Why Wine Lovers Are Drawn to This Tiny Region Near the Mediterranean Coast
Rhône river, like our Mississippi, divides the southern coast of France about equally into east and west. East leads to Provence and then the Riviera and eventually Italy; west, to Languedoc and then Roussillon and eventually Spain. Because more people have heard of Marseille, Saint-Tropez, and Monaco than have heard of Sète, Agde, and Collioure, the eastern half of the coast is blessed, and to an equal degree beset, by visitors and their money.
The western half, Languedoc-Roussillon—a narrow crescent of land that curls tight against the Gulf of Lion from the Spanish border to the Camargue—is not beset by money. Commercial fishing boats outnumber yachts. Tractors outnumber sports cars. Vines outnumber people.
Our family arrived here for a fall semester once, in a tiny rural village called Autignac that almost no one had ever heard of. Autignac is about half an hour north of a fairly major city—called Béziers—that, still, almost nobody had ever heard of. Then, we just kept coming back, year after year. To the same village. To the same rented house. To walk the same streets, among the same neighbors, some of whom became friends.
Some of what brings us back is obvious. There is sunshine. A difficult but inimitable cuisine. Good wine. And on a clear enough day, from high on one of the dark hills behind the village, you can see, due south, a shimmer at the far flat edge of the horizon that is the Mediterranean, sparkling in the sun.
Even so, this is not storybook Provence, not a flower-boxed, cobble-walled, museum piece of rural French just-rightness. Quite a lot about our attachment to it is not obvious at all—is a mystery, even. This is, after all, a story about love.
A good rule, if you plan to throw a dart at a map of France and then go live there for a while, and eventually fall in love with it, is to guide that dart toward a good wine appellation. Vineyards are really just farms, in the end, and no traditional culture ever perfected vine-growing and winemaking while growing food incompetently and failing to cook it well.
Find good wine, and good food follows.
In 2010, when we first arrived in Autignac, we had no idea that our dart had landed on an appellation called Faugères, nor that it was among the better appellations in the Languedoc, nor even that the Languedoc was the largest wine-producing area with designated indication of origin in the world. With its stony soil and searing summers, it is perfectly suited to bringing wine grapes to a ripeness that more northern regions cannot equal.
What we did know was that we liked a certain wine, for sale at the village bakery of all places. A crisp, unoaked white. A refreshing, steelhead-colored rosé. An inky and lushly black-fruited red. All with the same label: Domaine Balliccioni.
Then one day, our next-door neighbor, Jean-Luc, brought us to see the winery of a friend of his on the edge of town. And there stood André Balliccioni, in work pants and gum boots, smiling under a short-banged Caesar haircut, surrounded by the factory-floor paraphernalia of a small working winery—vats, pumps, hoses, brass fittings, shovels, rakes. A nebula of scent poured out from the fermentation room behind him, the same scent that had been leaking into the street from under a handful of wooden-plank doors in the village for several weeks—a sweetly sour, faintly boozy suggestion of fermenting fruit.
By about halfway through the marathon afternoon we subsequently spent together, talking with increasing animation in the grainy light of Domaine Balliccioni's cool, pebble-floored tasting room, we had all more or less become friends. We have remained so ever since.
The point is not that my wife, Mary Jo, and I had anything exceptional to offer in exchange for friendship that day, aside from our ignorance and curiosity, nor that Corsican André and Languedocian Jean-Luc were possessed of an exceptional sort of southern warmth, though they are. The point is that this is what happens in places just north of Béziers, and it does not happen in places just outside of Monaco, or, for that matter, just outside of Bordeaux, or Beaune, or Bandol.
The experience of a great Burgundian clos or Bordelais château can be majestic. But it's good to understand that you will not, over a long weekend, or even a week, or maybe ever, break down the infrastructure set up in such places to reduce the friction between you and the act of buying a bottle of wine. In regions where an acre of grand cru vines might cost several million dollars, the stakes are simply too high.
In Faugères, an acre of vines can be had for the price of a sensible used car, and we found ourselves returning often to Domaine Balliccioni to buy not collector's items destined for a cellar, but our daily wine, carefully made, full of fruit and tannin brought into balance by craft, made to be consumed with food—and just exactly in its prime. And for what? Maybe twelve bucks.
André himself would send us out through the gate, with a shoulder pat, a sly joke, a "See you soon." We would wind our way back home through narrow gorges of fading stucco row houses in our unromantic, working-class village, which, nevertheless, created its own kind of magic at this harvest time of year, as sweet dregs were hosed from the bottoms of oak barrels and stainless vats and found their way like iron-rich tributaries into the village gutters, and—it is not an exaggeration to say—the streets of Autignac ran with wine.
All of which, I think, can be assembled into a rough-edged working principle for travel. Not specifically to Autignac, France, but to what might be called second-tier wine regions in general (though I find the implied value judgment misleading). Places, I mean, that are—not so much financially as agriculturally—made of wine. Think Muscadet instead of Sancerre. Bergerac rather than Bordeaux. Beaujolais instead of Burgundy. Gigondas, just next door to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or Lirac, a short hop across the Rhône river.
You might find that you fall a little bit in love with a winemaker and his or her offerings. And you might find, when you drink those wines later, that they create a particular kind of moment that other wines, even ostensibly greater wines, do not, because their texture and flavor are amplified and altered by emotion. That's actually normal. Buying the inexpensive wine of your region from the friend in town is a thousand-year tradition. Shelves filled with hundreds of anonymous bottles from six continents is a more recent aberration.
Mostly, I love wine for that moment around a table when the first soft glug falls into the first glass, and you catch a whiff of iron and must, and the night is about to open up into something. It is the kind of experience that an Autignac, and its siblings in wine regions throughout the world, has the time, and the modesty, to pull off with an honesty that can be harder to find where money means more.
Over the remainder of that first fall in Autignac, I came to feel that there was almost nowhere I would rather be, nowhere I had ever been that was so perfectly tuned to play the music of daily life at just exactly my tempo and pitch. Days portioned themselves into a morning's work, a lingering lunch, an afternoon's work, and an aperitif—perhaps a sip of Jean-Luc's homemade vin d'orange beside a plate of oysters, or a sweating bottle of rosé with Lucques olives from a tree within sight. Then dinner, which could be a daube of beef or lamb, a steaming heap of yawning black mussels, or simply fish fresh from the Mediterranean. Maybe an entire mackerel, stuffed with lemon slices and fennel stalks, grilled over vine cuttings and basted with a rosemary branch dipped in a gritty slurry of olive oil, garlic, and sea salt that would run into the slits cut into the fish's side. The oil would hiss and flare as it dripped onto the knotty elbows of vine embers. I felt an urgency to belong—an inexplicable sense of homecoming—here, where no ancestor of mine had ever lived.
In subsequent trips, I would ask to work in the wineries and among the vineyards of our friends. I would learn not just to love their vines, which thrived on the knife-blade heat of long southern summers, but also to love the obscure old varieties that some of my neighbors still remembered growing, before all the experts told them to rip them out and plant Syrah for the international market—grapes like Terret Bourret, Roussanne, and Bourboulenc, Grenache Gris, Ugni, and Lledoner Pelut.
I would learn to love the banks of wild fennel nodding along country highways, the dusty vine rows passing like shuffling cards. The smell that rose from dry ground when I stepped on a tuft of wild thyme, with the shaggy silver heads of ancient olive trees in the distance. I would learn to love the walk from our front door to the grocer's, not because it was picturesque, but because it had become about something other than looking at things. It was about neighbors—a social hour, with elderly villagers sitting on chairs in front of their doors, waiting to exchange a double kiss and an update on the weather.
I would learn to love anchovies and sardines and the braids of Lautrec garlic hanging from a ceiling beam in our kitchen. I would also learn to scrape the briny-rotten innards and roe from the cracked halves of sea urchin shells in November, and to slice open violet mollusks to slurp up the iodine bitterness of their flesh. I would learn to love the smell of sea life, amended with garlic and saffron, at the heart of the broth that was the start of fish soups in this part of the world—this home of mine that was not my home. Yes, not my home, but where, after 10 years, among a small group of villagers who saw life the way I did, and who saw that I saw life the way they did, I would eventually be adopted, with a sense of having been naturalized in some inevitable and irreversible way, as a kind of honorary son.
Today, with a sharp sun throwing winking shadows through glasses of André's rosé onto an outdoor table, Mary Jo and I have chosen to keep it simple. A baguette. A plate of tart, day-old goat cheese with lavender honey for drizzling. Half a dozen quartered figs on a cutting board. We toast Jean-Luc and his wife, Nicole. A blue carpenter bee swoops past with a sound like a dirt bike and lands heavily, swaying on a sprig of rosemary in blossom. We talk and we talk. And we call it lunch.
May you find your own Faugères.
The Wines of Faugères
The key to understanding Mediterranean wines is ripeness. The simple fact is that here is a climate in which grapes reach full maturity. Think of a puckery green apple versus a sweet finished one, or a green versus a ripe tomato. Those same qualities of generosity, fleshiness, and voluptuousness, rather than the brightness and acidity of less-ripe fruits, are almost universally true of southern wines.
In Faugères, another important factor is the schist in the soil. A bit like Châteauneuf-du-Pape's famous galets, or pebbles, these broken bits of stone conserve the heat of the day in the soil throughout cool evenings. The effects of soil type on a specific glass of wine may be up for debate, but in general schist produces deep color, with flavors tending toward black fruits, and an effect local winemakers describe as "roasted stone," a sort of smoky minerality that contrasts beautifully with the natural velvetiness of mature fruit.
A Faugères red must contain some combination of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignane, and Cinsaut, though not all of them in every wine. They are muscular reds, with notes that recall the local wild scrubland called garrigue—home to wild thyme, sage, rosemary, garlic, and fennel. Faugères boasts at least one undisputed red wine star, Didier Barral, of Domaine Léon Barral, whose uncompromising dedication to natural and biodynamic winemaking has raised his wines to cult status. Look for his 2017 Domaine Léon Barral Cuvée Jadis ($40). Another, less pricey, bottle to seek out is the 2017 Clos Fantine Faugères Cuvée Tradition ($24).
Whites use primarily Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Rolle (known elsewhere as Vermentino). Try the aromatic 2018 Mas Olivier Expression White ($25).
Finally, the rosés are a treat and have largely avoided the trend toward blandly pale droopiness that has made neighboring Provence a fortune. Rosés here are joyful food wines, most often blends using Grenache or Mourvèdre along with the floral subtlety of Cinsaut.
The wines of Faugères are made to accompany flavorful food. Its whites and rosés marry happily with oysters, mussels, squid, grilled fish, and, of course, the classic Salade Catalane, full of anchovies and roasted red peppers. Faugères reds joust spectacularly with the kinds of dishes you think about when there is snow in the forecast and a fire in the fireplace—stews, roasts, steaks, and even grilled vegetables—but the perfect pairing may be a rich, slow-cooked Daube de Boeuf, the classic red wine–beef stew of the region.