By Wink Lorch
The Languedoc-Roussillon, also referred to as ‘Le Midi’, has long been known in France as a giant wine producing region, source of a mass of everyday table wines. But in the past 25 years there’s been an important revolution in the region, which continues today in a more urgent manner as sales of cheap and not-so-cheerful French wines decline both at home and abroad. There are now scores of wineries making excellent wines in the region, which stretches from Montpellier in the east to south of Perpignan and the Spanish border. The region has grouped all its appellation and Vin de Pays wines together recently for marketing under the Sud de France banner.
On a visit to the south nearly 20 years ago, I saw the first signs of wine tourism emerging in the region with visits to the California-inspired Skalli winery and the boutique winery Mas de Daumas Gassac; on a visit at the end of last month, I witnessed modern wine tourism in practice at Château l’Hospitalet. What impressed me two decades ago at Skalli was being able to walk through an immaculate working winery that was transforming what used to be undrinkable wine into perfectly pleasant varietal Vin de Pays wines. At Mas de Daumas Gassac, it was being able to tour the stunning vineyards with the inimitable owner, Aimé Guibert and then taste the wines with him in what I recall being a sweet little tasting room, complete with photos and soil samples.
Château l’Hospitalet is one of several Languedoc enterprises where wine tourism has been taken to a new level for France, one which I think is worth emulating by mid-sized wineries in many wine regions of Europe. Two things help Château l’Hospitalet: firstly it has a gorgeous situation nestling amongst 82 hectares (200 acres) of vines, which you can walk through to enjoy a stunning view to the Mediterranean, just 10km away; secondly, its owner is a giant of a man with great ambition, Gérard Bertrand, not just the son of a vigneron, but someone with contacts and influence in many fields, having proved himself first off the vineyard as a team player for the French national rugby team. Bertrand is a believer in both the quality potential of Languedoc wines and in the importance of wine tourism as a way of demonstrating to wine drinkers the connection of the land with the taste of the wines.
Bertrand owns no less than five wine estates in the Languedoc-Roussillon: Domaine de Villemajou in Corbières; Château Laville Bertrou in Minervois; Domaine de l’Aigle in Limoux, one of the highest altitude Languedoc vineyards, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay both do very well; Domaine Cigalus, near Corbières, but classified as a Vin de Pays giving greater flexibility – this is where Bertrand lives with his family and he is currently converting the vineyard from standard organic viticulture to biodynamic methods; and finally the main wine tourism centre, Château l’Hospitalet, situated outside Narbonne in the Languedoc sub-appellation named La Clape after the small range of hills just in from the coast where it located.
Two days of events put on for a British wine journalist/trade group including Oz Clarke, Giles Fallowfield, myself and a dozen others kept us busy with a couple of strenuous hours’ grape picking at Cigalus and several serious tastings where we sampled a large number of the better wines from Bertrand’s range. I was drawn especially to the Château l’Hospitalet La Clape wines, surely not influenced by us staying there, but you never know. The Château Hospitalet white in particular, made from Bourboulenc, Vermentino and Grenache Blanc was deliciously dry, with a freshness from the sea air perhaps, and herbal characters reminiscent of the Mediterranean garrigue (scrubland) surrounding the vineyards.
Château l’Hospitalet has a hotel, a restaurant, several craft workshops selling local goods and a large wine shop, where visitors can taste and buy the complete range of Gérard Bertrand wines as well as some local food specialities. Surrounded by the vineyards as well as acres of scrubland and pine forests, the recently renovated hotel makes an attractive and useful base for wine visitors. The modern restaurant and bar offer jazz evenings and there is a 3-day jazz festival with international stars each summer. L’Hospitalet is particularly suitable for groups too, for whom special wine seminars and events can be arranged.
Richard James, based in the region, knows much more about the region than I do and his six travel guides on the Languedoc- Roussillon will point you in the direction of the most welcoming Languedoc wine estates to visit. The region is well worth exploring as are the Sud de France wines.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Gérard Bertrand at Château l’Hospitalet for a harvest weekend.