About a year ago, I spent a week on a press trip in southern France (with three Dutch journalists and an assortment of French tour guides and press agents). Along the way, I ate the best food I will ever eat, drank the best wine I will ever drink and took photos of a bunch of real purty scenery. It was an “experience,” as they say, and I should probably write it down at some point. Unfortunately, the magazine that sponsored the journey folded a few months later. The article I wrote, which was slated to appear in 2012, never made it to print. I managed to cobble together some of the material I gathered for a shorter, compromised piece that appeared in another publication. I still consider the original version a pretty solid travel article. I’ve decided to publish it here, along with some photos, rather than abandon it in a folder on my desktop. Please, enjoy…
Languedoc: Behind the Vine
Located along the Mediterranean, this sun-soaked corner of France is known for its vineyards, as well as its scenic beauty and centuries-old locales. As the region seeks to combine tradition with innovation, here’s how a few local winemakers are looking towards the future.
Pierre de Colbert is uneasy.
As the 10th generation winemaker sips from a glass of Le Vin de L’Uncle Charles, a Cabernet-Sauvignon and Merlot combination of his own creation, he outlines the challenges facing both himself and his colleagues. “The French are good at making wine but not selling it,” he says with a defiant smirk. “It’s time we changed this.”
At that moment, sitting in the tasting room of Chateau de Flaugergeus, his family’s estate on the outskirts of Montpellier, Pierre looks like a character from Les Miserables. Instead of rebelling against monarchs, however, he’s pitted against competition from overseas and the conventions that have dominated the surrounding region for centuries. In Languedoc, his industry dates back to the Roman-era. As labels from Argentina and Australia continue to cut into the profits of vineyards across France, many are still reluctant to evolve.
Pierre recalls his decision to begin using screw-caps on many of the chateau’s bottles and the controversy that ensued. For many area winemakers, using anything other than cork is considered blasphemy. Among the advantages of screw-caps: they almost completely guarantee the quality of wine, whereas an average of 1 out of every 100 bottles can go bad with cork tops. Producers like Pierre argue that not only do screw-caps make bottles easier to open, they’re also better for aging and conservation. Still, many French winemakers refuse to make the switch and openly mock those who do.
“They associate screw-tops with bad wine,” says Pierre. “We want to promote the tradition and history behind our products but the rules are changing. The French used to be considered the best in the business but we’re not the only ones playing the game now.”
A Day in the Life of a Winemaker
Going into the wine business in Languedoc can be like joining the mafia. Many who dive into the fray do so for life and the commitment required is staggering. Pierre’s father Henri is “retired,” meaning that he’s only cut back on his workload slightly. He still puts in 16-hour days and leads tours around the chateau’s castle and surrounding gardens, in addition to other duties. Regardless of the time of year, there’s constantly something that needs to be done. “I’m always working,” he says. “Retiring means that you lose your purpose.”
In addition to hosting tastings, there’s the vineyard to maintain, the books to keep and, of course, the wine to make. Many operations like Chateau de Flaugergeus now also have restaurants on their properties, which adds another array of tasks and responsibilities.
Abbaye de Valmagne, a former abbey near Pezenas, recently opened what its owners call an “auberge.” Unlike more conventional cafes, it only serves lunch and all of its menu items are created locally. Vegetables and herbs come directly from the abbey’s gardens. Heartier dishes are raised on nearby farms.
A typical meal here begins with French pancake rolls stuffed with figs, ham, cheese and edible flowers. Main courses include lamb served with quinoa. Needless to say, wines aged in the property’s “Cathedral of Wines” are also on the menu.
The cathedral itself is mammoth. The acoustics are impressive and, to help draw in additional visitors, the abbey now hosts an annual music series featuring chamber music and jazz ensembles. It’s certainly a unique venue for live music. Large wine barrels line the interior and surround the altar. A cross lined with grape vines hangs nearby. Another wall is still stained with soot from the night peasants invaded the grounds during the French Revolution and built a bonfire inside.
Back to the Future
Meanwhile, Les Vignerons de Florensac, a cooperative winery near the Étang de Thau, seeks to combine the culture and history of Languedoc with a 21st-century attitude. Its flashy Vinipolis opened in 2007 and offers visitors a contemporary tasting room lined with interactive computer kiosks. A glass floor looks down over a more traditional cellar filled with wooden casks. Out in the parking lot, there’s power outlets for electric vehicles.
A similar ethos is at work in the cellars of Noilly Prat in Marseillan. The famous winemakers have updated the property with a complex that leads visitors through each stage of their production process and past a “Room of Secrets” into a sleek lounge that looks like something Tony “Iron Man” Stark might dream up during a day-off. You may recall the brand from a different action film series. James Bond might not approve of Noilly Prat’s Ambre, a sweet, silky wine exclusively sold in the gift shop, but he does prefer his martinis with a splash of the company’s legendary dry vermouth.
Romance and Adventure
In addition to winery tours organized by companies such as Herault Tourisme, other winemakers in Languedoc are drawing in visitors with overnight lodging. At Salente, near Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, owners Benedicte and Loic Tournay have lovingly restored the estate, adding two charming guest rooms and an elaborate “vanishing edge” swimming pool. The property overlooks acres of vineyards that glow like gold on sunny mornings. A leisurely breakfast underneath their poolside elm tree might as well be heaven on earth.
For the more courageous, there’s the Terroir d’ Art et de Nature. A winding trail through the hills of Bessilles leads hikers through Montagnac’s vineyards. Along the way, fourteen statues depict the lives of the region’s winemakers. “Au Pressoir,” by sculpture Kay Vygen, often draws giggles. It features two lovers locked in passionate embrace as they stomp grapes after a harvest. The full trek covers around 17 kilometers and can take an entire day. If you go, keep an eye out for the snakes and scorpions known to populate these hills.
Across the Seas
Fortunately, for many Languedoc winemakers, a market for their wares is rapidly expanding across Asia. Many of the wines produced at Salente are now exported to China and Japan, where they’re often given as gifts or mixed with 7-Up. For many on the continent, wine is a new luxury and their palettes aren’t yet as refined as those of European aficionados.
Back at the Chateau de Flaugergeus, Pierre welcomes a group of tourists from Thailand and they make faces as they taste many of his drier blends. After they depart, the winemaker says that he doesn’t mind.
“The first question you have to ask yourself is what is wine supposed to do,” he says. “Provide pleasure. If you don’t have pleasure, stop drinking and look for another bottle. For our customers, that is the only rule.”