|Having thought I'd heard everything about French wines, I was surprised to learn of a whole new area of IGP wines [Indication Géographique Protégée].
PHOTO COURTESY OF DOMAINE GAYDA
Want to guess? Here's a little more info: this is a huge region, the largest exporter of wines from France.
This region grows native and international varietals, and many of the producers have been getting more and more modern, creative and natural over the last decade or so.
Give up? It's the ancient kingdom of the Pays d'Oc (pronounced PAY-ee dock).
A vineyard in Pic St. Loup.
Centuries ago, the people here spoke the Occitane language, which is where the Oc come from ( oc is the old Southern French word for
yes). Until the 1980s, they made inexpensive table wines, most of which was consumed in country. But as wine knowledge around the world grew, consumers became more demanding, and the market for French table wines tanked.
Along came Jacques Gravegeal, the regional head of a French farmers' union. He decided to take a look at what was going on with the then-hottest wine region of the world, California's Napa Valley. After visiting some of the most innovatively commercial wineries there, he returned home and started mulling things over. He believed that, at that time, America led the world in lifestyle marketing, with products ranging from jeans to wines. And he had seen that the U.S. wines were marketed varietally, by grape name (Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon). The American wines were not called by place name as they were in Europe.
Also, he saw that the most valued wines came form grape varieties that were considered "international" but actually came from France—like the aforementioned Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot.
Calling in his political connections, he still had to negotiate several years of a bumpy road until he was able to persuade the government to help support farmers who wanted to get rid of their native region's relatively-unknown regional grapes, and put in the well-known grapes.
In the late 1970s, Pays d'Oc winemakers produced around six hectoliters of wine a year, 90% of which was bulk. Today, they make 6 million hectoliters—about 765 million bottles—and 90% of it is good enough to be bottled, with the designation of IGP Pays d'Oc. And with the names of the grapes on the label.
Though there are already some Pays d'Oc wines imported into the U.S., the winemakers have only just started to band together to create an awareness of their wines. And while formerly, they were know for the lowest designation "table wines," this has now morphed into the IGP label.
A promotional poster for the Pays d'Oc IGP.
Geographically, this area is pretty vast, extending across a good swath of the southern part of France, from the Mediterranean coast inland. While Pays d'Oc IGP remains a large, umbrella designation, the IGP designation does require higher quality controls than before on everything from vineyards to wine production. Higher quality, Gravegeal claims, than before the name or the designation took effect—before he and his political friend (who happened to be Jacques Chirac) began the renovation of this district.
Recently, I met up with Gravegeal over lunch in New York on his maiden voyage of Pays d'Oc awareness. Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer had chosen a half-dozen wines for me to taste: two whites, a rosé and three reds. Concurrently with the rise in quality—and differentiating themselves from the lake of cheap wine that Southern France has been known for—most of the Pays d'Oc IGP wines retail for for $8 to $16; we had one that cost $25.
Though not all were absolutely fabulous, I have to say that I was surprised by the finesse or power in several different wines. For my tasting notes, see my blog at
this link .
For more information on the Pays d'Oc IGP, visit