Last bastion of peace in the South of France

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‘Where are all the people? ‘ is the question I am asked almost every time I run a vineyard tour in the Languedoc-Roussillon. It’s so quiet and not at all touristy with no traffic jams and sleepy little villages. It’s like stepping back into the 1950’s with shops closing long hours for lunch and never open on a Sunday. Its takes some getting used to but this pace of life is so good for the soul. It gives you time to take stock, to listen to the birds, enjoy the sunshine, walk amongst the vines and just chill…

I spend 7 months of the year in the village of Caunes-Minervois located at the foot
of the Montagne Noir in the department of the Aude. It’s a lively village in comparison to some in the area and you will find almost everything you need here. A good meal at one of the eating places such Hotel d’Alibert with its renaissance courtyard or perhaps just a beer and a sandwich at the local bar. Many of the ancient buildings are related to the abbey which stands in the centre of the village and here in July classical concerts are performed every Friday.

Close by is the village of La Livinière with its beautiful domed church tower. The village is not only one of the prettiest in the area it also gives its name to the cru wine ‘Minervois La Livinière’ which is a rich, complex and elegant red wine grown on the limestone and clay of the region. I recently joined some friends on a walk in the hills to the west of the village where we discovered some very impressive dry stone walls built to stem erosion caused by strong winds and rain storms. We also saw a great many capitells which are stone huts built by wine growers in previous centuries to store implements and to take shelter during storms.

I can’t talk about the villages of the Languedoc without mentioning the village of Minerve which is in the Hérault département. The village’s antiquity is evident from its name for a temple to the goddess Minerva once occupied the site. In 1210 during the Cathar Crusades, Simon de Montfort held a 10 week siege at Minerve to capture a group of Cathars who had taken refuge there after the massacre of Béziers. The village was protected by a double curtain wall, and overhanging natural ledges; but this did not stop Simon de Montfort’s crusader army. They set up four catapults around the fortification; three to attack the village, and the largest, called Malevoisine (“Bad Neighbour”), to attack the town’s water supply. Lord Guilhem of Minerve and the 200 men of his garrison could not resist for long and Minerve was surrendered to the Crusaders on 22 July 1210. The defensive walls were breached by St Rustique’s well, and Guilhem was obliged to negotiate the town’s surrender. He saved the villagers but he could not save the Cathars and some 150 to 180 Cathars were burned alive when they refused to recant their faith. A sad history but still I love to visit the village and walk across the limestone causse that surrounds it. I also visit the neighbouring village of La Caunette which also dates to before the Cathar crusade and was once a fortified village as can be seen by the entry gate which dates back to the 13th century.
These days its main attraction is an annual fête to celebrate the orange and other fruits. It’s called the Fête de la Bigarade – Bigarade is another name for the Seville Orange.

There are so many beautiful villages here and I revel in the fact that they are so quiet and undisturbed by tourism at the moment. I hope I have tempted you to come and see this last bastion of solitude and peace in the South of France.

Fizz, Food and Fine Wine at Rives Blanque

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I first visited Jan and Caryl Panman owners of Château Rives Blanques in 2009 the week I arrived in Languedoc-Roussillon to begin my vineyard tour enterprise. I have bumped into them a few times since but had not re-visited the château until yesterday when I popped along with Rachel and Anthony Pinwell of luxury B&B Maison Laurent who were keen to try the wines as they are always updating their wine list with local wines. The 3 of us regularly work together running food & wine pairing dinners at their delightful chambres d’hotes in Pieusse near Limoux. The snow covered Pyrenees where glinting majestically as I drove over to the area and then up the long twisting lane to be greeted by Caryl who had been working hard on the assemblage of the wines before bottling next week. Blending the wine is a crucial part of the process and although enjoyable it is quite tiring and a little stressful.  The Penmans produce top class Limoux wines focussing on the sparkling and the still whites of the appellation plus a little Vin du Pays and Caryl treated us to a superb tasting of everything that was available. The sparkling wines were elegant and interesting and I particularly enjoyed the rosé Cremant du Limoux stained a pretty pink using 5% of Pinot Noir and with a nose of strawberry ice-cream. The sparkling and still whites of this region are made from Mauzac, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with Mauzac being the local grape which Caryl is a huge fan off. The still wines of the appellation must be handpicked and barrel fermented and many producers major on Chardonnay and Chenin blanc for this role however Caryl has been innovative and also produces a 100% Mauzac wine which she did for the first time some years ago.  At first it seemed to be a dismal failure as hardly any sold in the first year of production but Tom Stevenson picked it up, liked it and wrote about it and then one day the top French wine magazine of Le Revue du Vin de France featured it on the front page and the rest is history. The wine has since won the Great Gold Medal of Languedoc-Roussillon. The wine is fermented in old oak barrels so the oak is not dominant and the wine has flavours of apples, pears and a little honey and spice and has a restrained richness and a fabulous dry finish that I think will make it a good food wine. Anthony is planning to experiment with various dishes to find a perfect match for out next food & wine dinner at Maison Laurent. You can buy the wine from the Château at €11.25 a bottle or €10 for a case of 6 and it is available to buy in many countries around the world including the UK at Tanners amongst others.

All the wines were wonderful but always with an eye for the unusual I was drawn to the Sauvignon Blanc which has been dubbed Sauvageon which means ‘the wild one’ named by local people in the south west of France when this grape grew wild on the hillsides a few hundred years ago. I was curious as to why they had named it this and not plain Sauvignon Blanc which is so popular at the moment? The answer came…. the wine spends 7 months maturing in oak barrels which gives it an entirely different character to a typical Sav Blanc such as a Sancerre or a Marlborough. It is richer than a Loire wine but not as tropical and vivacious as a New Zealand Sauvignon. Most of the herbaceous character has gone but you still get the gooseberry flavours which are ripe and tangy. We had it tonight with our meal which my chef friend Kate described as a ‘picnic’ as we enjoyed spicey Asian foods combined with home cured salmon followed by local goats cheeses. With the salmon is was delectable, it worked well with the prawn dumplings but lacked a little something with the pickled ginger and the heat of the chilli. But what a fabulous find it is. Kate had plucked a long forgotten Loire Chenin from the wine rack last night and we decided to finish it and compare it with the Sauvignon which might have been a little unfair – but actually they proved to be an equal team. Each one was a star with different elements of the meal. Rejoice the white wine of France..!

Researching the Rousillon

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I love my job – well actually as I live 7 months of the year in the Languedoc-Roussillon running vineyard tours what’s not to love! One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is the research; I love to find new vignerons to work with, new routes, new restaurants and of course new wines to taste. I arrived in Languedoc on April 1st and immediately headed to the Roussillon region to do some research as this year I am offering a new Roussillon Day  tour plus a Rousillon long weekend  concentrating on this up and coming wine region of southern France.

To help me with my research I had commandeered two fabulous and courageous wine makers Corin and Jayne Fairchild of Domaine Vella Fronterra in Maury. They have been welcoming my tours for the last 2 years and had happily agreed to help me get to grips with this region. First stop was the well-known Rivesaltes producers Cazes where we tasted 3 great examples of the VDN sweet wines produced here starting with the Ambres. This is made from Grenache Blanc plus a little Maccabeo – beautiful orange gold colour and fabulous orange peel flavours. Next we tasted the Grenat so named because it’s made with 100% Grenache Noir – smoky raspberries, delicious. Then it was on to the Tuilé which is also 100% Grenache Noir but is aged in big oak barrels called foudre for 15 years giving it more complexity and mature flavours of prune and raisin and an earthy character – the nose had hints of a smokey malt whiskey.  We had a good lunch in the restaurant there called La Table d’Aimé before heading to the village of Vingrau not far away. We were in search of Domaine du Clos des Fées which we found in the heart of the village. Hervé Bizeul is a former sommelier, caviste and wine journalist who makes some excellent Côtes du Roussillon Village wines from his unassuming converted garage. He has the vines planted on various terriors and many of them are over 100 years old.  Dominating the plantings are Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris however he also has some unexpected varietals including Tempranillo and Cabernet Franc. Claudine his wife greeted us and gave us a superb tasting of all the wines and so impressed was I that I have booked a visit next week on my first Roussillon tour of the season.

Last year I had tasted a very unusual wine made from Carignan Gris at a winery called Riberach and one of my aims this day was to find the producer. Corin and Jayne were not aware of this so I was amazed that the next place they took me was this very winery tucked away in the little village of Bélesta. Not only is it a winery but also a very impressive hotel and restaurant going by the name of Riberach. The owners have made a superb job of converting a huge old cave co-operative building to offer 18 contemporarily designed bedrooms from the old concrete tanks plus a restaurant where Chef Laurent Lemal produces fresh, seasonal produce and presents you with dishes of a contemporary style. In the winery we met the wine maker Patrick Rodrigues and tasted some interesting wines but the one that blew me away was the rosé made by direct pressing Carignan grapes to produce a pale pink wine with intense cherry and mineral flavours. We had it last night with some goose rillettes and it was a perfect match. I will definitely be booking my place at this table in the near future and the winery is also now on my list of wineries to visit next week on the first of my Roussillon tours.

Why Languedoc-Roussillon?

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Why did you choose this part of France to run vineyard tours? This is a question I am often asked by the people who come on one of the many vineyard tours I run near to Carcassonne. Why didn’t I choose Burgundy for it is true I adore those complex wines or the Alsace where my favourite Riesling comes from? Or The Loire Valley as my first love was Sancerre especially matched with the Chavignol goats cheese from the same region. Why not Bordeaux and its grand châteaux for surely visitors would love to tour them? It’s also true that I have spent a lot of time in the Rhône not only because of the delicious wines but for the incredible landscape and history. So why did I choose Languedoc-Roussillon? Well the answer is a very simple one – Languedoc-Roussillon is possibly the most exciting wine region in France right now!

The wines are still evolving and almost daily something new and exciting quietly emerges out of a very unassuming winery made with passion that can be tasted in every glorious mouthful. Languedoc is actually a treasure trove of undiscovered wines many of which are made from little known varietals such as Terret, Grenache Gris and Blanc, Maccabeo and Carignan. The vast majority of pleasure drinkers have never heard of these grapes and because the world is currently obsessed with drinking the famous 7 (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, Pinot Noir) people are missing out on a whole raft of fabulous wines.

It is a huge region stretching from Nimes in the east to Perpignan in the south and smothered width to breadth with vines punctuated with wine villages which nearly all contain an ugly 1930’s wine co-operative. These can be the downfall to quality unless in the right hands and many of them churn out what I describe as vin du quaff! Yes it’s OK, made in quantity with little thought of quality. Unsorted fruit meaning the rotten ones get fermented with the good ones along with the odd gecko and lots of snails! Its wine production on an industrial scale and this is what has given the region its bad reputation. So why am I so enamoured? Well I’m not enamoured with those places. The wines I love are made by the independent wine maker toiling to produce the best he can and working with the local grapes and the terroir to produce a wine with a true sense of place.

Passionate wine makers have created an artisan culture in this industrial wine producing zone. They have toiled to resurrect old vines left to die in some of the hardest landscape to farm. Why? Because they strongly believe that these vines will produce the finest wines if only you are prepared to work the land in these forgotten places. Languedoc-Roussillon is the one place in France where the rule book is still being written. It is known as the place that blends old world tradition with new world innovation.

Take wine producer Olivier Pithon who hails from the Loire but has transplanted himself in the Roussillon where he is producing some fine wines such his Cuvée Lais blanc named after his Jersey cow. The wine is a blend of 50% Maccabeo and 50% Grenache blanc and gris from vines 75 to 80 years old. It has a savoury, creamy. mineral flavour and is rich and satisfying. Not at all aromatic and as far from a  Veneto pinot grigio as you can get and an ideal accompaniment to the sun ripened food of the Midi.

Another producer I greatly admire is Clos du Gravillas located in the limestone hills of the Minervois in the village of St Jean du Minervois. John and Nicole have been making wine here for 13 years and have almost singlehandedly revolutionised the Carignan grape into something everyone wants to make a 100% versions of.

And then there’s Domaine Jones owned by Katie Jones who is really making a stir in the wine world. Parker loves her wines especially the Grenache Gris and the Fitou which she is producing from her tiny vineyard of less than 5 hectares.

These 3 producers epitomise what is happening here in Languedoc-Roussillon and they are  just 3 of many. The world is waking up to the quality wine made here but it’s a slow awakening. I am pleased to see that a lot more restaurants and wine merchants around the world are stocking wines from this region so they are not as obscure as they were.  In my opinion the best way to experience and learn about them is to come to this glorious place.  Come and see how the vines are grown, what it takes to keep them healthy and not allowed to over-yield to avoid watery or unripe wine.  Come and see what happens in the winery, the alchemy that is actually science and technique. Taste the different grape varieties individually and then assembled into the finished wine. Understand why the grapes varietals are blended and realise the myth that single varietal wines are the best. Once you’ve done that you will know that wine doesn’t come out of a bottle – it comes out of the ground!

Check out my web site if you’re tempted to join me on a vineyard tour of the Languedoc-Roussillon www.vinenvacances.com

Languedoc’s Signature Wine

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Vin en Vacances
Vin en Vacances

When you think of Bordeaux you think of the fine wines of the Médoc or Saint-Émilion, those glamorous and often expensive tryst of Cabernet and Merlot. With Burgundy it’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that instantly spring to mind along with its renowned terroir often crawling with geologists trying to figure out what makes these mono cepage wines taste so different to each other. The Loire and the Alsace bring thoughts of top notch white wines and the Côtes du Rhône always summons up thoughts of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. What happens when you think of Languedoc-Roussillon?  For many people the thought that enters their head is good value, quantity rather than quality but no particular wine comes to the surface. For me that’s the reason why this area struggles to be recognised and understood by the consumer. There is no single wine that stands out. It’s an area of diversity and so are the wines. You can buy just about every style of wine from here – from sparkling fizz  to full bodied reds to lusciously sweet to light and refreshing whites, rosé of all styles and full bodied whites of immense complexity. The wines are made from grape varieties just as diverse and many of which the average person will not have heard of such as Maccabeo, Boubelenc and Terret.  There are 3 grape varieties that I think Languedoc-Roussillon excels at – Carignan and Grenache. These originally Spanish grape varieties are very at home here and produce some of the most exciting wines in France. They both offer 3 colours of grape – Noir, blanc and gris which can produce stunning single varietal wines and are equally superb in a blend. Over the coming months I hope to introduce you to wines made from these grapes starting with my absolute favourite producer Clos du Gravillas.

Clos du Gravillas

John and Nicole Bajonowski have been making wine for around 14 years from their ‘petit domaine’ of less than 8 hectares in the village of Saint-Jean-du-Minervois. I first met them 5 years ago when I began running vineyard tours in the region and was looking for interesting places to include. They farm organically and Nicole uses some bio-dynamic principles too. They truly believe that good wine is made in the vineyard so a great deal of their time is spent tending the vines to ensure they bring in healthy ripe grapes when the time comes. It was at this vineyard that I had my first encounter with Carignan, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris.

L'Inattendu
L’Inattendu
The first wine they made was a white made from Grenache blanc, gris and Maccabeo.John and Nicole named it L’Inattendu which means the unexpected and it lives up to its name superbly well. It has a rich, complex earthy minerality with deeply satisfying flavours of fennel, nectarines and apples and a hint of creaminess. It has fabulous structure and its freshness belies the hot Languedoc region it comes from. This is achieved by growing the vines at altitude (300 m) on limestone soils.  It’s the perfect accompaniment for the strong flavours of the Languedoc foods where a delicate aromatic wine could possibly be knocked sideways.

Lo Viehl
Lo Viehl
When they bought their vineyard it had included some old Carignan vines which celebrated their 100thbirthday this year.  John and Nicole were the first people to make wine from these grapes alone as the previous owner had sent them to the co-operative. They were taken aback when they tasted their first 100% Carignan which they dubbed Lo Vièlh which means the old one in Occitan. In those days it was commonly agreed that Carignan was a good blending grape but used on its own it would produce a wine that was rustic and acidic. Lo Vièlh surprised everyone with its wonderful elegance and flavours of black cherries with spices and herbs and a note of tobacco with a touch of minerality and a smooth silky texture. The flavours linger long and are a fabulous match for lamb or duck.

So it can be done. Making 100% Carignan is a success and since they achieved this result many more people have followed suit and now there are dozens of 100% Carignan wines being made by people just as passionate about good wine as John and Nicole. Could Carignan be the signature wine that will identify Languedoc-Roussillon to the world?

L’Inattendu and Lo Vièlh cost £19.50 per bottle and are available from Underwoods Wine Merchants in Warwick who will despatch them to you anywhere in the UK. Follow this link for stockists in other parts of the world.

You can visit this vineyard with me next year by booking the Minervois Tour.