Monsieur Raynal was on a roll. “Le vin, le pain, et le fromage: c’est la trinité sainte du France.”
I didn’t think it was appropriate at this point to mention the similarity of his gastro-philosophical postulation to the Boursin advert slogan. His argument seemed far more profound. And he hadn’t even been drinking.
When it comes to the first of this holy trinity, this guy certainly knows his onions – or rather, his grapes. Jean-Marc Raynal is manager for all the vineyards in Languedoc-Roussillon (and indeed the whole Mediterranean region) owned by French wine magnate Bernard Magrez. To give you an idea of multimillionaire Magrez’s vinous clout, it is reported that the investment bank Lazard is offering the legendary Château Latour for sale at around £190m – and that Monsieur Magrez is the most likely buyer.
However, despite Magrez’s prominence in Bordeaux, it’s actually the undervalued and underrated Languedoc-Roussillon region in which I’m more interested today, and the reason why I’m tasting straight from some of the region’s finest barrels. Unfortunately, my GCSE French was not holding up to M Raynal’s passionate descriptions, so we decided to let the wine do the talking instead.
Or should that be shouting? The one thing that Languedoc wines don’t need to concern themselves with is being too shy or retiring. The long dry summers are ideal for making a big bold spicy red (which, I might add, will be the same colour as your skin if you forget to pack your Factor 30).
Many of Magrez’s reds from this region possess a varietal trinity at their core – syrah, grenache and carignan. This threesome makes a perfect base for blending intricate wines with the levels of complexity that you just wouldn’t find in an equivalent from the New World. Just try the La Passion d’une Vie for proof.
But if you thought it was a red-only region, you’d be wrong. I was especially impressed by Magrez’s Passion Blanche from the Côtes Catalanes. A rich, elegant white, the 2006 is all butter and wet leaf, and the 2007 is lighter with more citrus highlights, ideal for session drinking and soaking up the warm southern French sun. Which, funnily enough, is exactly what we did.
For the French, winemaking is second only to religion. So it only seemed right that I should find somewhere with an equally devout past for my stay in the region.
The Couvent d’Hérépian in the heart of high Languedoc, is an enchantingly-gardened boutique affair that was once a 17th-century convent. Subtly and gracefully restored, it still carries with it a sense of this original serenity. The hotel is swathed in soothing tones and sophisticated furnishings; vaulted ceilings and period décor all help conjure a romantic French idyll.
"Unfortunately, my GCSE French was not holding up to M Raynal’s passionate descriptions, so we decided to let the wine do the talking instead."
With only 13 rooms, it’s closer to a B&B than a hotel, but the four south-facing suites on the upper floors are truly five-star, each boasting private balconies looking out over the village of Hérépian and the Monts d’Orb.
The hotel’s subterranean spa is housed in stone vaults and includes an eight-person heated relaxation pool tiled in cool, watery cobalt. Its one treatment room is the sanctum of magic hands which, via Ayurvedic techniques and reflexology, will make sure you emerge with a serene grin and marshmallow muscles.
Although there’s no restaurant, you can have a local table d’hôte – a four-course meal from a local charcuterie – served in your room. And to wash it down, there’s local wine aplenty, including the house white: a charming, chalky (and cheap) Domaine de Raissac, CVM Barrique. If you run out, head downstairs to the ‘honesty’ bar, where you can help yourself – honestly.
If, like me, it’s the wine you’re interested in (had you picked up on that, yet?), then a trip to Domaine de l’Arjolle in Pouzolles is also worthwhile. The family-owned winery is now looked after by the sixth generation and boasts 110ha in total (ten times more than the local average). Just one of these is dedicated to ‘Z’ – it’s the only zinfandel (just one hectare of it) made in the whole of France. For good reason, you might think. But you’d be wrong – the searing climate can pull it off, and Z puts many a Californian zinfandel to shame. To the same tune, Arjolle’s bog-standard sauvignon blanc would embarrass several of New Zealand’s mightier labels – and at €9, is a damn sight cheaper.
The Languedoc is a picnicker’s paradise, and there are plenty of places to take that wine and put it to good use. The landscape is varied and spectacular in equal measure: from burnt red sands, to snow-crested mountains, to brochure-blue seas. The geography is ever-changing: in the north, it’s Dartmoor (without the ramblers, prisons or poor weather); on the south-east coast, it’s St Tropez without the plastic surgery; and in the old, walled town at Carcassonne, you get the history and charm of a town like Bruges, but without having to put up with the Belgians.
Carcassonne is shrouded in history and mystery, including conspiracy theories about Templar nobility brought into contemporary notoriety by Kate Mosse’s inexplicably best-selling novel, Labyrinth. There are a host of peaceful seaside getaways too: Collioure is particularly appealing – a French St Ives where tea and pasties have been replaced with sangria and tapas, thanks to its proximity to the Spanish border. And of course you have charming pastoral towns such as Hérépian, which offer an arcadian escape from City life.
So there you have it: the countryside, the seaside and the cities of Languedoc-Roussillon. Une trinité sainte, indeed.
Oh, and did I mention the wine?
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