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
Sunday 24 May 2009
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.
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.
Sud de France at Maison de la Région Languedoc-Roussillon (020-7079 3344; maisondelaregion languedocroussillon.com).
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