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Scenic backdrops and historical landmarks abound in south-west France, and the wine has never been better. Patricia Langton pays a visit to Languedoc-Roussillon and explains why it’s a happy blend of old and new.
Rambo is charging towards me along a row of old Grenache vines. Jet black, stocky and tall, he is one of three Comtois workhorses used to plough the vineyards at the Mas Amiel wine estate in Roussillon. In the early-morning sun, Rambo cuts an impressive figure. But this is no tourist gimmick; producers in this area of France have started to revert to traditional practices to preserve their vineyards and get the best results.
Roussillon, together with neighbouring Languedoc, is France’s largest wine region, with more than 200,000 hectares of vineyards. Known collectively as Languedoc-Roussillon, the area is located in southern France, stretching along the Mediterranean coast from the right bank of the river Rhône to the Pyrenees mountain range. Its beautiful and varied scenery has much to attract visitors. Whether you want to relax by the coast, immerse yourself in local culture, or prefer an activity holiday in the mountains, the Languedoc-Roussillon has plenty to offer.
You might want to start your trip with a visit to Montpellier in the south east. Aside from being the region’s administrative capital, you can admire the town’s spectacular monuments from a sunny terrace on most days of the year. Then venturing west, you’ll find first the town of Narbonne – famous for its Roman history – followed by Carcassonne, which boasts the spectacular and multi-turreted La Cité de Carcassonne, the largest medieval fortress in Europe, and a UNESCO heritage site. A visit here is a must.
If, like me, a holiday isn’t complete for you without a trip to the seaside, make sure you leave some time to stop by the coastal resorts of La Grande Motte, Palavas-Les-Flots, Le Cap d’Agde and Gruissan. Not forgetting the charming fishing port of Sète, where you can enjoy the catch of the day in restaurants overlooking the harbour.
Further inland, there is an increasingly wide choice of activities on offer, so you can take your pick – mountain biking, horse riding and walking in the chestnut forests of the Montagne Noire, to name a few. Or if you would rather stick to history and culture, you can seek out the Roman and Cistercian abbeys dotted around the countryside; the immaculately restored Abbaye de Fontfroide, which blends Romanesque and Gothic architecture, is particularly impressive. Its extensive lands include vineyards that are still under cultivation today, evidence that wine has always played a pivotal role in Languedoc-Roussillon.
The vineyards of the region can be found in the plains, sharing land with the garrigue (Mediterranean scrub) and covering the hillsides. Reliably hot summers and favourable climatic conditions traditionally made Languedoc-Roussillon France’s chief source of mass-produced vin ordinaire, notably red wine blended from local varieties such as Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre.
But over time, the market changed and it became increasingly necessary for Languedoc-Roussillon to reinvent itself. Slowly but surely it has done just that. Today, the region is home to a rich diversity of styles, ranging from sparkling wines, dry whites, rosés and reds through to classic sweet wines: Banyuls, Maury, Muscat and Muscat de Rivesaltes.
The wines can be divided into two categories. Appellation wines, such as Corbières, Coteaux du Languedoc or Minervois, are generally produced from better sites using lower yields and local grape varieties. Vin de pays wines take in a wide range of grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Viognier and Roussanne, and can offer some particularly eclectic blends.
In the case of the appellation wines, the region’s producers are increasingly shaping their own style by making wines that reflect their own grapes and climate. Eric Kohler, head winemaker at Château d’Aussières, near Narbonne in the Corbières appellation, started his career in Bordeaux before coming to Aussières to restore its vineyards in 1999 (the project is backed by Bordeaux’s Domaines Barons de Rothschild Lafite). Comparing winemaking here to Bordeaux, he says: ‘There’s less structure and acidity in the wines here, so too much oak is not good. A blend such as Cabernet and Syrah is well suited to the region; Cabernet and Merlot is better for Bordeaux.’
Indeed, one noticeable trend among producers in this region is to use less or even no barrel ageing at all in red blends. There is also a move to develop vineyards on the slopes and at higher altitude, returning to the sites where vines grew in Roman times.
Lorgeril, with six estates in the region, has produced wine for many generations, including vineyards in the grounds of Château de Pennautier, near Carcassonne, 25-30 miles west of Narbonne, which was built in 1620 and is often referred to as the Versailles of the Languedoc.
Miren and Nicolas de Lorgeril, who took over the family business in 1987, have continued the work of the previous generation, and have planted vines higher up ‘to make wine according to altitude’, as Miren says. Three of the family’s estates are located in the Cabardès region, further inland than most sub-regions of Languedoc-Roussillon. Miren takes me to one of these – Domaine de Garille, around six miles from Carcassonne – which enjoys spectacular views of the Pyrenees to the south and the Massif Central to the north. Here, the vineyards are planted up to around 1,000ft on stony limestone soils.
‘The higher vineyards are better for drainage, the quality of the soil and the freshness, and they tend to be appellation areas. At Domaine de Garille, we get a cooler autumn compared with other areas and this favours a long, slow ripening,’ says Miren as we stroll past rows of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon vines.
Some of the vineyards at this estate were reclaimed from the wild, rocky garrigue so typical of this region. The intriguing mix of vegetation is a forager’s delight when herbs, wild asparagus, fennel and truffles make their seasonal appearances.
Along with the natural beauty of the Languedoc, older vineyards are now recognised for their value. Back at Mas Amiel in Roussillon, many things are done as they were a century or more ago, especially when it comes to making sweet Maury wines from Grenache. Here, there are 117 different plots of vines, mostly Grenache, along with some Syrah and Carignan. Grenache is best suited to the region’s hot, dry and windy conditions, and can be irresistible for the local boars in the weeks leading up to harvest.
After vinification, Mas Amiel’s classic sweet Maury wines spend a year ageing outside in traditional hand-blown glass bonbonne jars, where they are subjected to all the elements, ranging from the harsh tramontane wind to the intense summer sun. They are then returned to the cellar for an extensive period of ageing in large, 120-year-old wooden vats. It is these vats which are largely responsible for defining the wine’s unique character: when you taste it, expect bold, intense flavours of fig and chocolate.
Mas Amiel also has a more contemporary offering: the latest winemaking technology can be found in the same cellar for its production of dry Grenache Gris and red wines, including a Carignan from vines planted in the early 20th century when, as now, horses ploughed the vineyards. It’s another example of how tradition meets modernity in this fascinating region.
This feature was published in the autumn 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.