Tom Surgey visits France’s deep South and suggests you do the same

Wine is a fantastic catalyst for exploration and adventure. There is a unique brand of excitement to be found when heading to a wine region with a packed itinerary of visits ahead. It starts with a tantalizing buzz of anticipation. Sitting on an early morning flight. Knowing a busy but joy-filled few days stretch out ahead. The wine is a key component of the trip, the central reason for being there, that’s the ‘known’ element for me. Most tantalizing and the major buzz of all such trips I have taken, is the unknown web of experiences that happen at each stop and in-between. The unexplored geography, the yet-to-be-met people, the food, the weather, the sights and sounds and scents of a new destination. Wine brings out the hedonistic passion in people, sparks instant connection that spans language barriers, inspires generosity. If you see it how I see it, wine is the celestial body around which a region’s greatest attributes orbit.

Never is this truer than in the Languedoc-Roussillon. The enormous swathe of southern France stretching around the Mediterranean coastline from Provence to the Pyrenees. Over 220,000 hectares of vines sit within its boundaries, well over double that of Bordeaux, for example. A region of rich vinous heritage, of vines scattered in every direction you look. Rugged old parcels of vines tucked out of reach on the region’s dramatic, rocky hillsides, others in neat rows planted in more recent decades. It is a place of tradition. Winemakers here have huge respect for their region, traditional grapes and techniques, much of which is upheld within a network of small, and not-so-small appellations, tightly defined in French law. Take the circa 1500ha AOP of Pic-Saint-Loup in the north-east of the region, above Montpellier; producers here craft extraordinarily perfumed, concentrated reds and rosé (no white allowed) from a minimum 50% Syrah blend, with minimum 90% of the wine being Syrah, Grenache or Mourvèdre. It is an evocative, stunning place to visit; vines and Herault scrubland surrounding the nearly seven-hundred-metre high trio of mountains, the most dramatic of which gives its name to the appellation.

Co-existing with this bounty of traditional viticulture and gastronomy, there is a creativity and dynamism to winemakers here. The Languedoc-Roussillon’s bounty of diverse climates and geography play out through sun-baked Mediterranean coastlines, rocky hillsides, higher-altitude plateaus and wind-cooled valleys with enormous varieties of soils underfoot. This is the landscape in which a broader wine category, Pays d’Oc IGP, has been thoughtfully developed over decades. Pushing boundaries in France, Pays d’Oc IGP allows winemakers throughout the Languedoc-Roussillon to create wines that fall outside the very strict boundaries of their local appellation system. Fifty-eight permitted grape varieties can be blended in any proportion, or bottled as single varietal wines, with specific grape varieties front-and-centre on the label – a rarity in France, where location is typically the key defining factor. With 50% of the vineyard land in Languedoc-Roussillon now producing Pays d’Oc IGP wine, it is the vehicle driving opportunity both creatively and commercially for the region’s co-ops and independent producers alike. Taking Pic-Saint-Loup as the example again, as illustrated in my recent visit to Domaine Uma, Pays d’Oc IGP allows them to plant and produce Grenache-dominant red wines, 100% Cinsault rosé and even white wines from varieties like Roussane and Vermentino (called Rolle, locally), none-of-which would be possible within the traditional appellation laws.

I was lucky to get down to the region recently, with a fun group of wine pros. So, I can tell you first-hand and with up-to-the-minute reference quite how exciting a few days exploring Pays d’Oc can be. Here’s my recommendation on places to go, where to eat and stay. While you’re there, I implore you to take advantage of the opportunity to taste wine widely – everything at every price point. The youthful, vibrant, easy-on-the-pocket wines are bright and delicious and refreshing, giving so much bang for your buck. The premium, higher-priced wines offer the same value but consistently deliver concentration, old-vine complexity and depth of character. Many of the premium reds age beautifully too, decades potentially, which was a real take-home of my tasting experience during the trip and NO ONE is talking about – so be an early adopter of the style.

 

Tom’s top taste tips from the trip…

DOMAINE GAYDA, BRUGAIROLLES

Modern, dynamic, fun, sincere passion for their region. I have loved the Gayda wines for many years. Co-Founder Tim Ford is a fantastic orator if you get the chance to catch him. The restaurant on site is exceptional in it’s local-focus and quality, as well as familial and down-to-earth in its approach. Full of locals; stunning views.

Tom’s top two wines to try:

Altre Cami Blanc 2021
Super fresh; juicy tropicals and lemon peels packed into a very slim, fine frame. Laser-tight and refreshing, with just the right amount of creamy texture softening it out. Fantastic 100% Grenache Gris wine.

Chemin de Moscou 2020
Powerful and spicy flagship red. Black fruits at its core. Silky cherry and oak aromatics lift up. Refreshing acid line keeps it moreish and limber. Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault blend.

 

DOMAINE UMA, PIC-SAINT-LOUP

Newly purchased, forward-looking Domaine with winemaker Karen Turner at the helm. Diverse grapes used including Vermentino (Rolle) alongside the classic Grenache and Syrah. Chenin Blanc, Sangiovese and Fiano recently planted.

Tom’s top two wines to try:

Apanage Rosé 2022
Opening price-point of three very good pale rosé; all worth a try. Winner for it’s inviting juicy berry character, rich-ripe fruit and full texture, whilst keeping classy and complex with layers of pineapple. Great value.

Uma Rosé Rouge 2021
Where dark rosé meets pale red. Exceptional Cinsault-based wine. Berrys and rhubarb held in a delicious, crunchy, moreish frame. Low tannin, just a hint of texture. Serve chilled. Pop two in the fridge, at least.

 

DOMAINE LA DOURBIE, CANET

Sustainably minded custodians of some picturesque old vineyard land and modern plots. Creative and considered winemaking with a diverse range of styles produced. All good, some exceptional. A great location to visit, achingly cool aesthetic inside with herb gardens and wild outdoor spaces to explore.

Tom’s top two wines to try:

Mala Coste Blanc
“The wrong hill” old vines in unique location. Incredible richness of fruit, creamy texture. Powerful tension on the palate. Lemon citrus and weighty melon. Bright popcorn scented oak. Full-bodied but elegant structure.

L.A.V.Q Rosé 2022
Pale pink. Super elegant, perfumed berry nose. Blossom and spring grass. Acacia lifted tone over silky cranberry fruit. Saline, subtle bitter note on finish, tiny oak. Long menthol-aromatic finish. Great, rolling layers in this delicious rosé.

 

CHÂTEAU CAPITOUL, NARBONNE

Stunning location. A very grand château refurbished to superb condition, operating as a luxury hotel. The winery is situated within the château, surrounded by vineyards, some up to eighty years old. Part of the Bonfils wine family; one of the largest vineyard owners in France.

Tom’s top two wines to try from the Bonfils range available at the château:

Château Capitoul Rocaille Rouge, La Clape 2017
Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Cinsault. Fantastic intense black fruit. Lifted by super-clean, refreshing acidity. Older vine concentration very present. Delicious.

Château L’Esparou Les Alysses
Lovely ripe, round fruited white. Easy drinking, fuller-bodied style. Great balancing acid cutting through the lees and harmonious oak layers. I liked all the L’Esparou wines tasted on this trip, they are great value – from sibling property in Roussillon.

 

Where to eat when visiting the region:

Domaine Gayda
Relaxed, stunning views and exceptional local ingredient-led cookery. Lots of charcuterie, quick-grilled seafood starters and some very fine red meats were had. I’d follow the same line again!

Asado at Château Capitoul
High-end grill restaurant focussing on excellent cuts of beef and pork. Go red meat here, I would say. Enjoying the excellent range of reds, including decades-old examples from the estate and its siblings across Languedoc-Roussillon.

 

Where to stay:

Château Capitoul

Recently renovated and refurbished at great expense. Beautiful family-friendly villas on-site with infinity pools. We stayed in the top floor rooms of the château’s own tower. Rooms are extraordinarily luxurious with unbeatable views across the vineyards. Great breakfast as well as dinner in Asado restaurant.

And one to add to the bucket list – Bastille Night in Carcasonne…

If your timings allow, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to catch the Bastille Day fireworks in Carcassonne (14 July). Over half a million tourists attend each year as the biggest in France. The hot ticket of the night is Vignobles Foncalieu’s White Party – think Michelin-starred food perfectly matched with their diverse and delicious wines, dancing the night away under the stars to live music and the best view of the fireworks from anywhere in town – start planning ahead now!

 

Pays d’Oc IGP will be showing a range of their wines at Three Wine Men’s Big Christmas Wine Fest on 17th – 18th November so you too could taste them.