Have a vine time in this ancient land

Harriet O’Brien discovers the vibrant history behind Languedoc’s beautiful towns and villages

Languedoc, the land of troubadours, poets and rebels, of fine chateaux, country estates and timeforgotten villages, is suffused with history and offers wonderfully varied landscapes. And the bestway to take in this appealing mix? Make a trip from the tiny town of Marseillan to the village of Minerve – from coast to craggy hills.

So I was advised by a local resident. I would, she added, pass through diverse winelands while getting a real feel for the richness of the past. The trip, she said, could take just a couple of hours, but it could also take a day or more depending on how much dawdling takes place along the way. What’s more, she enthused, you can taste your way through the landscape, stopping at vineyards to savour the different flavours resulting from the variety of terrains.

At first I had difficulty in leaving Marseillan at all. This pretty little harbour town on the edge of the Thau Lagoon presents a major diversion in the form of Noilly Prat, maker of the vermouth that has been in production here for more than 160 years. I took an absorbing tour of its cellars learning not just how Noilly Prat is created (a secret recipe adds to the allure) but also how its taste resonates with the sea and the salty air of its surroundings.

Next stop, Florensac – a few kilometres north-west. Here Vinipolis has been developed by the enterprising co-operative of local winemakers. It is a high-tech wine shop, tasting room and restaurant combined – all of which comes as something of a surprise in this small and quaintlooking village. Interactive computer terminals explain the grape varieties of the outlying vineyards, which to some extent take on characteristics of the sea air they are exposed to. And you learn what flavours to look out for in the resulting wines, which are free to sample. Set in a glass building, this is an unstuffy place, with an easy-going atmosphere and knowledgeable staff.

I moved on westwards to the village of Servian. In the rolling land beyond its old stone centre, the vineyard of Prieure d’Amilhac has been making wine since before the birth of Christ. I was welcomed into the wisteria-clad winery by owner and winemaker Max Cazottes. The tasting room here is a veritable museum complete with an enormous grape press made in 1609 and a glass case displaying Roman pottery found among the vines.

The depth of history here is extraordinary. The vineyard, Cazottes recounted proudly, dates from at least the first century BC when the land here is known to have belonged to a former Roman centurion called Amelius. He had been granted a small estate as a pension and here he built a villa and, of course, planted vines.

Grapes, Cazotte added, were grown all over this region with some of the resulting wine sent in amphoras all the way to Rome. In fact, southern French vineyards became so competitive with Rome’s wine makers that in 92AD the emperor ordered half of this region’s vines to be ripped out. When the Romans left, their vineyards and farms were taken over by the emerging multi-national: the Christian church. For centuries this vineyard belonged to the Bishop of Béziers; a Romanesque chapel still stands here, just behind the winery.

Fast forward to the 1800s when the estate, like so many others in the area, became rich from producing cheap, weak wine for a ready market. But by the 1960s tastes had changed to the extent that there was no longer the demand for such a product. When Cazottes arrived here in the 1970s, the vineyard had fallen on hard times. He revised the planting, began producing high quality wines and by the 1980s was exporting to the US. He now also sells to Russia, and to the UK through Nicholas wines.

For a complete contrast to the old world of Prieure d’Amilhac, go just across the way to the Domaine Sainte-Rose, a vineyard that dates back to the 12th century. Here, Charles and Ruth Simpson – who moved here from Britain in 2002 – are on a mission to create “Really great wine, made in the old world using new world methods”. They even deploy a satellite-guided tractor.

Taking a break from the wine trade, I made my way a short distance south-west to the bustling town of Béziers. I was now, I realised, in the heart of Cathar country. The 12th-century cult, a sort of fusion of Christianity and eastern philosophies, was brought to the region by returning Crusaders. In reaction to the wealthy and corrupt church of the time, it incorporated strong elements of self-denial and abstinence.

The Cathars became so popular and powerful that by the 13th century the Pope launched a military campaign against them. The most brutal was the Albigensian Crusade which attacked Béziers and massacred the Cathar-supporting population in the area. Ultimately the movement was destroyed, yet for years Cathar warriors survived as fugitives until hunted down by agents of a merciless Inquisition.

I stopped at the church of La Madeleine, which is a serene-looking Romanesque building. For local residents it remains a seminal landmark: it was here in 1209 that 7,000 citizens, taking refuge from the Pope’s anti- Cathar troops, were burnt alive. Such violence seemed entirely out of keeping with today’s cheerful atmosphere. I explored the winding streets and ancient cathedral of this appealing place, before continuing east.

I was heading for Château la Vernède about half an hour away, set in rural tranquillity near the River Aude. The Romans were – very evidently – here, too. Just to the side of the gateway to the 19th-century mansion, the remains of a mosaic from the villa dating back to the first century BC have been unearthed. I gazed in awe and then took in the rest of this glorious estate and vineyard: a small, exotic park established in the 1800s; ancient stables complete with a blacksmith’s forge; and, of course, a winery and tasting room.

Onwards, upwards and westwards. I made for the village of Azillanet. Here Cave Les Trois Blasons is one of the oldest co-operative wineries in the region. Today it represents the vineyards around five villages in the area (including Azillanet itself), marketing and promoting their wines in modern, bright space. Here you get a great taste of the Minervois area – where yields are low and flavours intense.

My final stop was the village of Minerve. Dating from at least the 12th century, this Cathar stronghold seems to rise organically from the gorge on which it was built, its cobbled alleys and stone stairways effectively spurning the modern world. Stand on the stupendous bridge leading over the river Cesse to Minerve’s fortified cluster of dwellings and you are rewarded with dramatic views. It made a fitting end to my journey.

Focus on... Markets

Colourful markets take place in Hérault’s towns and villages every day, but one of the best is at Pézenas on a Saturday. Stalls are set up along the 17th-century avenue Cours Jean Jaurès – generally vegetables and fruit at one end, flowers at the other, and clothing, kitchen implements and other hardware in the middle.

Food stalls offer local specialities such as berlingots – stripy sweets made to an ancient recipe – and petits pâtés de Pézenas, little pies of spiced lamb thought to be the original “mince pie” introduced by Clive of India in the 1760s.

Béziers, meanwhile, presents a flamboyant range of markets. On Fridays the broad boulevard of Allées Paul Riquet becomes awash with colour with the weekly flower market. Stallholders sell everything from lavender and violets to herbs and small citrus trees. Food markets are variously held around town each week – on Saturday, for example, at Place de la Madeleine for very local produce, and on Tuesdays at Place Emile Zola. But the really big market takes place on Friday mornings when stalls are spread around Place du 14 Juillet (mainly for clothes and goods) and around Place David d’Angers – principally for fruit, vegetables, olive oils and other foods.

On the Thau Lagoon, Sète’s extensive general market is held on Wednesday mornings, radiating from the central covered marketplace of Les Halles. You’ll find everything from clothes to cooking implements here as well as a host of local farm produce.

For a market in a picture-perfect setting, head north to Olargues on a sunny summer Sunday. This well-preserved medieval settlement is renowned as one of France’s most beautiful villages. Its lively little food market is strung out along Avenue de la Gare and offers heaps of cheeses, fruit, wild boar pâtés and more.

Travel essentials

Staying there

Domaine des Layres, 30 rue Herail, Serignan (00 33 4 67 26 16 27; domainedeslayres.com).

Set in the arty village of Sérignan, this renovated winery was once part of a large, ancient vineyard. The Escrouzailles family bought it five years ago and have transformed it into a stylish guesthouse with five elegant bedrooms, breakfast room and lounge, and a swimming pool with bar in the pretty garden. Doubles cost from €85 including breakfast.

Château les Carrasses, near Capestang (00 33 4 67 00 00 67; lescar rasses.com). In bucolic rolling winelands, this 1886 chateau has been magnificently refurbished as a spacious apart-hotel, which is due to open in July. The 28 suites have between one and three bedrooms and all offer kitchen and sitting room while 10 have their own pools. The generous grounds and facilities give the impression you might be in a private club – with a large main pool, state-of-the-art tennis court, bar (with wine tasting) in the old winery, bistro, outdoor bar and café/barbecue area and extensive gardens. Special launch price from €180 per apartment per night.

What to see and do

Noilly Prat, 1 Rue Noilly, 34340 Marseillan (00 33 4 67 77 75 19; noillyprat.com) Guided visits March to April and October to November from Monday to Saturday between 10am-11am and 2.30-4.30pm (and until 6pm from May to Sept); adults €4.

Vinipolis, 5 Avenue des Vendanges, Florensac (00 33 4 67 77 00 20) Mon 9am-12.30pm and 2-6pm; Tues-Sat 9am-6pm; Sun 11am-3.30pm.

Bistrot d’Alex (00 33 4 67 77 03 05) open for lunch Tues-Sun and on Sat evenings.

Prieure d’Amilhac, Servian (00 33 4 67 39 10 51; prieureamilhac.com) open Mon-Sat 9am-noon and 2-6pm (Sundays by appointment).

Domaine Sainte-Rose, Servian (00 33 4 67 39 07 54; sainterose.com). Tastings Mon-Fri by appointment.

Château la Vernède, Nissan lez Enserune (00 33 4 67 37 00 30; chateaulavernede.com) open for tastings by appointment. The chateau also offers accommodation in five rooms in a barn.

Cellar Les Trois Blasons, Azillanet (00 33 4 68 91 22 61) open daily 9am-noon and 2-6pm.