From coast to mountains, you are rarely far from a vineyard in Languedoc-Roussillon. Neat rows of vines hug the hills, adding a magical dimension to the rolling plains – here and there along the coast they seem poised to tumble into the sea. Wine is far more than the principal product here. It is redolent of the history, culture, landscape, sunshine and, indeed, the very air of the province.
It was the Greeks and Phoenicians who brought vines to the coastal area and produced the first wines here, a practice continued by the Romans. Fast-forward to the 17th century and, with the opening of the Canal du Midi, wine was a major export. Yet it was with the coming of the railways in the 19th century that the wine trade really flourished and became particularly big business. Production boomed, making the region France’s biggest wine producer – and so it remains today. Yet where quantity once eroded quality, the commitment and enthusiasm of the province’s wine producers have latterly resulted in a quiet revolution of wonderful tastes. This is perhaps especially the case in the Hérault region where the terrain encompasses coast, lush river valleys and the highlands of the Haut-Languedoc. All of which is reflected in a striking variety of styles and flavours.
Set near the sea at the eastern edge of Hérault in Languedoc is an as yet little-known wine haven, with commerce radiating from the eponymous small town of Lunel. The district’s local winemakers say the coastal wind here has a special effect on the sugar in the grapes, which imbues the final product with a subtly distinctive taste.
Among those producers welcoming the public to tastings is Mas de Theyron, just north of the town, where a handsome 18th-century manor house presides over a 30-hectare estate that produces organic wine. The property and land was bought in a semi-derelict state in 1996 by Swiss wine trader Rolf Reichmuth and his restoration of both the house and the vineyard has been painstaking. Two reds are made under the Coteaux du Languedoc appellation (a combination of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan with a small amount of Cinsault in one). An elegant red vin de pays is made mainly with Merlot while a well-rounded white contains a mix of seven varieties of grape.
Lunel wines and wine tourism will undoubtedly be put on the map over the next few years: at the village of St Christol nearby, a large state-of-the-art wine centre is about to take shape and is scheduled to open in 2012.
Meanwhile, the small Muscat grape, which creates the golden, sweet wine of the same name, thrives both in the Lunel area and further south-west, around the bustling coastal town of Frontignan. Producers of the Muscat de Frontignan appellation include Château de Stony, owned for five generations by the Nodet family. There is a bucolic atmosphere around the old stone farmhouse here, with the Muscat vines growing almost up to the front door. These are hand picked, usually in mid August, and crushed slowly to retain depth of flavour – honey with hints of marmalade. Like several other Frontignan winemakers responding to changing tastes in styles and strength of wines, the Nodets have started producing a dry Muscat while, a first for the area, they are also developing some red wine.
Further inland, you can taste a particularly elegant range of reds while taking in a splendid 14th-century castle. Château de Perdiguier, owned by three generations of the Feracci family, lies just outside the village of Maraussan near the ancient market town of Béziers. Complete with rounded towers and a lovely cobbled courtyard, it oozes atmosphere while the surrounding estate produces grain crops and commercially grown walnuts, as well as grapes, of course: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and a small amount of Chardonnay.
There is more rural charm nearby at Domaine d’Emile et Rose, a small organic farm run by the Gisclard family just beyond the village of Corneilhan. You get a happy sense of the bounty of the land here, with crops of asparagus, tomatoes – and grapes. Many of the vines were planted just after the First World War and among them are the rare Carignan Blanc variety, which makes a wonderful and complex white.
For a complete contrast head north to the hills of the Faugères district. The schist soil here is remarkable for its capacity to retain water and heat, and the grapes grown on it are full of strong, brooding flavour. Vineyards stretch between the seven picturesque villages of the region (Autignac, Cabrerolles, Fos, Laurens, Caussiniojouls, Roquessels and Faugères itself) and are best known for their reds, a combination of Carignan, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre – although since 2005 Faugères white wine has also had its own appellation. The 46 independent winemakers welcome visitors, while on the outskirts of Faugères village, the co-operative of the smaller growers offers a fine range of wines to taste – and buy.
WHERE TO... drink it all in
Where to taste
Mas de Theyron, Route de St Christol, 34160 Boisseron, nr Lunel (00 33 4 67 86 48 48; masdetheyron.com). Open daily except Sunday but visitors are advised to call in advance; a small fee may be charged for tasting sessions.
Château de Stony, La-Peyrade, 34110 Frontignan (00 33 4 67 18 80 30; firstname.lastname@example.org). Open by appointment only.
Château de Perdiguier, 34370 Maraussan (00 33 4 67 90 37 44; domaineperdiguier.com). Tasting room open daily but it is best to call in advance.
Domaine d’Emile et Rose, Chemin des Tanes, 34400 Corneilhan, nr Béziers (00 33 4 67 30 35 02; domaine1000roses.fr). Open 11am-7pm Monday to Saturday.
Caveau Les Crus Faugères, Route de Bédarieux, 34600 Faugères (00 33 4 67 95 35 39; les-crus-faugeres.fr). For a list of the district’s independent wine producers visit faugeres.com
Where to stay
Château Hermitage de Combas, Route d’Alignan du Vent, 34290 Servian (00 33 4 67 39 90 90; charming-chateau.com). Set among vines, this is a comfy-yet-chic apartment hotel in a château so wonderfully rambling that you can easily get lost in the estate. Facilities include tennis and swimming pool. Apartments for two from €590 per week, without breakfast.
Le Mas de l’Olivier, Rue du Laurier-tin, 34400 Vérargues, nr Lunel (00 33 6 43 11 33 62; lemasdelolivier.fr). A charming bed and breakfast with a separate cottage to rent. Doubles start from €80 per night which includes breakfast. Special wine harvest packages are available, with doubles from €1,100, including breakfast and dinner, for seven nights, with guests joining the harvest at the small yet highly rated Terre Inconnue vineyard nearby.
FLAVOURS TO SAVOUR... Gastronomicom in Cap d’Agde
What is the secret of creating the perfect bouillabaisse? How do you cook with flowers? What is the optimum way of tasting wine? You can find out the answers to all these questions and more at a gastronomic school set near the sea at the lively resort town of Cap d’Agde. Gastronomicom is an academy primarily running diploma courses for budding professional chefs who then complete their culinary training in leading French restaurants. During weekends and over the summer months, it now also offers classes to the visiting public.
Three-hour cookery sessions are taken by chef Iman Bogen – who has the knack of speaking French and English almost simultaneously and will smoothly guide you through the complexities of making amuse-bouches or the delights of cooking sea bream, among many other options. Meanwhile, wine-tasting mornings offer the opportunity to sample some of the region’s best produce. And if you’d like an intriguingly healthy alternative, you can even join afternoon sophrology wine sessions in which wine tasting is used as a means of boosting health by enlivening your senses.
Gastronomicom, 1 Ave des Soldats, 34300 Cap d’Agde (00 33 9 79 02 07 20; gastronomicom.fr) Cookery courses from €85; wine classes from €55 – details are not yet available on the website but can be obtained on request.
Cap d’Agde Tourist Office (00 33 4 67 01 04 04; en.capdagde.com)