The Languedoc offers visitors a haven of cuisine and culture. Apart from sublime food and wine, it’s home to dozens of ancient churches and pretty hilltop villages. NATASHA HUGHES pays a visit.
Given France’s religious heritage, it should come as no surprise to find a church in every tiny stone village of the Hérault. You can navigate your way to the centre of each small settlement by fixing your sights on the bell tower that rises above the shuttered two-storey buildings that surround it on the Languedoc wine route. Or you can follow the sound trail created when the bells ring, once on the half-hour and twice to mark the hour (which can certainly disturb the sleep patterns of the uninitiated around midnight every night), from village to village in a daisy chain across the foothills of the Pyrénées.
Alternatively, you can follow the old pilgrimage trails towards Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The countryside is littered with churches and abbeys, some more ruined than others, that once gave shelter and spiritual succour to the pilgrims of St James. Many of these old buildings are decorated with sculpted scallop shells, the symbol of Santiago – or Saint Jacques, as he’s called in France (hence Coquilles Saint Jacques, French for scallops).
It was the Church, of course, that maintained the tradition of winemaking in France after the departure of the Roman legions – and although the links between the Church and winemaking have since been severed, you can plot a course round the Hérault’s vineyards that allows you to visit many of the region’s medieval churches between tasting sessions.
As you drive northwest out of Montpellier, you could do far worse than start your tour of the region’s wineries by stopping for lunch on the way to Aniane at Les Vins de l’Horloge, a friendly restaurant in the village of Montpeyroux, which offers a stunning selection of local wines to take away or to consume on the spot with its menu du jour.
Aniane is home to the Languedoc region’s most prestigious producers of vins de pays – Mas de Daumas Gassac and Grange des Pères. If you can, try and arrange visits to the two properties back to back – if nothing else, it will provide you with a fantastic opportunity to contrast the very different personalities of the men who make the wines. Daumas Gassac’s Aimé Guibert, one of the stars of Mondovino, is a passionate and vocal advocate of artisan winemaking, while his neighbour, Laurent Viallé, prefers to stay out of the limelight so that attention is focused on his wines.
You can also visit the nearby property of Domaine Capion. Although its wines are not as polished as those of either of its neighbours, it’s well worth popping in to try the range, the handiwork of South African winemaker Nico van der Merwe, who also makes wines at Stellenbosch’s Saxenburg winery.
The best hotel in the Languedoc area is, without doubt, the Hostellerie Cardabela, named after a giant thistle, in St-Saturnin. When booking your room, it’s worth making reservations for Le Mimosa, a restaurant in the neighbouring village of St- Guiraud. Both restaurant and hotel are owned by Bridget and David Pugh, a hospitable couple who settled in the region a few decades ago. While they leave the day-to-day running of the hotel to a manager, both are very much hands-on when it comes to running the restaurant. Bridget oversees the kitchen, which produces fantastic Mediterranean food, while David is in charge of the wine list, which is focused on the very best of local producers. It’s worth leaving your meal in their hands: for e78 you will be served a stunning six-course affair with wines chosen to complement each dish.
Alternatively, you could book a night or two at the Château de Jonquières. François and Isabelle de Cabissole took over the management of this splendid building – a mix of 13th- and 17th-century architecture – several years ago, but only opened it as a chambre d’hôte in 2004. This puts you right on site for your first winery visit of the day. At Mas Jullien, Olivier Jullien has made a name for his iconoclastic wines. Of particular note is his top red, Etats d’Ame, whose composition each year is determined by Jullien’s whim – his white is similarly unpredictable, but equally fine.
Mas Cal Demoura used to belong to Olivier’s father, Jean-Pierre Jullien, but he sold it in 2004 to talented young winemaker Vincent Goumard (who worked with Jullien Snr for a couple of seasons in order to learn the ropes). On the evidence of his 2004 white and rosé, Goumard looks set to carry the domaine’s reputation for excellence into the future.
Having probably eaten rather well at Le Mimosa the previous night, you may well be hankering for a simple dinner, in which case you would do well to drop into the Auberge du Pressoir – it serves hearty portions of uncomplicated grilled meats accompanied by chips and salad, the perfect end to a long day’s tasting.
Having covered this part of the extensive and somewhat unfocused appellation of the Côteaux du Languedoc, make your way west towards Faugères, stopping off for a tasting at the Moulin de Ciffre. One of the most fascinating things about this domaine (which is owned by the Lésinaus, a couple who used to make wine at Haut-Gardère in the Graves) is that it is situated on the junction of three appellations: Coteaux du Languedoc, St-Chinian and Faugères. As a result, it’s an ideal place to get a feel for the region’s varied terroirs, and the Lésinaus family is more than happy to put on a tasting that will highlight the difference between them. If you give them enough notice, they will arrange to take a group on a stroll through the garrigue, pointing out items of interest to oenophiles and nature-lovers alike.
It won’t take long to move on from there to the Château des Estanilles, where Michel Louison makes the wine, and his daughter, Sophie, takes pride in showing visitors the fruits of her father’s labours. If you have enough time, the Louisons will show you their vineyards before you start tasting.
You have the choice between two hotels, neither far from Béziers. But first, stop off for dinner at La Boucherie in Magalas, where you can start with tapas before indulging in a serious plate of meat (grilled, stewed or raw), courtesy of owner and former butcher Gérard Allaire. Sated, you can retire for the night at either Hostellerie de St-Alban, a delightful old mansion in the village of Nézignan l’Evêque, or the ultra-modern La Chamberte in Villeneuve-les-Béziers, a hotel and restaurant carved from a former wine storehouse.
The next morning you’re a short hop from the Abbaye de Valmagne, which was at the heart of winemaking in the Languedoc during the medieval era. Wine is still made here, although a visit to the abbey itself might hold greater excitement than a tasting of its wines.
Make your way to the fishing village of Bouzigues for lunch on the terrasse at Les Jardins de la Mer. The smell of fresh fish grilling over an open flame will whet your appetite, so it’s worth ordering a dozen of the locally farmed oysters and a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet to while away the time until your order is dished up.
Finally, it’s worth stopping at La Marfée’s cellars in Montpellier. Thierry Hasard makes dense, concentrated wines from 15 tiny parcels of vines grown on 6ha (hectares) of vineyards in nearby Murviel-lès-Montpellier that will haunt your tastebuds even as the plane home leaves the Languedoc far behind.
Languedoc in four days
Day 1: Visit St-Guilhem-le-Désert, then have lunch at Montpeyroux’s Vins de l’Horloge. In the afternoon, pay visits to Mas de Daumas Gassac, Grange des Pères and Château Capion. Dinner at Le Mimosa, stay at Hostellerie Cardabela. All within a 15-minute drive, at most, from each other.
Day 2: Drive up to the Cirque de Navacelles for a walk or scenic drive. Take a packed lunch and eat al fresco. Afternoon visits to Mas Jullien and Mas Cal Demoura. Check in for the night at the Château de Jonquières, and have dinner at the Auberge du Pressoir. Leave a good half-hour in each direction to drive to and from the Cirque de Navacelles, but once you are back in Jonquières, nothing is more than a five-minute drive away.
Day 3: Morning visits to Autignac and Lenthéric, an hour’s drive from Jonquières. Lunch in Magalas, a 10-minute drive away. Return to Faugères itself for a tour of the windmills (a comfortable half-hour drive) or move on to the Abbaye de Fontcaude, one of the stop-off points on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (half an hour’s drive west). Spend the night at either the Hostellerie de Saint Alban or La Chamberte, both of which have a restaurant.
Day 4: Morning visit to the Abbaye de Valmagne, then lunch at Le Jardin de la Mer in Bouzigues. Drop by for a tasting at La Marfée’s cellars in Montpellier on your way back to Montpellier airport.