Champagne is renowned as the top of the wine ladder. The term “champagne” is used universally—if erroneously—for all sparkling wine, just as Kleenex and Xerox imply generic tissues and photocopiers. Ah … but champagne is different. The Kleenexes and Xeroxes of the world owe their provenance to being the first of their species. But the sparkling wine known as “champagne” owes its designation to the restrictive area of its manufacture rather than to the date of its discovery. The first sparkling wine predates Dom Pierre Perignon’s fermentation by some 125 years, and its birthplace in southern France deserves a pilgrimage by all true wine aficionados – those being in this case my wife Peg and I and our fellow wine lovers Dennis and Diane Donahue.
Two hours’ drive north of Barcelona’s pristine airport, our merry band of pilgrims crossed into France where the rocky crags of the Pyrenees meet the beaches of the Mediterranean Côte Vermeille. We had entered the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France on a visit to the home of sparkling wine. The border region of France and Spain retains the strong cultural heritage of medieval Catalonia. While the Catalan culture thrives in northern Spain, its remnants in southern France are still significant in food, language and outlook.
A turn to the west at the more Catalan than French city of Perpignan took us inland into a countryside so densely covered with vineyards that the fragrance of grapes hung tantalizingly in the air. Roughly the size of Massachusetts, Languedoc-Roussillon is France’s greatest grape growing area with 400,000 acres of vineyards producing over two billion – that’s billion with a B – bottles of wine annually. The terrain gradually rises from the seacoast, following the river valleys and feeder streams, almost like an open palm with vine-covered fingers reaching into the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Our home for a week of exploring the wineries, castles, churches, Roman ruins, and lost-in-time villages was a centuries old house in Quillan. David and Celine Guidry, who live in Washington state, fell in love with this area of France during their travels. They purchased a former medieval family shop-and-residence and remodeled the inside into a modern two bedroom, two bath town house that they rent out between vacation trips.
On the day of our pilgrimage, we wound along the Aude River to our goal – the Benedictine abbey of Saint Hilaire in the town of the same name. The abbey was founded in the late eighth century, but it owes its fame to the discovery and refinement in 1531 of Blanquette de Limoux – the first “bubbly” on record. Admission to the abbey, now a museum, includes a tasting of sparkling wine at the nearby winery of Maison des Vignerons de Sainte-Hilaire. Today the blanquette comes in two variations: Blanquette Méthode Traditionnelle, a blend of 90% Mauzac, and 10% Chenin and Chardonnay; and Crémant de Limoux, a blend of 60% Mauzac, and 40% Chenin and Chardonnay.
French wine labeling is confusing at best and at worst unintelligible without lengthy study. A three-tiered system of regions, sub-regions, and localities results in two designations of wine: vins de pays that are inventoried, analyzed, and categorized according to geographical areas before receiving labeling authority describing grape varieties, bottler, year , batch number and other specific information; vins de table are “generic” wines that escape the strict labeling and approval processes. These table wines by no means should be considered inferior wines since the quality of all wines depends on the talent of the individual winemakers and the grapes they have to work with from year to year.
Blanquette is only one style of wine in a region whose production runs the full range from white to red, with reds predominating. Throughout our stay, we concentrated on red table wines and never had a bad experience. Prices in restaurants ranged from €4 for a carafe to €12 for a bottle of house red. There are many more expensive wines available, but we found the less expensive easily met our palatal expectations. Bulk wine straight from the barrel at the winery usually runs €1 for a liter – bring your own container! While most of the 26,000 growers do not offer tours, many of the larger wineries and several of the wine cooperatives have tastings and tours. Some have their own restaurants with different wines served with each meal course.
The reds of Languedoc-Roussillon pair well with the savory Catalan-influenced foods of the area. An abundance of fish and shellfish menus on the coast give way to more meat offerings farther inland, including a surprising number of variations of the legendary cassoulet. This stew of white beans and infinite combinations of spices, poultry, lamb, rabbit, sausages, and seafood is slow cooked and served in clay pots.
The light red blends of Carignan, Grenache, Mourvedre, and other indigenous wines complement southern French foods that can be characterized as fresh, local, light, seasoned, creative, prepared individually for each diner, and meant to be eaten over a relaxing food and wine experience of a couple of hours. We found no fast foods in Languedoc-Roussillon, either in composition or consumption.
We overstayed our planned itinerary one evening because of a side trip to the Roman aqueduct of Ansignan. The third century aqueduct spanning the small, fertile valley still provides water to the fields of vines that carpet the floor and flanks of the valley. By the time we had explored this outstanding example of Roman engineering, we were in serious need of food.
The normal dinner time was long past, but we found the sidewalk cafe Restaurant Le Viaduc in the small town of Lapradelle still open. The proprietors, David and Valérie Colletti, who recently moved from Belgium and purchased the restaurant, prepared plates of medium rare, fork-cuttable flank steak, garden salad with a light vinaigrette dressing, and baked new potatoes with seasoned butter melting in their cleft tops. Accompanied by baskets of freshly baked baguette bread and two carafes of dry red table wine, the meal was a delight
Languedoc-Roussillon is home to incomparably rugged scenery. It is an amalgam of its many stages of cultural history. It is rich with exquisite cookery. But most of all, Languedoc-Roussillon is awash with some of the best wines on earth.
|Writer – John Bagladi – E-mail
Freelance writer, lecturer & author.