Home to diverse scenery and cultural riches, not to mention outstanding food and wine, this southern French region offers tourists a wealth of options, says Natasha Hughes MW...
Languedoc travel guide
For many Brits, the south of France means Provence, but wine lovers know that there’s another south – one that may not boast as many celebrities and film festivals, but which repays visitors with apparently endless diversity. The Languedoc is a region of stunning landscapes, from rugged hills to golden beaches and snow-capped mountains. This is a land of great cultural richness, a place where the sun shines for 300 days a year, and where good food and good wine are considered an essential part of everyday life.
On paper, the various viticultural regions of the Languedoc look as if they’re not situated that far apart from each other. Appearances can be deceptive, however, and the narrow roads that criss-cross the region switchback over very hilly terrain. As a result, the drive from one producer to another usually affords breathtaking views, but can take far longer than you might expect.
Exploring the north
To make the most of your Languedoc trip, base yourself as near as possible to the producers you’re hoping to visit – that way you can spend your time sampling wine rather than driving your hire car. Domaine de Verchant, located just outside Montpellier, makes a good base from which to explore the vineyards of the northern Languedoc. It’s a fairly short drive to the appellations of Terrasses du Larzac and Pic-St-Loup, as well as the scenic IGP vineyards around the stunning hilltop town of St-Guilhem-le- Désert. The domaine’s historic building, part of which dates back to the 14th century, has been stylishly modernised, and there’s even a large spa where you can wind down after a hard day’s tasting. The hotel’s in-house restaurant offers a modern take on classic French ingredients.
If you fancy something less formal, l’Artichaut is a small bistro in Montpellier’s historic centre with plenty of Gallic charm, and a well-thought-out wine list.
The town of Béziers is strategically situated near inland appellations such as St-Chinian and Faugères, as well as the coastal zones of Picpoul de Pinet and the IGPs of the Côtes de Thau and the Côtes de Thongue, among others. Many of Béziers’ splendid townhouses have been renovated, one of which is now a sophisticated boutique hotel, L’Hotel Particulier. It houses its guests in airy, whitewashed rooms, and the small swimming pool in its pretty garden is particularly welcome on hot summer days.
It’s a short stroll from the hotel to Le Chameau Ivre (+33 (0)4 67 80 20 20), a convivial wine bar well stocked with bottles from local producers. The ideal spot for a casual evening of nibbling and sipping, it offers a good selection of wines by the glass and a terrific range of local charcuterie. A more elaborate meal can be enjoyed at much-fêted
Restaurant Octopus, where Michelin-starred chef Fabien Lefebvre creates elegant dishes from seasonal ingredients. The wines live up to the calibre of the food, too.
It would be a shame to visit the south of France without spending at least some time by the coast, especially if you enjoy seafood. One of the best places to tuck into the local oysters is at Le Grand Bleu in Bouzigues. Strong on atmosphere and conviviality, this is the place to dive into a vast platter of shellfish or simply grilled fish fresh off the boat.
Damejane in Faugères is equally short on pretension and high in charm. A tiny space has been transformed into a small shop selling local honey, cheese and charcuterie, much of which dangles from the ceiling. A few tables are crammed in, so visitors can tuck into a simple, hearty lunch. The menu depends on what’s available, but food is always tasty and good value. The place owes its existence to lobbying by local winemakers, so it goes without saying that there are always interesting wines available to enjoy with your meal.
The Cathar heartland
The logical place to base yourself if you want to explore the Minervois and Cabardès is somewhere in the vicinity of Carcassonne. I would advise against finding a hotel in the heart of Carcassonne itself, particularly during the middle of summer, when the streets are thronged with package tourists and every other shop appears to be trying to sell them twee Provençal knick-knacks. Instead the smart money is on a stay at La Bergerie, a simple but very pleasant hotel in a pretty village that lies to the north of the walled city. There’s a Michelin-starred restaurant on site, or you can brave the crowds and head into Carcassone for a cassoulet. If you’re hankering for a truly authentic cassoulet, though, you might be better off heading into St-Jean-de- Minervois, where L’Auberge de L’Ecole (+33 (0)4 67 38 16 16) gets rave reviews for its rendition of the local classic, as well as the warmth of its welcome.
If you find yourself in the Cabardès appellation at lunch or dinner time, head to Pennautier. Here the Lorgeril group owns both Château de Pennautier (worth a visit in its own right) and nearby Table du Château. The restaurant is housed in an old stone bergerie (sheepfold), and offers simple country food, which you can wash down with copious quantities of Lorgeril’s wines.
Luxury down south
The area around Narbonne is a good base from which to explore both the Cathar heartland and the rugged countryside of the south. Wine lovers could base themselves at Gerard Bertrand’s Château de l’Hospitalet, whose recently renovated rooms overlook the vineyards. The on-site restaurant offers seasonal dishes based on local ingredients and an opportunity to taste through this producer’s extensive range.
To really spoil yourself, you’ll have to travel even further south. The luxury boutique hotel L’Auberge du Vieux Puits is situated in a tiny village nestled between Fitou and Corbières. Enjoy the stunning drive through wild countryside to reach the hotel, and then relax in one of the 14 rooms. Most are situated around the peaceful swimming pool, and all are decorated with elegant simplicity.
In the spacious dining room chef Gilles Goujon demonstrates the culinary pyrotechnics that won him three Michelin stars in 2010. The weighty wine list offers some of the very best bottles from across the Languedoc (as well as elsewhere in France).
You could spend many happy weeks following a trail of wine bars, restaurants and wineries from Montpellier in the north to the wilds of the Corbières in the south, or you could sample the region’s best one weekend at a time. Whichever way you decide to explore the area, you’ll be struck by the warmth of the welcome and the wildness of the landscape. All in all, the Languedoc offers a totally unique take on the south of France.
Natasha Hughes MW began her career as deputy editor of Decanter.com. She left the magazine in 2001 and has since worked as a freelance writer and consultant, specialising in wine and food.
This content originally appeared in the free Languedoc supplement with Decanter magazine’s June issue. This content was sponsored by the Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins AOC du Languedoc (CIVL) and the IGP wines of Sud de France.