Great views, great wines. Is it really the Languedoc?

This area of France is famed for plonk. Yet, its winemakers have raised their game. Forget your preconceptions and take a tour, says Andy Lynes

If the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region could be boiled down into a single person, it might well be Jean-Philippe Granier. Jean- Philippe, the resident "oenologue aux Côteaux du Languedoc" at the Maison des Vins wine centre on the outskirts of Montpellier is colourful, passionate, and just a little confusing.

We're expecting a simple wine-tasting, but we are first treated to a lengthy and impassioned lecture on the Languedoc's socio-political history. It's too complex a subject this early in the morning, especially as the non-English speaking Jean-Philippe's torrent of words has to be translated. So it comes as something of a relief when we gather round to stare at a patch of dirt in the grounds of the Maison.

This is not any old dirt, of course, but a visual representation of the 20 different kinds of terroir or soil types that can be found across this region of southern France. It ranges from the schiste (slate) of Saint Chinian and its full-bodied reds in the west, to the clay and chalk of Picpoul de Pinet near the coast, which produces the area's delicious seafood-friendly whites. And the Côteaux ("vine-covered hill") is only one part of a complex story, as we'd discovered during our first stop on a week-long tour of the region at the Vinécole at Domaine Gayda in Brugairolles, a couple of miles south west of Carcassonne.

In a spacious and airy classroom next to the winery's open-air swimming pool, the Master of Wine, Matthew Stubbs, reels off some jaw-dropping statistics. Languedoc-Roussillon is the largest wine-growing region in the world; its 300,000 hectares of vines are double those of Australia and produces about two billion bottles of wine a year. We open and taste 10 of them under the enthusiastic guidance of Stubbs and fellow expert Emma Kershaw.

From a refreshing blanquette de Limoux (a sparkling wine which is said to pre-date champagne by at least a century) to the rich Domaine la Bouscade late-harvest dessert wine, the variety and quality are startling. Stubbs tells us that, over the past 25 years, production in the region has halved and many of the poor-quality, high-yield vineyards are being replaced by higher-end ventures such as Domaine Gayda. Gayda is emblematic of the modern approach. This impressive property was built from scratch five years ago by Englishman Tim Ford and South African-born Anthony Record. It not only encompasses 11 hectares of vineyards and a winery, but embraces wine tourism by housing an upmarket restaurant as well as the wine school; everything you could want from a food and wine-based holiday within staggering distance of one of the Domaine's luxurious gîtes.

We make the effort to explore the surrounding area and are rewarded with a memorable visit to the nearby Domaine Begude winery in Limoux. In 2003, Englishman James Kinglake gave up a lucrative job in the City of London to make wine. Although he's not officially on the wine tourist trail, he is happy to show seriously interested potential customers around.

"Great views make great wines," says Kinglake, as we sip tea on his back lawn, which is 11,000ft above sea level, and look out over the valley at the Corbières mountains. It's a small slice of heaven and I'm more than a little jealous of Kinglake and his wife, Catherine. But, as he shows us around the boutique winery, it's obvious that producing 150,000 bottles of sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir a year involves plenty of hard work, too.

Kinglake tells us that his biodynamic approach – which uses only natural fertilisers and the lunar calendar to plan planting, pruning and harvesting – means there's always something to be done. The results are worth it, though, and there's no way I'm spitting out a drop of the delicious l'Etoile de Begude, a chardonnay that would give the best from Burgundy a run.

But it's not just immigrants who are breathing new life into the region. A former captain of the Stade Français rugby team, locally born Gérard Bertrand, opened Chateau l'Hospitalet in La Clape, overlooking the Mediterranean, in 2002. Bertrand joins us for an excellent lunch in the chateau's contemporary dining room. While my female companions swoon over his Gallic looks, I'm getting dizzy over a glass of spicy Cigalus rouge, one of Bertrand's own wines, which turns out to be some of the best of the entire trip.

Walking off lunch, we work our way up through the vineyards to a hill overlooking the estate. From here, the limestone landscape looks hard and dry; the last place on earth you'd think of trying to cultivate vines. In fact, wine has been made here for more than 2,500 years and Bertrand now grows syrah and mourvèdre to make his reds, and bourboulenc, vermentino and grenache blanc for his whites.

Gayda, Begude and L'Hospitalet are laudable and exciting ventures, but it's the co-operatives that remain the backbone of Languedoc-Roussillon. At Mont Tauch, in the pretty village of Tuchan, the carignan, grenache, mourvèdre and syrah grapes from 7,000 individual vineyards are vinified to create 60 per cent of all wine with the appellation Fitou.

In the sleek new visitor centre (still being built when I visited), the raddled faces of local winemakers grin out from huge floor-to-ceiling black and white portraits. The winery itself, however, tells a less personal story.

Stainless steel vats holding up to 500 hectolitres each (more than 66,000 bottles) tower above us and we might as well be looking at a chemical plant. This is wine-making on a truly industrial scale; no fewer than 12 million bottles a year, and there's nothing remotely romantic about it. Big business aside, the wines themselves come as a pleasant surprise, especially the complex and fruity Fitou les Quatre.

It has been an intensive five days and we've covered a lot of miles, but as I study my map, I see we've hardly scratched the region's surface. Roussillon to the south, and points east such as Pic Saint Loup, must wait for another trip. I decide to make the most of my final 24 hours with a short hop out to the stunning Domaine de Verchant hotel and vineyard, a five-minute drive from the city centre. Discovering a converted 14th-century stately home set in 17 hectares on the industrial fringe of Montpellier is like finding a National Trust property on a trading estate in Slough. Arnaud Warnery shows me around then talks me through his wine range that includes a honeyed marsanne-roussanne blend and berry-flavoured merlot.

I'm back in the the city in time for dinner at the two Michelin-starred Jardin des Sens, and am soon sipping the house cocktail of local late-harvest Picpoul de Pinet sweet wine, peach cream and champagne in the terraced conservatory-style dining room. I choose grilled red mullet, artichoke and hummus, followed by a signature dish of pigeon with pear, cocoa and a Moroccan-style pigeon pastilla, accompanied by wines from the chef's own Domaine les Peyrilles vineyard in nearby Pinet.

Replete, I fancifully imagine that if the Languedoc-Roussillon were a meal, it would be one eaten at Jardin des Sens, where a respect for heritage, tradition and sense of place is blended with a very healthy dose of innovation. But it has been a long day and maybe it's just time for bed.

Compact facts

How to get there

Easyjet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies to Montpellier from £45 return.

Vin Ecole (00 33 4 68 31 64 14; vinecole.com) offers a wine course, with two nights' accommodation, along with meals, tuition, tasting and airport transfers from Carcassonne, from €450 (£395) per person. Château l'Hospitalet (00 33 4 68 45 28 50; gerard-betrand .com) offers double rooms from €90 (£80) per night. Baudon de Mauny (00 33 4 67 02 21 77; baudonde mauny.com) offers doubles from €160 (£140) per night; and Le Jardin des Sens (00 33 4 99 58 38 38; jardindessens.com) offers doubles from €170 (£150) per night.

Further information

Sud de France at Maison de la Région Languedoc-Roussillon (020-7079 3344; maisondelaregion languedocroussillon.com).

Suggested Topics
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Extras
indybest
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Life & Style
tech
Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Sport
Luis Suarez of Liverpool celebrates his goal
sport
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatreReview: Of Mice and Men, Longacre Theatre
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal