved westward, establishing a large colony in Nîmes and finally, in 58 B.C., created the region known as La Narbonnaise. This vast region covered the modern regions of Occitania, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur and part of the Rhône-Alpes region as far as the city of Vienne, south of Lyon. As in all their activities, the Romans took viticulture very seriously. There are many testimonies, both written and material, that tell us about how the Romans made their wine. Whenever possible, the vines were palisaded or perched, and the winemaker could walk under the vines to harvest the grapes. The grapes were often dried in the sun to increase the concentration of sugars. It is known that the Romans often separated the run-off juice, which was sweeter and fruitier, from the press juice, which was more tannic, which is still done today. Archaeological excavations have shown that the Romans used large amphorae buried in the ground to store wine. This was obviously the best way to maintain a constant and healthy temperature. The Romans often diluted their wine with water, flavoured it with herbs and spices, and sweetened it with honey. 

Given the climate that lent itself perfectly to viticulture along the Mediterranean, winemaking took off in the Roman Languedoc. So much so that Emperor Domitian made it one of his targets in 92 AD, when he decreed that half of the vineyards outside Italy had to be grubbed up to reduce competition with producers in the Italian provinces. Many great Roman writers have written about viticulture and winemaking in the Empire, and as far as the Languedoc is concerned, Pliny in particular has much to say. He praises the wines of Baeterrae (Béziers), but rejects the wines of the rest of the Languedoc as being of very poor quality. Despite this, many Roman soldiers were tempted to stay in the region and become winemakers, especially in the area between Béziers and Narbonne. They had good years until the third century AD, when the overabundance of wine in the Empire caused a collapse in prices. The size of the Roman vineyards then began to decrease more and more. 

The fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD led to the virtual disappearance of the Languedoc vineyards. Only the monasteries perpetuated the wine-growing tradition, thus helping to preserve the know-how for times to come?

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