So that's what they call plonk. Well you can pour me another

The Languedoc once had a reputation for producing undistinguished wines. Not any more, says Jackie Hunter

In a tiny square in the hill town of Magalas, north-west of Béziers, a jumble of wooden dining tables and chairs - enough to seat 30 people or so - is set out under the sky as the church clock loudly chimes six and the intense late-summer heat diminishes. Checked linen cloths are smoothed over and clipped into place; salt, pepper and mustard pots set out; the pavements briskly swept. Dusk is ready to fall, and the lights strung up around the square and across the gaudy red front doors of La Boucherie are illuminated. It's dinner time.

The three of us have come here to Languedoc to explore some of its hundreds of vineyards, in a region of France once called the cradle of plonk but lately garnering a reputation for producing some rather good - and very affordable - wine. Our plan is to take turns at driving each day through the vine-carpeted landscape, enabling the two passengers to sample and buy local appellations from small producers, researched to a modest extent by the most knowledgeable oenophile in our party. It's true that we haven't devoted quite as much planning to the food that we might also enjoy along the way, but the collective (if rather dismissive) opinion is that we can't possibly go hungry in a region which has the legendarily hearty cassoulet as its signature dish.

We have read about La Boucherie in a file of notes left for us by the owner of the villa we are staying in at nearby St Genies de Fontedit. It doesn't go into great detail about the restaurant, but having hinted at something rather special it has successfully fed our curiosity by the first evening of the holiday. You can drive to, and park quite easily in, the centre of Magalas, but La Boucherie can only be reached on foot, hidden as it is in the Place de l'Eglise at the top of a steep, narrow network of lanes. By day, La Boucherie is exactly what it says on the sign: a supplier of good quality, fresh cuts of meat for the town's residents. So fond of Monsieur Lefevre's artfully prepared lamb cutlets, steak and pork loin are the locals, however, that several years ago those who had tasted his home-cooking persuaded this artisan - who was once a circus performer - to open and run a restaurant out of his shop. If you're thinking it sounds like the stuff of a Joanne Harris novel, you're absolutely right: the mise-en-scène transcends even the most romantic notion of rustic French dining your imagination can conjure up.

As we sit and wait for our soupe au pistou and blanquette de veau, listening to the traditional jazz music that's playing in the restaurant, I watch a party of nine chatting and eating at the table beside us. The youngest of them must be at least 80, and she is energetically polishing off a great heap of steak tartare, complete with its perfect golden crown of gleaming raw egg yolk. Here is living proof of the famous French paradox. I bet she has jam and butter on her croissant every morning, too.

The next day, having made it to the local boulangerie just in time to bag three fresh croissants for ourselves (if you think you can get a lazy 10.30 breakfast round here, think again - this is a community that goes to work early and lunches at 12 on the dot), we're plotting the first day of the wine trail with a large road map and a comprehensive guide to regional domaines (wine-producing estates), which was downloaded from the internet prior to our trip.

Driving through the vast-spreading, deep-green patchwork of vineyards, whose boundaries are marked by endless rows of cypresses, it becomes clear that there's no shortage of choice - or variety. Red wine production is overshadowing the traditional whites and rosés in this region, and recent years have seen an increase in white vins de pays d'Oc sauvignons and chardonnays. The wines to look out for are Corbières, Coteaux du Languedoc, Côtes du Roussillon, Saint Chinian and Costières de Nimes.

The clearly signposted domaines, at which you can sample and buy local wines, range from highly organised commercial estates with purpose-built shops staffed by knowledgeable (and invariably English-speaking) sales staff, to family-run farms with small but well-stocked caves, and remote stone houses where you'll be greeted by large, barking dogs and an owner who may well be carrying a loaded and cocked rifle. But in such cases a polite greeting in French and a request to try the wine usually gets you through the gate without further threat of injury.

Domaine du Rouge Gorge, close to Magalas, is very accessible to passing tourists, with information printed in French, English and German. We sample the AOC Faugeres red (rather robust, enjoyably powerful and said to age well) and rosé (young, lively) but decide to press on and see more before we start spending our wine budget.

While some are more obviously geared up to benefit from the influx of tourists and second-home-owners, most of these places provide their owners with a modest income. Many of the small vignerons, producers and bottlers of their own appellation controlée, run maybe 30 acres or even less. At Château Coujan in Murviel-lès- Béziers we have a more rewarding encounter - and not just because the wines here taste better than those at the previous domaine. The elderly, granite-faced proprietor, Monsieur Guy, and his sweet, ancient dog casually escort us into the vast, dank sheds in which the wines are aged and stored. Here he gives us florid French-English descriptions of the complexities and origins of his produce; which ones are named after his grand-daughters; which bottles will mature well and which are best drunk young. Bottles start a €3.50 (£2.40) for a 2001 vin de pays and rise to €28 (£19) for a 1997 merlot cabernet, though typical prices are around €6 (£4) or €28 for a half-case. He also manages to sell us a couple of bottles of his estate-bottled olive oil on our way out. The money side is handled by his three snappily efficient daughters, who give us the address of a London-based importer of the wines we have bought, should we be inclined to stock up on more of it before our next visit to France.

Having spent several days meandering along deserted country lanes, we now have an appointment that takes us on to the busy Route Minervoise linking Béziers to Carcassonne. An ancient stone inn beside the Canal du Midi, Le Relais de Pigasse is an organic vineyard and Michelin-starred restaurant. The owner, Robert Eden, is passionate about preserving the local eco-system in the production of his well- respected Comte Cathare wines, with 50p from each bottle sold going to the Rainforest Foundation. He makes wines based on chardonnay, cabernet, and two syrah blends, but before any planting, harvesting or cultivating is done, the position of the sun, moon and planets are taken into consideration. A bit of a character he may be, but Eden was brought up knowing about wine and has made his own here for the past 11 years. His unorthodox, elegant viticulture produces deliciously light results.

The restaurant interior is no hokey, rustic affair, either. It's a cool symphony of neutral shades, natural fibres and elegant furniture designed to complement the pale, exposed stone walls.

As for the Michelin-starred food, it's often as exciting, innovative and beautiful to look at as that which comes from the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay or Heston Blumenthal. Millefeuilles of beef with artichokes; selle d'agneau en crepinette; foie gras de canard with jus viande à la truffe; apricots in muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois served with basil glacé; tobacco-flavoured ice cream made in the shape of a Havana cigar. It's not cheap compared with the rustic food we have been eating all week, but the same standard of food in Britain would probably cost twice as much. The fantastic four-course set menu seems a bargain at €39 (£27) a head, excluding wines. It's the kind of meal that lingers in the mind, as well as on the palate, throughout the long drive home. We never did get round to eating any of that cassoulet, you know.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The writer travelled as a guest of Meon Villas (0870-850 0585; www.meonvillas.co.uk) and stayed at the villa Les Trois Oliviers, in the village of St Genies de Fontedit. A seven-night self-catering holiday at the villa costs from £1,442 throughout October, including ferry to Calais, cleaning service and welcome food-hamper.

Further information

Maison de la France (09068 244123, calls cost 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com).

News
news

Lincoln MP Karl McCartney 'denied all knowledge' of the Twitter activity

News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
News
The author PD James, who died on 27 November 2014
people

Detective novelist who wrote Death comes to Pemberley passed away peacefully at her home, aged 94

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech
News
people
Life and Style
tech Manband spurn Spotify to stream album exclusively with Google
News
Irradiated turkey and freeze dried mash potato will be on the menu this thanksgiving
video
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Day In a Page

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?