Languedoc: raise a glass in France's hidden organic wine gem
With a wine-making history stretching back to the Greeks, you'll find plenty to toast in southern France
Think of a French wine holiday and your mind instinctively drifts towards Champagne and Burgundy, or Bordeaux and Beaujolais.
Organic wine-lovers, however, know there is only one region to visit: Languedoc, France’s secret treasure.
Nestled in the south-east of France, running northwards from the border with Spain, Languedoc is France’s top wine producer by volume. Locals claim it is the world’s oldest wine region – the Greeks first planted vines here in the fifth century BCE. Languedoc is especially dominant when it comes to the growing organic wine scene, producing around half of France’s organic wine and hosting the annual Millesime Bio, the world’s largest organic wine fair.
Demand for organic wine has grown substantially over the the last decade or so – when Millesime Bio began in 1993, there were ten exhibitors; that number had risen to 1,200 at the 2019 fair in January, with 22 countries represented among the selection.
To be organic, a wine has to be made from grapes free from any artificial or synthetic chemicals, including herbicides and pesticides. Organic wine-growers harness nature to keep their vines healthy, using sheep to keep weeds at bay, for example.
Converts say organic wines are kinder to the environment - and reduce the intensity of morning-after hangovers, to boot. While the green credentials are undoubtedly true, after sampling some of the wines on offer at Millesime Bio, including a ripe and delicious Vieille Vignes du Levant Grand Cru from Champagne Larmandier-Bernier, I’m afraid I can’t attest to the latter…
Good wine is a given on a holiday in Languedoc, but you’ll not run out of options for food, either. If you’re a fan of oysters, you’re in luck - they’re part of the diet here, thanks to the region’s Mediterranean coastline. Big and juicy, they taste divine, rivalling world-renowned oysters such as those found in Scotland’s Loch Fyne.
For a subtle take on Languedoc cuisine, check out Abacus in Montpellier, a chic, minimalist restaurant where the emphasis is on food rather than Instagrammable decor. The limited menu – quality over quantity – changes weekly, but delights on offer during our visit included a mouth-watering pork confit with cockles and freshly-caught monkfish with a coconut foam.
Founded in the tenth century, Montpellie is a city full of history – Nostradamus studied medicine here – that is looking to the future: its population has swollen over the last 50 years and it embraces its multicultural lifestyle.
However, the heart of the city remains the Place de la Comedie, where locals and tourist mingle in one of the largest pedestrian squares in Europe.
The neabry Musee Fabre is the perfect pitstop to indulge in a little culture between all the food and wine. The museum hosts one of France’s richest collections of European art, with Rubens, Courbet and Delacroix among the artists on offer.
If something a little more modern is to your taste, all you have to do is look out for a tram – shoe designer Christian Lacroix created the colourful livery.
Away from the city, Languedoc offers a majestic landscape to explore, from the beautiful beaches of the Med to mountaintop fortresses – the citadel at Carcassonne is not to be missed. Europe's largest remaining fortified city is a Disney dream come true, with an old city to make you feel you've stepped back in time.
Of course, the wider region has plenty of attractions for wine-lovers. Try tasting sessions of some of the region’s finest wines at the picturesque Domaine de Cebene in the Haut Languedoc Natural Park. Owned by Languedoc newcomer Brigitte Chevallier, the estate produces award-winning vintages thanks to the amazing terroir: terraced shale soils, north-facing vines, the rich geology from being so close to the Med, windswept hills and grapes that give very limited yields.
Those grapes include syrah, grenache, mourvedre and carignan, from vines dating back 100 years – “my old ladies,” as Brigitte calls them.
For added ambience, you can taste these soft, beautiful and highly drinkable reds – and that from a white-wine woman – in the land where they were made. Brigitte holds two tasting experiences. The first, 90 minutes long, includes visits to the vines and tastings of the domaine’s three medal-winning wines. Sunk deep into the rock, the cellar proves an exceptional site to try them.
Twice a year, she also holds Pique-Nique, specifically for sponsors of her vines but open to all. This features a barbecue with products from the region, accompanied by Domaine de Cebene wine.
For true wine-lovers, it is possible to stay in a gite on the estate and experience first-hand life on a working organic vineyard.
And then you don’t have to worry about stumblling home! Salut!
Photos: Celine et Gilles Deschamps / CIVL