Languedoc: A Labor of Love or a Love of Labor?
In April, the Enobytes editorial team was afforded the privilege of attending the 8th annual Terroirs et Millésimes en Languedoc, which took place in the Castle of Carcassonne, located in France.
We were very excited to receive the invitation because, although we have enjoyed Languedoc wines for a long time, I have never spent much time studying the region. The area is a major wine producer, with Vin de Pays d’Oc and sparkling Crémant de Limoux among its best-known varieties. Wine historians believe that the world’s first sparkling wine was produced in this region in 1531, by the monks at the abbey in Saint-Hilaire, Aude. It would be hard not to know a little about the region if you have been drinking wine for very long.
During the twentieth century, ten percent of the world wine production came from the Languedoc region—sometimes, no adulation intended, referred to as the wine lake. Ten percent of the world’s total wine consumption is a lot but keep in mind that was pre new world wine explosion. Keeping that information in mind, I think I need to explain what the hell this title is all about.
Languishing in Languedoc just rolls off the tongue, but what the hell does it mean? I mean, after all, we’re not all lollygagging around tripping over our tongues, trying to smile just because I happened to string three words together that sounded clever, now are we?
When you work really hard to make the kind of wine people of all walks of life reach for night after night, and decade after decade, it becomes a love of labor and a labor of love. They work so hard to get it right; vintage after vintage and generation to generation sometimes without accolades or adoration. The relationship between the vine, the wine, and community becomes so intertwined—to separate them is like dissolving a partnership. So any assessment must be taken as a whole—the place, the character the….. and there it is!
I knew nothing of Languedoc! I was grasping and babbling. Yes I may have consumed wines from the south of France for more years than I am willing to admit, but I knew very little, other than some of the producers’ names and a few varietal names. For example, during the first Master Class hosted by Jerome Villaret, Delegate General of the Délégué Général du Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins AOC du Languedoc (CIVL), Jerome brought to our attention that the association started in 1936, and that there are 36 new AOCs under development in the Languedoc-Roussanne. There is so much to learn and the Terroirs et Millésimes en Languedoc brings together the wines of the region and the people who make them in a way no other venue or format ever has.
Jerome Villaret Delegate General of the CIVL
They accomplish their mission by exposing the character and place in a clever and engaging manner. Terroirs et Millésimes en Languedoc offered all the tools I would need to elevate my understanding of this vast and often misunderstood region that has so much to offer curious enophiles the world over.
One thing I already knew about this region is the sparkling wine from Limoux predates Champagne’s sparkling wines by at least a century. This shows I don’t know a lot; but I do know I love to drink Blanquette and Cremant from Limoux.
When I sold retail wine, Crémant de Limoux was my go to for customers who wanted a good French sparkling wine without reaching deep into their pockets to pay for the sparkling wine from a region to the north of Languedoc called Champagne.
Grapevines are said to have existed in the South of France since the Pliocene period—before the existence of Homo sapiens. The first vineyards of Gaul developed around two towns: Béziers and Narbonne. Just a little to the northwest of those historic communes lies Castle Carcassonne, the second most visited tourist destination in France with the Eiffel tower being number one.
Hotel de Cite, Carcassonne
Our base of operations for the Terroirs et Millésimes en Languedoc Program (English translation: Lands & Vintages in Languedoc) would be the Hotel de Cite. This hotel is in the M Gallery collection. If you are in the South of France for one day, I highly recommend seeing the Castle and spending a night at Hotel de Cite—ask for room 106, you will not be disappointed.
Carcassonne is also the birthplace of the famous French dish Cassoulet and there are several Michelin starred restaurants in this small city including La Barbacane at Hotel de Cite where Chef Jerome Ryon presides over the dining room.
Chef Jerome Ryon
Chef Franck Putelat
Four star rated Hotel Le Parc, Carcassonne
Scallops by Chef Franck Putelat
Arriving after a fight from Portland to Amsterdam, and then to Toulouse—followed by an hour’s drive to the castle, the Enobytes team was, needless to say, a little worse for wear. If you need to get to Europe from the West coast, any of the direct flights to Amsterdam (here in Portland it’s Delta Airlines) will shave at least five hours off your trip and Schiphol airport has connections to any European destination. They also have a Yotel, a small hotel that will revolutionize long distance air travel, just in case you need it.
By not going to an East coast location (JFK or ATL) before crossing the Atlantic Ocean, you will arrive five hours earlier and a whole lot less tired. Transportation from Toulouse to Carcassonne is easy—there are three options; trains, buses, or rental cars.
About ten miles outside of Carcassonne the Castle looms large in the distance; the sheer size of the structure is impressive especially since it has been around since the Stone Age. Pondering what it must have been like to have approached this castle for the first time on horseback or by foot must have been a bit scary. In those days, it was one of the largest structures on earth besides the pyramids, Rome or Greece.
Carcassonne Castle in Aude, Languedoc-Roussillon, France
Upon arrival we were dropped at the Narbonne gate of the castle. Most cars are too large to traverse the roads inside the walls of the castle. If you go, remember to call the Hotel de Cite from the gate and they will come down in the tiny shuttle to pick you up with your suitcases. We wish we had known that before we traversed the cobblestone streets with our bags. It’s not that far, but the cobblestone streets can be daunting after thirty hours of travel.
After a brief wine reception and round of introductions in the lobby of the hotel, we departed for dinner at Maison Sieur d’Arques in Limoux. Upon arrival, I was humbled and impressed at the same time. As the bubbly flowed, our fatigue waned and the realization of where we were began to register. It was surreal to finally be at one of the finest Languedoc producers of Crémant de Limoux after touting their virtues, selling the wines and introducing thousands of Americans to this delicious Champagne alternative.
At dinner we were seated at a table with Caroline Panis, wife of the legendary winemaker Jean Panis of Chateau du Donjon whose quality of wines are fantastic. The 2014 Minervois Grand Tradition stole the show with its lip smacking blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. Both Pamela and I breathed a sigh of relief when Caroline began to speak English; her quick wit and joyous curiosity made for an enchanting evening while we enjoyed her husband’s excellent wines.
Chateau du Donjon Vineyards
Chateau du Donjon family: Jean, Camille, and Caroline Panis
For the first course we were treated to an excellent buffet of charcuterie. It was so extensive most of the guests thought it was the meal. Imagine our surprise when they started to bring out the plated entrée, a tasty dish of braised beef medallions with a puree of locally grown purple potatoes. More sparkling wine with dessert; it was the perfect finale.
The evening ended as delightfully as it had started. We are now returning to the Castle of Carcassonne for our first night’s sleep, the literal meaning of “lying in the lap of luxury.” Primed and ready for our total immersion into Terroirs et Millésimes en Languedoc. It feels like a dream! Stay tuned for the next article of this series about Languedoc. Enjoy!
To be continued…