Cassoulet & Carignan

CassouletA steaming bowl of Cassoulet is brought to our table by Bridget who made it in her bijou restaurant that was once the school in this tiny Languedoc village. We are sitting in the old school room that still has the blackboard but instead of the lesson it displays todays menu. But we take no heed of that for as usual I have ordered Bridget’s delicious Cassoulet for my clients who have signed up for the Saint-Chinian & Minerve vineyard tour. The comforting white bean stew cooked in a garlicky sauce comes in a terracotta Cassoulet and hidden inside is the preserved duck, duck confit as it’s called here. Dotted around are succulent sausages and sprinkled on top are the breadcrumbs baked to a delicious crunch. Its rich and hearty peasant food and its like has fed the people of the Languedoc for centuries and today my customers are tucking in with gusto.

For this dish you need a wine that will help you digest and keep you refreshed soLo Vielh that you can enjoy every last morsel without becoming too full.  You need a wine that is not too heavy but has sufficient flavour intensity so that it isn’t overwhelmed by this hefty meal. I choose Carignan, one of my favourite grape varieties and the signature grape of Languedoc. The Carignan of choice at L’Auberge du Ecole is made just across the road at Clos du Gravillas. It’s called Lo Vièlh, meaning the Old One in Occitan which was the language spoken here in days gone by. The vines were planted in 1911 on the incredibly stony limestone plateau here in the village of Saint-Jean-de-Minerve and they are still going strong. The wine is enticing, full of charm, style and grace and so fresh that it seems to have mystical powers when paired with Bridget’s Cassoulet. The marriage of these two Languedoc oldies is a convivial one and nothing can come closer to perfection.

My love affair with Languedoc began over 20 years ago. We flirted a lot and had some lovely weekends and eventually I capitulated and moved in. My job as a wine teacher was a great apprenticeship for becoming a wine tour guide and my new French life began in 2009 when I started my aptly named business Vin en Vacances. Wine on holiday is exactly what my clients want and they come from all over the world to this part of paradise and luckily many have found me and my tours. It’s a wonderful way of making my living..!

Deciding to specialise in Languedoc-Rousillon wines is like trying to learn a new language and I had to do both. Like the French language, Languedoc was full of words that I didn’t really understand but unlike the French language I could not find any books that explained and uncovered the wine region in a simple and easy to access way. Over the years and through the close connections I made with many winemakers I gathered knowledge and understanding and slowly the jigsaw puzzle began to slot into place. My search for a book that would guide me through this wine country had been in vain and surely I wasn’t the only person seeking such a book? I have a number of passions in my life including Languedoc-Rousillon, wine and food and another is sharing my wine knowledge and bringing the subject alive for others. So I decided to write this longed for book myself and ‘The Wines of the Languedoc-Rousillon’ by Wendy Gedney is released this week. The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon

The book tells the story of the wines of this region, describes the landscape and the terroirs and how they influence the wine styles in every appellation here. It traces the path of Vin de Pays, its importance here and how many Languedoc producers have embraced this liberating approach in order to create some of the finest wines in the region. I have not dwelled on specific wine makers; I feel that is the exciting part to discover for ourselves. I love nothing more than coming across a wine that is not famed and may have been made somewhere off the beaten track but I fall in love at first sip. This book is the structure of Languedoc-Rousillon, the ‘map’, the guide that I hope you will read and take with you on your Languedoc-Rousillon travels to help you seek out incredible wines, landscapes, food and people. And to satisfy your appetite and accompany a good bottle of Carignan, the book contains Bridget’s marvellous Cassoulet recipe and you’ll find it on page 135. Bon appetite..!

To own your copy of my book which costs £20 either email me at wendy@vinenvacances.com 

Open Doors in Jurançon

It was back in April this year that Frederick of Hotel d’Alibert in Caunes-Minervois asked me if I would like to go to Jurançon in November which seemed a long way off. I would normally have said I’d let him know nearer the time but in his lovely French accent he said ‘I will ask you only once’ and so I was persuaded and would join a group of people helping Frederick and his friends to serve a feast.

Chateau Henri IVOur group was made up of Frederick affectionately dubbed Fredo, myself, Canadian friends Susan and Jay, chef Jean-Pierre and Tony and his two sons Michael and David who kept us all laughing with their antics and exaggerated pronunciation of the Pau accent which rolls the R’s a great deal. The eight of us set off in early December heading for the beautiful town of Pau in southwest France majestically located at the foot of the Pyrenees.

We were heading for the restaurant Au Fin Gourmet owned by the Thurriague 1[1]family who are great friends of Fredericks. This wonderful restaurant has 2 sides to it, the fine dining where sumptuous meals are served and a typically French bistro recently added to serve less leisurely diners. It is run by the 3 brothers supported by other members and it was originally started in 1958 by their parents. We were very warmly welcomed and housed by the family and treated to some wonderful diners and lunches to repay us for our hard work serving the feast that they were to cook on Sunday.

Dinner that night began with a creamy courgette soup which sounds simple but the flavours were wonderful. The main course was Boudin which is called black pudding in the UK but our version is nothing like the Au Fin Gourmet offering. It was a filo pastry wrapped parcel of deeply rich and tasty Boudin surrounded by baked apple slices and there was a hushed silence at the table as everyone tucked in. Dinner was accompanied by some exceptional wines of the region including an Irouleguy made by Domaine Abotia which and is made from 65% of the local Tannat grape blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It was a rustic wine with black fruit flavours with hints of coffee and leather and went perfectly with the meal.

On Sunday the vignerons of Jurançon would be opening their doors to the public pict01[1]and our mission which we chose to accept was to prepare the tables for 150 people to feast at Domaine Bordenave. Saturday dawned cold and wet but cheered with coffee and croissants we headed for the Jurançon region which is south of Pau and encompasses the little town of Jurançon and many villages surrounding it. It’s a small appellation made up of 63 wine makers so when you compare that to Languedocs 3,500 it’s quite tiny. As we drove south we got closer to the mountains which reared up above us with breathtaking snowcapped peaks.

Once there we set to and organized the dining room and once the work was donedomaine-cauhape[1] we were free to indulge our senses with some wine tasting and I was intrigued to see where we might go. My French is still not very good but as I listened to Frederick chatting about the region I picked up a name in the conversation that I knew very well. Didier Dagueneau, that wild man of Pouilly Fumé who tragically died in 2008 aged just 52. I turned to Fredrick and asked had he mentioned the name Didier Dagueneau and if so why? Just before his death along with wine maker Guy Pautrat he had purchased a tiny vineyard here in Jurançon called Les Jardins de Babylone and its now ran by Guy and Didier’s son. It is not open for tastings and was not taking part in the Porte Ouverte  weekend but with the help of Giselle Bordenave we secured a visit and a tasting.

We were welcomed by Guy Pautrat himself who gave us a tour of the immaculate winery and talked about the winemaking as we gazed out at the steeply sloping terraces of vines that give the reason the domaine is named after the Hanging Gardens of Babylone.

In Vino 13We tasted both the dry and the sweet wines from the tank and from the barrel before moving to the matured and bottled wines of this biodynamic producer. All fulfilled my expectation and in fact exceeded it in many cases. The dry was interesting and although I am not a fan of the dry wines from this region this one was good but the one that stole my heart was the 2003 vintage of the sweet Jurançon. It was a great honour to taste this wine which was the first they made and this hot vintage had probably created a Jurançon ‘not as we know it!’ Honey, apricots, grapefruit, clementine’s, crème brûlée – the list of fabulous flavours go on and on just as they lingered in my mouth. Fantastic wine, ten out of 10 for me as was the experience of visiting a legendary wine maker whose presence was still felt here.

The day of the Porte Ouverte dawned and with it came clear blue skies and people turned out in their hundreds. There are 63 domaines in the Jurançon appellation and over 40 were taking part today and people arrived in cars and buses from every corner of the region. We reported for duty and whilst we waited for our work to begin I wandered around the stalls that had been set up to sell local produce of cheeses, ham, foie gras and other delicious delicacies. I had not expected the music in fact I don’t think I had ever heard of Basque music which evoked nostalgic sentiment but also the sort of gaiety you feel when singing around a camp fire. It was rousing and beautiful.

The hustle and bustle of the day continued and we were all rather tired after terres-de-memoire-jurancon-moelleux-2008[1]serving the many courses to the hungry hoards but we still had enough energy to join the crowds and go wine tasting at some of the other domaines that had flung open their doors that day. The standard of wine making was high which is very fitting for a wine that legend says was used to anoint the future King Henry IV in 1553. It is also an area that lays claim to have created the concept of ‘cru’, the official French term used to indicate superior vineyards.

Jurançon wines are famed for their sweetness although a dry version is also made which I find very sour and acidic in most cases. The grapes used to make these wines are Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng and Petit Courbu and small amounts of Camaralet and Lauzet – possibly grapes you have never heard of..! The sweet wines are produced in two styles; moelleux which is sweet but with high acidity and are drank here as an aperitif and Vendange Tardive which is made from late harvested grapes and is sweeter and can be enjoyed with deserts.

After the tastings we returned to Domaine Bordenave to enjoy Cassoulet de Jean-Pierre which he had prepared the day before. So a little reminder of Languedoc sent us on our way with wonderful memories of the weekend, the wines of Jurançon and the wonderful hospitality of our friends at Au Fin Gourmet

Our Friends From The North.

Changeable, unsettled weather protracted this year’s harvest in Languedoc and some wineries had been reluctant to host even small tours let alone a group of 25 Danes! However, we are ever resourceful and in September we hosted Vin Club Grand Cru for a two day tour taking in Malepère, Limoux, and the Corbières.

Our convoy of 4 vehicles driven by myself, Kate, Didier and Roy wound its way to our first stop which was at Domaine Gayda. With the help of several members of the Danish party who spoke great English and Veronica who runs the tasting room at Gayda the entire party enjoyed a guided tour through the vines, the winery and the cellar room.  Having worked up a thirst we assembled the group for a tasting of 6 of Gayda’s wines. The tasting was led by Tim Ford, Gayda’s MD and included two of my favorites. Chemin du Moscou is the top red of the domaine and named after their address. It is a deep, brooding Syrah accompanied by some Grenache and a tiny bit of Cinsault and I think the 2010 is the best vintage yet. It has tremendous freshness which helps belie the body of this wine. My second favorite is the sweet Chenin Blanc made from botrytis affected grapes. Its balance is excellent and the flavours of honey, caramelized pears and apricots make it a perfect match for blue cheese. I need to stock up as they have not been able to make it this year due to no botrytis in the vineyard.

Lunch followed the tasting naturally taken in Domaine Gayda’s restaurant – a foie gras entree for many of the group!

After lunch, we moved on to Limoux, home of Blanquette and to the fabulously equipped tasting room of Sieur d’Arques.  There aren’t many venues capable of hosting a group of 25 and remaining open to the public but Sieur d’Arques managed it seamlessly. Having travelled by air, and therefore were unable to transport wine home, our clients purchased what they felt they could consume that evening and we delivered them back to their hotel.

Day two and the Corbières. Our first appointment was in the Boutenac terroir at Château Ollieux Romanis.  Aside from the historical charm of the property, Château Ollieux Romanis has a number of donkeys including a baby which was barely two weeks old and they all seemed to want to join our party much to the amusement of our Danish friends!

We enjoyed a tour of the winery and a walk in the vines before joining Carlos who had arranged a wonderful setting for our tasting and our lunch. The gardens at the Domaine have beautiful, uninterrupted views of the Corbières and despite a slightly chilly day the al fresco tasting and sit down picnic were a huge success.  The food was delicious and was accompanied by a range of the Château’s Corbières wines including my favorite Atal Sia. The name in Occitan means ‘let it be’ and isn’t a nod to The Beatles but refers to the wine being grown and made with little intervention. The purity of the fruit and the minerality of the Boutenac terroir shines through unhindered by oak or clever assemblage. In fact the grapes are all fermented together in the same vat.   The wines and food were delicious and at the end of the lunch the entire party burst into song, appropriately enough a folk tale about donkeys and grapes and how they really ought to drink water instead… you couldn’t make it up!

Our last stop on this tour was to a great friend, the completely inspirational Veronique Robin Cuculiere of Domaine Mingraut. Having finished harvesting Grenache a scant 20 minutes before our arrival, Veronique had set up a table and chairs outside for our group. Before embarking on a tasting of her finished wines in bottle she took the entire party into the winery where she had them all tasting from barrel! It was very interesting to taste the partly fermented wines and see and hear the juice transforming into wine in her cellar. We emerged from the depths of the winery, blinking into the sunshine, which had finally arrived, our clients sat around the table and sampled Veronique’s wonderful wines. Relaxed, happy, and chatting amongst themselves our Danish friends gave us a toast… Skol!

The Roussillon Discovery Weekend

Last year I was asked by a dear friend and long standing student of wine if I would arrange a weekend tour to the Roussillon to celebrate his very special birthday.  The distances involved from my base in the Minervois meant that this would have to take the form of a residential tour based closer to the wineries we wanted to visit. The tour was advertised on my web site and I was thrilled when the numbers were sufficient for the tour to go ahead.

So it was with great anticipation that six like-minded clients, myself and Kate my right hand woman and expert cook spent an amazing 4 days based in the village of Alenya close to Perpignan.  I had rented a spacious Catalonian Mas (farmhouse) and with Kate’s expert work in the kitchen I had been able to offer the tour on a fully inclusive basis. Lunch was taken either at a winery or in a local restaurant and in the evening Kate created some excellent dining based on local and seasonal produce.

The 4 day tour started with an afternoon in the entertaining and hospitable company of winemakers Corin and Jayne Fairchild of Domaine Vella Fronterra in the village of Maury who hosted lunch and gave a tour around their winery and tasting of their wines.  After lunch, but still in Maury, we paid a visit to Thunevin-Calvert’s  state of the art eco winery, where we discovered a truly charming Grenache Gris they’ve dubbed L’Amourette. We were in the thick of it as grapes had just been harvested and we saw the production taking place including the sorting table exhibiting their commitment to quality.

Back at the Mas and after settling into our rooms and taking a quick dip in the pool we took an apéro on the terrace surrounded by olive groves and with the Pyrénées silhouetted in the distance. Supper of duck confit with crispy roast potatoes and crunchy green beans afforded us the chance to pair our meal with Vella Frontera’s sumptuous syrah and the chocolate fondant pudding called for us to try the Maury, the sweet Grenache based wine that we had purchased that day. It was all delicious.

The next day after a leisurely French breakfast of fresh bread and croissants we headed south, today’s agenda was AOC Banyuls and Collioure. We had made our appointment to visit La Rectorie in Banyuls, some months earlier; with charming wife of Pierre Parcé and truthfully, this was one of the best, most enchanting and most generous tastings we have ever experienced. Pierre greeted us at the door and swept us through the Maison de Maitre which is not only their home but a gallery displaying his photography as well as serving as a tasting room and settled our group around an immense old oak table. Then he simply started to talk. He regaled us with the history not only of the region but of his family’s connection to it. His fierce love of the business, their wines and their patrimony that is woven into everything the family creates. You hardly needed to taste the wines to know that they were going to be personal, intricate and steeped in generational pride as well as being delicious. We all learnt a lot and the complexity and confusion surrounding the AOC within Banyuls and Collioure melted away.
Full tasting notes were taken, but suffice it to say that the opening wine of the extensive flight was simply stunning – L’argile, a white produced by tri seléctif of Grenache Blanc and Gris and the rest of the flight hardly disappointed !

We reluctantly took our leave and headed for the restaurant Al Fanal at the far end of the port in Banyuls where we enjoyed a superb lunch accompanied with local wines then we set off for Collioure. This seaside village about 20 minutes along the coast from Banyuls is famed by artists for its wonderful light, and famed by food enthusiasts as a mecca for anchovies!

Keen to enjoy the delights of our Mas, we returned home where those who fancied a dip in the pool or a quick nap before supper had the chance to enjoy a little down time before we returned to the table. This time we ate al fresco on the terrace. The beef bourguignon that Kate had set to slow cook whilst we were out was comforting and tasty and the wine and conversation flowed in equal measure.

Our third day in The Roussillon took us to the wonderful Domaine des Chénes in the village of Vingrau where the charismatic owner, winemaker and wine teacher, Alain Razungles hosted a tour and tasting which we were still talking about the next day – for all the right reasons !  His appellation Côtes du Roussillon Tautavel wines are superb and his commentary was priceless.

Lunch was at Chateau de Jau, a restaurant famed for once hosting French Premier Valerie Giscard d’Estaing.  It’s always a great sign to find locals enjoying the food and ambience of a restaurant and this didn’t disappoint. Lunch was leisurely, the food very much ‘home style’ and paired with wines from the Estate and it would be hard to criticize the charm and authenticity of the venue.

And so we had reached our last night in Alenya, our home from home for the past few days. Kate had rustled up a superb dish of garlic and tarragon roasted chicken accompanied by my favorite roasted potatoes, golden and crispy from duck fat plus an immense ratatouille and Vichy carrots. We had been saving the groups favorite wine of the tour for this final dinner – the magnum of L’Argile from La Rectorie, a surprise gift from the wonderful Pierre Parcé. Thank you Pierre.

The next day, hard as it was to believe that we were reaching the end of the tour we breakfasted, packed our belongings and prepared to head off for our final vineyard visit at Chateau Corneilla, home of the owners of our Mas! The Jonquieres d’Oriola family home is a feudal castle built to emulate a miniature Le Palais des Rois de Majorques in Perpignan and constructed in the 13th Century. We all felt immensely privileged to
be hosted in such an awe inspiring setting. Guilhem, the winemaker and son of M and Mme Jonquieres d’Oriola offered us an astonishing tasting finished off with a visit to his own private cellar. Long ago in the history of the château a well had been built to capture and hold the rainwater from the roof and elsewhere. Today it is home to Guilhem’s private wine collection and we each took turns to climb down the ladder and admire the contents.

Wonderful clients, amazing wineries, delicious food, perfect setting. Could we be tempted to do it all again? You can count on it!

A Celebration To Savour.

In early September, Vin en Vacances was asked to arrange a 60th birthday celebration of some magnitude. The birthday girl had assembled 22 members of family and friends in Carcassonne and wanted to share her special day with wine tasting, sightseeing and enjoying a very special French lunch.

Now 22 people is a significant size group to transport, so we arranged three vehicles to collect our clients from the Hotel Montmorency, close to medieval La Cité in Carcassonne. Once ready, we set off for the hills surrounding the village of Félines-Minervois for a walk through the vines where Wendy gave short talk about the region and the wines to set the scene for the day.

Getting ready for harvest in Felines Minervois

From Félines-Minervois we travelled just a few kilometers to Rieux-Minervois and the winery of Emmanuel de Soos at Château de Rieux. Wendy gave everyone a tour of Emmanuel’s beautiful and traditional winery followed by a tasting of his lovely wines. Then it was time for the picnic arranged by the superb caterers based in the village of Caunes-Minervois called A Taste of Caunes. (http://www.atasteofcaunes.com/)

Linda & Alison of ‘ A Taste of Caunes’

Wendy had bought some lovely goats cheeses the day before whilst touring the Corbières and also some honey from that region and Linda Wearn and Alison Mugford, of A Taste of Caunes had created a delicious birthday cake to make the lunch extra special.

Replete and happy, we took the group up to the gorgeous village of Minerve where a short stroll through one of the prettiest villages in the Minervois sharpened up everyone’s appetite for some more delicious wine!

Heading down from Minerve back towards the Aude plain, we arrived in the Cru of La Livinière, where we sampled the wines of L’Ostal Cazes. The winery, owned by the renowned Bordeaux house of Lynch Bages laid on a splendid tasting, supplemented with charcuterie, bread and the domaine’ s own olive oil.

L’Ostal Cazes Winery

Sated, and in fine spirits, we drove back to Carcassonne through the beautiful Minervois countryside.

Birthday memories that we hope will last a long, long time.

Chateau Combebelle – Daring To Live The St Chinian Dream

Château Combebelle – Daring to live the Saint Chinian Dream.

 

Ask most little girls what they want to be when they grow up, and I’ll wager a fair few say ‘a vet’ or ‘a nurse’ or even ‘an air stewardess’. But Catherine Wallace had dreams way above the common or garden expectation! Wine was where it was ‘at’ and that’s where she aimed.

 

Her apprenticeship was served as, amongst other things, a wine buyer; but the drive to grow, and tend her own vines, and produce her own wine was what motivated her and her partner Patrick to acquire Chateau  Combebelle.

 

The vineyard could not be more enchanting. Perched on the top of a hill in the AOC of St Chinian, this organic and biodynamic winery epitomises what it is to truly love your terroir. Nestled in the garrigue that so typifies this region, and with views on a clear day that stretch to the mountain of Canigou and the Mediterranean, Combebelle is a delight from start to finish.

 

Everything from the vines themselves, through to the winery, the tasting room, and the wonderful gite that is available to rent; has the stamp of people who love what they do, and respect what they have. Catherine & Patrick produce white, rosé and red wines, and have an enviable distribution network throughout Europe and Canada.

 

Vin En Vacances dovetail our tours to Combebelle in order to coincide with St Chinian’s wonderful market on a Thursday and Sunday. Our clients love to wander the stalls and taste the produce especially the cheeses and many of them buy some to enjoy with a bottle of Chateau Combebelle wine back at their holiday home.Image

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Domaine Gayda – New Beginnings and Endless Possibilities

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Visit Gayda’s website

Domaine Gayda manages to encompass all that is ‘right’ about food and wine in France; wines from numerous vineyard parcels throughout the Languedoc Roussillon, a gourmet restaurant with unparalleled panoramic views, plus an outdoor kitchen/dining option for more relaxed dining, as well as stunning on site gites. Really, what more could you ask for ?

Back in 2006, I was attending a wine show in London, and somewhat by accident came across a stall without much wine, but with a stool and a video camera; they were looking for a ‘wine idol’, someone with whom the public could engage over all things oenological.

As more of a dare, than anything else, I had a go and recorded a piece to camera. Little did I know that behind this venture was Tim Ford, MD of Gayda. In the great British tradition -  the Public voted, and much to my surprise, I won, which resulted in an invitation to visit with Tim, his wife, Barbara, and the rest of the team, at Domaine Gayda.

The following year, I came back to Gayda, to work.  All the theory in the world counts for little until you’ve got your hands on the grapes and are working with them. Vincent, Gayda’s charming young winemaker and the rest of the team, made me feel included, one of the gang, and an integral part of that year’s harvest and production.

Tim asked me, after the harvest – Wendy, what do you want to do now ?

My answer was – I want to run wine tours in the Languedoc.

The View From The Restaurant

5 years on, that’s exactly what I do. Gayda still play an enormous role, allowing me access to the winery, full flight tastings, and superb lunches, and as importantly they still treat me like one of the team.

Chenin Blanc…..

Female Wine Makers in Languedoc-Roussillon

I first met Nicole Bojanowski about 6 years ago when I was searching for special vineyards to tour. I was immediately struck by her quiet and thoughtful approach to what she wanted to achieve. She had not been born into a wine making family but when working as an export manager for a cave cooperative she had caught the ‘wine making bug’ and sent herself off to college to learn how to make wine. After a few years of practising the art of wine making she and her husband John set about searching for the type of terroir that she was convinced would produce the sort of wine she wanted to make. Full bodied reds with freshness and elegance – hard to achieve in a Mediterranean climate. She found her vineyard in the village of St Jean de Minerve settled on the white limestone soils and so was born Clos du Gravillas. She makes a rather large range of wines from just 7.5 hectares but the mainstay of the range are her mineral, rich and complex white made from Grenache blanc, gris and Maccabeo and called L’Inattendu and the 100% Carignan called Lo Vièlh.

Katie Jones is becoming quite a star and it’s only been 3 years since she started making wine at her very small winery in the village of Tuchan called Domaine Jones. She had worked for many years at the cave cooperative in Tuchan in charge of sales & marketing in the UK but she felt the time had come for a change so she bought a tiny vineyard in the next valley and set about making white and red Grenache wines. The wines were very well received and both won medals and this success spurred her on to buy another vineyard this time in the appellation of Fitou. She was thrilled to find that the tiny patch of land contained the 3 grape varieties needed to make a Fitou. The grapes from this vineyard had always been sent to the cooperative where they were mixed with everyone else’s so no one had made wine from just this patch of land until Katie came along. The result is astounding – the wine won the gold medal at the International Wine Challenge this year.

I met Brigitte Chevalier of Domaine de Cébène at the beginning of June when I was asked to arrange a tour for some clients staying near to the Faugeres appellation. Her profile fitted the bill perfectly as I like to introduce people to hand crafted wines grown on interesting terroir, usually fairly small production and with a wine maker who has passion for quality at the heart of things. Brigitte came to the Languedoc in 2006 from Bordeaux where she had been an export manager for a wine merchant. I was bowled over by the way she has captured the purity of fruit in her wines. I particularly like the wine called Ex Arena which means “out of the sand” so named because it is grown on a 40 metre-deep bed of sea sediment. It’s mainly made from old vine Grenache grown outside of the Faugeres appellation and is beautifully perfumed and is full of fruit with flavours of cherries and spice. I also loved her Mourvèdre grown on the famous schist of Faugeres and I am yet to taste her 100% Carignan – I can’t wait…

Véronique Robin-Cuculière of Domaine de Mingraut farms 7 hectares organically in the Corbières appellation. She was not born in the Languedoc and neither is she from a winemaking background. I admire the approach she adopts to making her wine as she is not at all prescriptive.  Each year she works with what the land and the weather has given her and therefore some of her wines are not repeated. One of my favourite wines is named Chardon Bleu and is made from 100% chardonnay which is matured in barrels. The oak is perfectly integrated and does not over-whelm the fruit providing a wine with flavours of ripe melon and peach wrapped in vanilla and a little cream. I had it with very garlicky roast chicken and it was superb. I also like Cuvée DM made from 100% Syrah aged in 3rd use oak barrels. It’s aromatic and full bodied with flavour of black fruits, pepper and the ripe tannins give it excellent aging potential – if you can keep your hands off it…!

Now for the exciting bit…! Through the Imbibers Society we have arranged for all these woman to be in the same room on July 12th to provide us all with a wonderful tasting of their wines. The tasting is taking place in Caunes-Minervois in the Languedoc and all are very welcome to come and meet these amazing women and taste their equally amazing wines. I hope you will be able to make it – for more details take a look at The Imbibers Society web site.

Last bastion of peace in the South of France

‘Where are all the people? ‘ is the question I am asked almost every time I run a vineyard tour in the Languedoc-Roussillon. It’s so quiet and not at all touristy with no traffic jams and sleepy little villages. It’s like stepping back into the 1950’s with shops closing long hours for lunch and never open on a Sunday. Its takes some getting used to but this pace of life is so good for the soul. It gives you time to take stock, to listen to the birds, enjoy the sunshine, walk amongst the vines and just chill…

I spend 7 months of the year in the village of Caunes-Minervois located at the foot
of the Montagne Noir in the department of the Aude. It’s a lively village in comparison to some in the area and you will find almost everything you need here. A good meal at one of the eating places such Hotel d’Alibert with its renaissance courtyard or perhaps just a beer and a sandwich at the local bar. Many of the ancient buildings are related to the abbey which stands in the centre of the village and here in July classical concerts are performed every Friday.

Close by is the village of La Livinière with its beautiful domed church tower. The village is not only one of the prettiest in the area it also gives its name to the cru wine ‘Minervois La Livinière’ which is a rich, complex and elegant red wine grown on the limestone and clay of the region. I recently joined some friends on a walk in the hills to the west of the village where we discovered some very impressive dry stone walls built to stem erosion caused by strong winds and rain storms. We also saw a great many capitells which are stone huts built by wine growers in previous centuries to store implements and to take shelter during storms.

I can’t talk about the villages of the Languedoc without mentioning the village of Minerve which is in the Hérault département. The village’s antiquity is evident from its name for a temple to the goddess Minerva once occupied the site. In 1210 during the Cathar Crusades, Simon de Montfort held a 10 week siege at Minerve to capture a group of Cathars who had taken refuge there after the massacre of Béziers. The village was protected by a double curtain wall, and overhanging natural ledges; but this did not stop Simon de Montfort’s crusader army. They set up four catapults around the fortification; three to attack the village, and the largest, called Malevoisine (“Bad Neighbour”), to attack the town’s water supply. Lord Guilhem of Minerve and the 200 men of his garrison could not resist for long and Minerve was surrendered to the Crusaders on 22 July 1210. The defensive walls were breached by St Rustique’s well, and Guilhem was obliged to negotiate the town’s surrender. He saved the villagers but he could not save the Cathars and some 150 to 180 Cathars were burned alive when they refused to recant their faith. A sad history but still I love to visit the village and walk across the limestone causse that surrounds it. I also visit the neighbouring village of La Caunette which also dates to before the Cathar crusade and was once a fortified village as can be seen by the entry gate which dates back to the 13th century.
These days its main attraction is an annual fête to celebrate the orange and other fruits. It’s called the Fête de la Bigarade – Bigarade is another name for the Seville Orange.

There are so many beautiful villages here and I revel in the fact that they are so quiet and undisturbed by tourism at the moment. I hope I have tempted you to come and see this last bastion of solitude and peace in the South of France.

Fizz, Food and Fine Wine at Rives Blanque

I first visited Jan and Caryl Panman owners of Château Rives Blanques in 2009 the week I arrived in Languedoc-Roussillon to begin my vineyard tour enterprise. I have bumped into them a few times since but had not re-visited the château until yesterday when I popped along with Rachel and Anthony Pinwell of luxury B&B Maison Laurent who were keen to try the wines as they are always updating their wine list with local wines. The 3 of us regularly work together running food & wine pairing dinners at their delightful chambres d’hotes in Pieusse near Limoux. The snow covered Pyrenees where glinting majestically as I drove over to the area and then up the long twisting lane to be greeted by Caryl who had been working hard on the assemblage of the wines before bottling next week. Blending the wine is a crucial part of the process and although enjoyable it is quite tiring and a little stressful.  The Penmans produce top class Limoux wines focussing on the sparkling and the still whites of the appellation plus a little Vin du Pays and Caryl treated us to a superb tasting of everything that was available. The sparkling wines were elegant and interesting and I particularly enjoyed the rosé Cremant du Limoux stained a pretty pink using 5% of Pinot Noir and with a nose of strawberry ice-cream. The sparkling and still whites of this region are made from Mauzac, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with Mauzac being the local grape which Caryl is a huge fan off. The still wines of the appellation must be handpicked and barrel fermented and many producers major on Chardonnay and Chenin blanc for this role however Caryl has been innovative and also produces a 100% Mauzac wine which she did for the first time some years ago.  At first it seemed to be a dismal failure as hardly any sold in the first year of production but Tom Stevenson picked it up, liked it and wrote about it and then one day the top French wine magazine of Le Revue du Vin de France featured it on the front page and the rest is history. The wine has since won the Great Gold Medal of Languedoc-Roussillon. The wine is fermented in old oak barrels so the oak is not dominant and the wine has flavours of apples, pears and a little honey and spice and has a restrained richness and a fabulous dry finish that I think will make it a good food wine. Anthony is planning to experiment with various dishes to find a perfect match for out next food & wine dinner at Maison Laurent. You can buy the wine from the Château at €11.25 a bottle or €10 for a case of 6 and it is available to buy in many countries around the world including the UK at Tanners amongst others.

All the wines were wonderful but always with an eye for the unusual I was drawn to the Sauvignon Blanc which has been dubbed Sauvageon which means ‘the wild one’ named by local people in the south west of France when this grape grew wild on the hillsides a few hundred years ago. I was curious as to why they had named it this and not plain Sauvignon Blanc which is so popular at the moment? The answer came…. the wine spends 7 months maturing in oak barrels which gives it an entirely different character to a typical Sav Blanc such as a Sancerre or a Marlborough. It is richer than a Loire wine but not as tropical and vivacious as a New Zealand Sauvignon. Most of the herbaceous character has gone but you still get the gooseberry flavours which are ripe and tangy. We had it tonight with our meal which my chef friend Kate described as a ‘picnic’ as we enjoyed spicey Asian foods combined with home cured salmon followed by local goats cheeses. With the salmon is was delectable, it worked well with the prawn dumplings but lacked a little something with the pickled ginger and the heat of the chilli. But what a fabulous find it is. Kate had plucked a long forgotten Loire Chenin from the wine rack last night and we decided to finish it and compare it with the Sauvignon which might have been a little unfair – but actually they proved to be an equal team. Each one was a star with different elements of the meal. Rejoice the white wine of France..!

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