With three times more hectares dedicated to viticulture than Bordeaux, and better weather, isn’t it time winos started visiting the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France? Sasha Arms indulges in a drop of eno-tourism.
There are some disagreeable and slightly galling misconceptions about France and wine that need to be redressed. Number one: The likes of Nice, Cannes and Saint Tropez are not the only places to go in France for that southern French weather and lifestyle, dahling. Number two: Bordeaux is not the only region that produces good wine. (In fact, many wine commentators say that Bordeaux winemakers have failed to embrace new techniques for years, relying on the Bordeaux name alone, and now face stiff competition from wine making regions across the world producing superior wines). Number three: Being a wine snob is not a pre-requisite for enjoying wine tasting. Shock horror.
“When it comes to wine, I tell people to throw away the vintage charts and invest in a corkscrew. The best way to learn about wine is the drinking.” Alexis Lichine.
It was with these important pointers in mind that I left a grey and rainy London this autumn and arrived in an oh-so-sunny Languedoc-Roussillon, intent on finding out just how far an amateur wino can take a wine obsession in a region that has around 740,000 acres of vineyards (three times the amount in Bordeaux) and an average of 300 days of sun per year.
“Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance.” Benjamin Franklin.
It was thirty minutes to the dot that I was off the plane at Carcassonne and standing in the grand Château de Pennautiersupping wines to the backdrop of family portraits from the ten generations of the Pennautier family who have lived there. This was the life. Despite my un-attuned mouth and inferior wine intelligence, the wines tasted a bit of alright. The importance to the vines of the limestone and clay terroir, the altitudes of between 700 and 1000 feet above sea level and the Mediterranean heat, would only become clear a few tastings in, but for now I was content with believing what I was told. Most importantly, there was no hint of condescension or superiority, marking a poignant thumbs up for the first foray of the un-initiated into the wine tasting world.
“Wine makes a man more pleased with himself; I do not say it makes him more pleasing to others.” Samuel Johnson.
With another 35 or so vintages to taste in three days before a reliable conclusion could be made by this wine neophyte, it was time to move on. Basking in the sunshine all the way to another Château near the coast outside of Narbonne, I was raring to go for the next round. This was fortuitous, as Château l’Hospitalet (owned by the French rugby player Gerard Bertrand) had six wines lined up for a pre-dinner tasting. Followed by another handful to be served with dinner. Cripes.
It turns out I was in for quite a treat as my tentative learnings from earlier in the day started to kick in. Bertrand’s vineyards cover hundreds of acres and six sites in the surrounding area, one of which is at the striking Château l’Hospitalet, where you can also spend the night as I did (if you’re a wannabe wino on a mission then sleeping in a location enclosed by vines is a necessity). Should you wonder about a rugby player’s ability to make fine wines, a tasting at Château l’Hospitalet will halt those suspicions instantly. Even I could tell the wines were fairly outstanding, which is apparently due in part to the inimitable combination of limestone soils, dry climate and several cross winds. It’s no wonder they export 12 million bottles to 65 countries. Non wine snobs say that good wine is the wine you like, and I was heartened to find that my senses were becoming more sophisticated when tallying my favourites. Bertrand’s Domaine Cigalus practices biodynamic techniques and the rouge is especially captivating; yes, I could actually pick up on the blackcurrant notes and spicy kick (following some expert swilling). The outright winner had to be La Forge – the red from Domaine de Villemajou and the location of Bertrand’s family home. A blend of Syrah and Carignan, the minerals, fruit and earthiness make the wine radiant.
Was this me talking? While I had stumbled upon both the best wine of the trip and some wino lingo very early on, I made a mental check to consult Leonard S. Bernstein’s Official Guide to Wine Snobberyas soon as humanly possible to avoid become one of those braggarts I had already decided to loathe.
“Penicillin cures, but wine makes people happy.” Alexander Fleming.
After some larking about in Bertrand’s vines to get the ubiquitous grape photos, it was time to hit the road once more to visit the third Château of the trip, Château Capitoul. Time was running out if my tasting targets were going to be met, so it was time to stop the sultry swilling and get down to business. Luckily the pair who run this outfit are ex-naval officers and run their portfolio of vineyards like a ship. Dispelling any formalities, CEO Xavi-Luc shipped us straight out to watch the harvest come in – a process of industrial magnitude involving all manner of giant grape separating machines. “Do you want to try some wine that’s still fermenting?” Xavi-Luc asks. “It’s not quite wine yet, but it’s not juice either.” Of course, we were with military types. Why drink wine from a bottle when you can drink it from a Marshmallow Man sized stainless steel tank? I gratefully accepted, realising the privileged opportunity for a wino on a mission. The usual rigmarole of swilling, nosing and glugging back a mouthful followed. Grape juice with a bit of acid was the lasting effect. “Don’t forget to spit,” Xavi-Luc reminds. “It’s bad for you if you don’t!” About 30 seconds too late for me, and I subsequently spent the journey to the next vineyard contemplating what exactly “bad for you” really meant. Time to shirk Alexander Fleming and choose penicillin over wine? At least I was safe in the knowledge that I could purchase the real, finished Château Capitoul product from a glut of global supermarkets back in the UK. Phew.
“Wine is the most civilised thing in the world.” Ernest Hemingway.
Next stop: AOC Domaine de la Tour Vielle in the infamously arty Collioure, where the elegant and relaxed proprietor Véronique Péroneille had a record seven wines lined up and eager to be drunk. Over in this Catalan region of France, with the Pyrenees and the Spanish border a stone’s throw away, the wines (I’m told) taste of the sea breeze and are the perfect complement to Catalan cooking. I can’t help thinking she’s onto something there as she talks us through glass after glass. “This is the perfect weather for drinking our wines,” Véronique explains, indicating the bright, mild day outside. “When it’s wet, grey and depressing weather, the wine is shy. It tastes totally different!” What a revelation to a rookie. But while these wines were sumptuous, it didn’t sound like they would enjoy the British weather too much…
From wines to Banyuls, the region’s typical sweet wine, Véronique sheds some light on the waning tradition to consume the drink. “Banyuls used to be served with cake every Sunday after mass, but these ways are changing and means that we’re drinking less and less Banyuls.” Véronique lets out a laugh. “We don’t go to mass anymore, we don’t have families nearby anymore, and we don’t eat cake anymore!” That said, the Banyuls trend might be set for a bit of an upturn if more people knew about the Vin de Méditation (also the most expensive of Domaine la Tour Vieille’s range at 50 Euros for a 50cl bottle). It includes a wine base from 1952 and has a deep, woody taste that keeps on coming. The clue’s in the name, you can imagine nothing better than drinking it while watching out over the vineyards spilling out towards the ocean. Now that’s more than civilised.
“A meal without wine is like a life without love.” Anonymous.
And so, from meditating with natives to elaborating with expats, I moved on to the penultimate winery of my expedition. A Brit from Barnsley, Jonathan Hesford and his Kiwi wife Rachel Treloar, aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty at their winery, Domain Treloar. Jonathan had his wake up call in life when he saw the Twin Towers destroyed from his office next door. He got qualified in all things wine in New Zealand before setting up shop in Trouillas. Describing himself as a “wine lover who makes wine, not a winemaker who likes wine,” Jonathan’s winery is as much about a couple with an inspirational view on life as it is about the wine. They’re not doing a bad job with the product either – producing up to 40,000 bottles every year and selling every last one; in the UK they can be found in the likes of Michelin star restaurants and Jamie Oliver’s establishments. Jonathan describes his winemaking as being like parenting: “You should let it go naturally as much as possible, but you have to step in every now and again to get things back on the right path.” Apparently he’s onto a winner with that one, and yet again, there’s no room for snobbery in this establishment. Jonathan urges wine tasting groups to ask as many questions as they like and not be embarrassed about how little knowledge they might have. Big tick from me then. If you choose just one Domaine Treloar wine then it has to be Taki, Maorifor ‘one’, which takes inspiration from Rachel’s heritage and by his own admission, is the wine that Jonathan puts the most effort into.
“Wine is life.” Petronius.
From Châteaus and inspiring winemakers to meditation, wine and shenanigans in countless vineyards, I’d had quite an initiation into wining in the Languedoc-Roussillon. But there was one box left to tick… sleeping in a winery. Bring on Riberach, an old co-operative winery that is now part-winery, part-hotel. You guessed it, the hotel rooms are in the old wine vats. Picture an old, industrial-sized structure, revamped to the tune of imposing architectural feature pieces and floor to ceiling windows with concrete vats as hotel rooms, designed to the highest spec. Oh, and an eco swimming pool complete with goldfish for good measure. If laying in the silence of a wine vat after a long three days of wine tasting isn’t the pièce de résistance of a wannabe wino’s Languedoc-Roussillon foray, then I don’t know what is.
If you’re thinking of conducting your own tasting tour then you’ll find plenty more useful information on the following websites:
www.sunfrance.com, www.audetourisme.com, www.tourisme-pyreneesorientales.com