Wine in Languedoc-Roussillon
The Languedoc-Roussillon is the largest and most exciting wine area in the world with the most phenomenal wine history. The first vineyards in France were planted here by the Romans in the early years of the first century AD, so the region lies right at the heart of country’s most famous product, wine. In fact it is not just home to the first vineyards in France, but also the first sparkling wine (Limoux), the first sweet wine (vin doux naturel), and the first vermouth (Noilly Prat).
The Romans encouraged the development of a wine culture in the region by granting estates as rewards to military and political leaders, and the legacy survives to this day (eg: Massamier La Mignarde in Minervois). The local people took to wine production with relish; their enthusiasm and capacity for drinking it soon becoming legendary. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the mantle was taken on by the Church, focussed around the abbeys of Frontfroide (Corbieres), Caunes (Minervois) and St Hilaire (Limoux), which were the centres of learning of their time.
Whilst the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked a low point in the reputation of Languedoc wines, with the market being characterised by fraud and over-production, the last forty years have seen a dynamic swing back to quality. The market has changed, as people drink less but better wine, and the varied and distinctive terroirs of the region, along with the opportunity to work in such historical sites, have attracted the best winemakers from around the world.
Vineyards cling to the tumbling foothills of the Montagne Noir and the Pyrenees, linked by the cooling Atlantic corridor of the Aude valley and the Canal du Midi to the densely cultivated coastal plains. The area is a huge pleasure to explore, with amazing landscapes, a wide variety of wine styles, and wonderful people with a passion for taste and flavour, all set amidst sites of great historical interest and within easy reach of children’s activities. Set out below are suggestions for some of the best places to visit and some interesting Languedoc wines to taste as part of a longer day out.
Please note that whilst most wineries are open most of the time, it is advisable to phone in advance to ensure that someone is there to host you. If you would just like to buy some good local wines try the CDD shop 15 minutes away on the D6113 just to the east of Lezignan (it also specialises in local cheeses, honey and cured meats).
Capendu nestles on the border between the Corbières region to the south and Minervois across the Canal du Midi to the north. Corbières is a geological chaos of mountain and valley, a wild land of ghosts and rocks and castles, with a hugely varied landscape and different soil types giving rise to a wide range of wine styles.
Narbonensis (now Narbonne) was the Roman capital of the Languedoc. They even diverted the course of the river Aude around the west and south of the settlement to create a harbour. The river has since reverted to its original course leaving a string of shallow saltwater lagoons which are now bird sanctuaries.
This area to the north of Capendu is what attracted us to the Languedoc in the first place, partly for the beauty of its scenery, but also the amazing flavour of the wines. The vineyards were first established by the Romans in the first century BC, and later developed by the Church.
St Jean de Minervois
This is a small and very specific area of chalky soil in the hills to the north-east of Minervois proper. It is famous for the sweet vins doux naturels made from the Muscat variety, renowned for their soft, floral, grapey character.
Situated about 20 minutes to the south-west of Carcassonne is the historical town of Limoux. It has a pretty setting in the western edge of the Corbieres hills. What makes it famous in wine terms is that this is where sparkling wine was invented, at least 100 years before Champagne.
St Chinian is a lovely market town set in a sheltered wine valley 50 minutes to the north-east of Capendu. The vineyards are said to have been established in the 9th century by a monk called Anian, who subsequently gave his name to the town.
Picpoul de Pinet
About an hour and 15 minutes away to the east of Beziers lies the saltwater lagoon of the Etang de Thau. Part of the necklace of elongated pearls that make up the extended delta of the Rhone, the Etang de Thau is famous for its oysters and mussels and crisp, dry white wine.
Collioure is a small seaside town near the border with Spain, about 1.5 hours’ drive away. It is in the Rousillon region which for centuries was part of the ancient kingdom of Aragon, and still exhibits a strong Catalonian influence.