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France's Hot South | The Languedoc

The Languedoc attracts travelers with its medieval towns and Mediterranean views. Now it's luring maverick winemakers priced out of Burgundy and Bordeaux who are turning the region into one of France's hottest winemaking zones.

I'm having lunch at Les Vins de L'Horloge in Montpeyroux, a village in France's sunbaked Languedoc region. Joining me are two local winemakers, Sylvain Fadat and Charles Giner, and a Languedoc-mad wine merchant from Paris named Juan Sánchez. There are about eight open bottles of wine on the table. Fadat's are big, a bit rough. Giner's are softer and gentler. I pace myself, but my companions devour everything—tuna tartare, grilled sardines and onions, steaks and the best french fries I've ever eaten—while Fadat, the most outspoken member of the group, expounds on topics from wine cooperatives ("Obsolete!") to the green tomatoes he tasted on a recent trip to Spain.

My purpose in visiting the Languedoc was to meet mavericks like Fadat, who grew white asparagus and Cavaillon melons before he turned to wine grapes at Domaine d'Aupilhac, and Giner, who worked at IBM before founding Domaine Saint Andrieu. These pioneers helped transform the Languedoc from a source of mass-produced wines into one of France's most dynamic regions. I also wanted to check out the Languedoc's best chefs and food artisans and explore a place that so perfectly blends history, natural beauty and Mediterranean heat.

My guide would be Sánchez, the 38-year-old Cuban-American owner of the shop La Dernière Goutte, who champions smaller, experimental winemakers. "The Parisians wouldn't drink Languedoc wines when I first started selling them in 1993. They'd come into my shop and ask for Bordeaux, and I'd give them a Minervois from the Languedoc. They all thought I was crazy," he recalls. Today a quarter of his shop's wines are from the Languedoc, and they're his best sellers.

When I picked Sánchez up at the Perpignan train station in my rented Citroën for our four-day adventure, he gave me some background on the wines of the Languedoc—technically, the Languedoc-Roussillon, since the Languedoc includes the Roussillon area directly to its south. Following the curve of the Mediterranean from the Pyrenees at the Spanish border up and around to Nîmes, the Languedoc has historically been a region apart, stubbornly clinging to its ancient Catalan roots, customs, dialect—and slapdash winemaking. With over half a million acres, the Languedoc is the largest wine-growing region in France, and for decades its cut-rate vin de table wines were considered among France's worst.

That was before adventurous but cash-strapped winemakers, who couldn't afford land in Bordeaux or Burgundy, discovered the great potential (and affordability) of the Languedoc, where the terroir offers a combination of arid soil and hot Mediterranean sun that's perfect for Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Syrah grapes. These produce deeply colored red wines with low acidity, high alcohol and lots of jamminess.

The winemakers were followed by cheesemakers, organic-produce growers and serious chefs and restaurateurs. Parisians looking for the "next" place for a second home and artists looking for cheap lodging bought up old houses. The British and Dutch followed. Real estate prices went up. And the wines kept getting better.

COLLIOURE AND BANYULS

From Perpignan, the unofficial capital of French Catalonia, Sánchez and I head south along the Mediterranean, the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance. We fall into easy conversation. Along with his wine shop, Sánchez is the co-owner of Fish, a popular wine bar and restaurant with a market-based, southern Mediterranean menu and an extensive wine list that is 80 percent from the Languedoc. Somehow, he also finds the time to play the drums in a rock band, The Burps, which performs in some very odd venues, including, once, a nuclear power plant.

Our destination is Collioure. But we're so engrossed in conversation that, when we look up to check the road signs, we discover that we've crossed over into Spain. We turn around and head back.

Only a few miles north of the border, Collioure is a lovely seaside town that once attracted painters like Matisse, Derain and Picasso. Nowadays, along with neighboring Banyuls and Port-Vendres, it attracts, in July and August, busloads and boatloads of tourists. Off-season, though, it's ridiculously picturesque, hugging the coast where the last big bumps of the Pyrenees spill right into the sea. All the roads are winding, and around every bend there's a breathtaking view of the sea and vertiginously steep hillsides covered with vines.

Back when the artists hung out in Collioure, they did their drinking at Les Templiers, a hotel and bar where the walls are still hung with paintings (lesser ones) from that era. It's here that we meet Sánchez's friend, Christine Campadieu, a third-generation winemaker who grew up in Banyuls. She married a local Collioure boy, Vincent Cantie, also a third-generation winemaker. Together they started Domaine La Tour Vieille.

We sit outside. The French army commandos have a base here, and while we drink our coffees, a platoon in camouflage gear runs in and out of the water, inflating combat rafts. "One never gets bored in Collioure," Campadieu remarks.

After our coffees, we go around the corner to their shop and tasting room. From their 30 acres Campadieu and her husband produce seven wines, including their Collioure Puig Ambeille, a lusciously fruity and velvety blend of Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre. "You see the softness in their wines, compared to other Roussillon wines," Sánchez remarks. "Collioure wines have more freshness, more acidity, because the vineyards are very close to the sea."

Banyuls is famous for its fortified aperitif wines. Campadieu opens a bottle of their Vin de Méditation, made from Grenache wine aged for 40 years. Even a small taste is like being washed over by a warm wave.

In her battered, secondhand station wagon, Campadieu takes us to see some of their vineyard, which is awkwardly broken up into 16 parcels spread over three villages. She drives us high up onto the mountain and pulls off the road near a tiny, whitewashed chapel. There's a rustling in the brush, and a half-naked man and woman come strolling out, ignoring us. Campadieu shrugs. "This is France, you know."

The view is spectacular: mountains and sea. We scramble down the precipitous slope to a parcel Campadieu and Cantie have just planted. The ground is too rocky and the angle too steep for machines, so they do everything by hand. I can't imagine anyone growing anything here. Yet there are rows and rows of young Grenache vines, which grow well in arid, windy conditions—though not without some attrition. Campadieu gathers up broken vines from the ground. "Vincent will be upset. It happens every year with the strong June winds. We call it 'the first harvest.'"

From the mountaintop, Campadieu drives us down into a deep, narrow canyon, where Nathalie Herre and her 14-year-old son, Adrien, live and make vinegar in a setting of bamboo, cactus and olive trees.

Using local wine, Herre started making her La Guinelle artisanal vinegars five years ago with just four oak barrels. Since then she's gotten national attention, and the barrels have multiplied. But it's still a one-woman (and son) operation. "It's very work-intensive and requires a lot of patience," she says, leading us past a row of glass bottles sitting in the sun. Inside each bottle, suspended above the vinegar, cinnamon and cloves hang in cloth sacks—never touching the liquid, but infusing it subtly with their scents.

In the shade next to the bottles are rows of oak barrels. Each has a "window" cut into its top, covered with a cloth. She pulls back the cloth on one and points to the film that forms on the aging vinegar. There's a Milky Way pattern in it. "It's like a work of art," she says.

CORBIÈRES

"You go to Bordeaux, and it's all flat plains, and they use machines," Sánchez says. "But down here you really have to have a passion for winemaking." We're still talking about Campadieu. (Sánchez admits to a crush.) We're heading northwest now, into the Corbières, driving through a deep gorge. To the north, I can see the silhouettes of ancient Cathar fortresses on the ridge tops. This is a region rich in turbulent political and religious history (then, as now, the two were unfortunately intertwined), with castle ruins, medieval abbeys and centuries-old villages dotting the landscape. Yet we rarely see another car.

One of the area's prettiest villages is Lagrasse, where in 1996, Christophe and Dominique Morellet (Christophe is the brother of Florent Morellet, who owns the restaurant Florent in New York City) bought a ruined old forge and turned it into La Fargo, a modest inn and restaurant surrounded by gardens and orchards. The Morellets spend their winters in Bali, where they buy furniture and fabric for their six guest rooms and where Christophe learns about techniques and ingredients to enhance his Mediterranean menu.

Today, when we stop by for lunch, Christophe is trying out a new recipe, fresh mackerel marinated in rice vinegar, lime juice and sugar. He's arranged the fillets on plates in four different patterns. "Which do you like best?" he asks. We choose the one Sánchez dubs the "chaos" pattern—the slices randomly flung around a puddle of soy and ginger cream sauce.

On the other side of Lagrasse, friends of the Morellets, first-generation wine growers Sophie Guiraudon and Philippe Mathias, have started Domaine de l'Anhel. Their first vintage was 2000. It is a small business, with just three red wines from only 17 acres. Philippe, who works full-time for another, big winemaker, designs the Domaine de l'Anhel labels and helps Sophie tend to the vines, their two children, a cat, a dog and two donkeys, Lili and Igor.

"When the acreage came up for sale, nobody wanted to buy it. Everybody said it was too small and the vines were no good," Sophie recalls. Everyone, of course, was wrong. One of their best wines is a fruity, complex blend of Carignan (the region's dominant grape) and Grenache. They've named it Clos de l'Anhel Les Dimanches because, not surprisingly, Sophie and Philippe work on Sundays.

When quality and modesty are the goals, everything seems possible in the Corbières—including a two-star Michelin restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Our dinner, at chef Gilles Goujon's Auberge du Vieux Puits in the tiny village of Fontjoncouse on the edge of a gorge, is our favorite of the trip.

Painted in earth tones, the restaurant's single room is high-ceilinged and spacious, and never seems crowded, even when it's full. Goujon's creamy asparagus risotto with a Parmesan foam pulls off the almost impossible: It's densely flavored while being shockingly light. The pigeon is as tender and meaty as the best beef. And the red mullet with a beet jus and citron confit is what I hope for in a great dish—unexpected combinations of flavors that seem preordained.

And then there's the cheese. On the menu, the trolley is referred to in French as a chariot. "Ocean liner" would be more appropriate. There are two of them actually, absurdly big, and they sail through the restaurant, bearing their cargo of cheeses from around the Languedoc. I stop counting at 25.

MINERVOIS

The next day we head into the Minervois, northeast of medieval, walled Carcassonne, the region's most famous tourist destination and a must for history junkies. We passed it up in favor of Domaine Piccinini in La Livinière.

"A man started building a wine cellar here in 1938," says winemaker Jean-Christopher Piccinini. "Unfortunately, he got a gift of lead in his head from the Germans. So the place sat unused until 1990, when I bought it," he says. A garrulous young man with a scruffy goatee, Piccinini is the great-grandson of an Italian immigrant who came to the Pyrenees to work in the stone quarries. Piccinini's father was president of the wine cooperative here in La Livinière. "But I'm not very cooperative," he says.

Piccinini has a comfortable tasting area. Today though, as we follow him through his cellar, which is in an old château that was once part of the town's fortification, he offers us tastes from bottles, from barrels and from tanks. The wine, even young, is easy drinking, softer and lighter than the wines we tasted in the Corbières.

"The Corbières' landscape is rougher and masculine, and so are its wines," Sánchez says. "The Minervois's landscape is more feminine, so its wines are softer. Lots of Syrah, less tannin, a little acidity. They're very elegant."

MONTPELLIER

We end our trip at Le Jardin des Sens, Montpellier's most famous restaurant and hotel on a surprisingly drab street outside the city center. The guest rooms, designed by Bruno Borsione, a Philippe Starck protégé, are luxurious, though aggressively decorated: Mine has a fake-fur wall and bad art. But the real reason we're here is the stunning restaurant run by the twin brothers Jacques and Laurent Pourcel. The high glass walls on three sides look out on lush, sunlit gardens. And though this is a Michelin three-star shrine, at lunchtime at least, people—French people, not American tourists—saunter in wearing shorts, jeans and flip-flops.

A troupe of tuxedoed waiters moves through the restaurant in what looks like choreographed postmodern dance. The food is so fresh that you can imagine the ingredients were rushed here in speeding trucks from the morning market. The Pourcel brothers like to experiment, and to share the process. Sánchez and I split a platter of lobster served in three different ways, including rolled up inside a rice wrapper. Sánchez tucks into a rack of lamb with rice croquettes, while I go for the wild mushrooms with Italian white truffles. Even the salad greens of baby spinach, beet greens and arugula come divided into three distinct piles, as if to say "We can't decide. You choose."

Sánchez is catching the train back to Paris after lunch, and I'm heading home also. While I begrudgingly give him half of my zucchini flowers stuffed with crawfish soufflé (sublime—it must be the truffle juice), we talk about the Languedoc.

"It won't appeal to everyone, the way Provence does. It's a rough, hard land," Sánchez says. "But the diverse landscape attracts diverse people. And that shows up in the wines." It's not a contest between Provence and Languedoc, I tell him, but for my taste—in land and people as well as wines—the Languedoc wins.

Alan Brown is a novelist and filmmaker based in New York City.

Published October 2004
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