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Sunday, July 1, 2012

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By Emma Krasov, photography by Emma Krasov
To the South

Languedoc is located in the very south of France. Air France takes its passengers here from San Francisco with only one stop at Charles de Gaulle. Time flies between in-flight entertainment of French comedies; Champagne aperitifs, and Liqueur de Poire Williams digestifs on the way to Paris.
Then it’s just a short flight to Montpellier, the central city of the rich wine-producing region in the Mediterranean, where the vines were thriving even before the arrival of humans.
In Languedoc, the sun shines 300 days a year, while its complex mineral-rich soil is perfect for Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah, Mourvedre, and other old and newly-introduced grapes.
The region is known for a vast variety of white, rosé, and red wines produced within the Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) Coteaux du Languedoc.  
On an early summer trip to Sud de France, which took me slightly off the beaten path, I discovered for myself a world of ancient culture, benevolent nature, and amazing modern developments in the land of vines and olives; Romans and Cathars; and contemporary winemakers who cherish local traditions, steeped in history.

Montpellier – gateway to Sud de France

In Montpellier, our tour group landed for one night before hitting the road and exploring the region. After a light supper with local white Picpoul de Pinet at Le Sud restaurant, we walked from our Suite Novotel to the grandiose city center – the Champs-Élysées of Montpellier.
A beautiful pedestrian walkway goes past Médiathèque – a new library, cinémathèque, and multimedia complex; through neo-classical Antigone Polygone district, designed by the architect Ricardo Bofill in 1979; past the impressive Fountain of the Ephebes; little shops and restaurants alongside the promenade, and leads to Place de la Comédie, where the party never stops, and where we joined the locals in an outdoor café for a nightcap. The air was warm and blue, and smelled of sea and roses. 

The vines and pebbles of Beaucaire

On the wall of Chateau Mourgues du Gres as well as on its wine label, there is a Latin saying, “Sine Sole Nihil,” which means, “nothing without the sun.” Not just sunshine, but the waters of Rhône River, southern breeze and northern mistral, as well as rocky soil covered with prehistoric pebbles create wonderful conditions for aromatic and flavorful wines, whose color scheme reflects the one of the white, golden, pink, and ruddy stones scattered on the ground.
Francois and Anne Collard, the proprietors, besides wine tasting, offer their visitors tours of the property, showcasing their lush vineyards and the surrounding Mediterranean landscape defined by olive and almond trees, rosehip shrubs, rosemary and thyme.   
At Chateau Mourgues du Gres I tried not only Les Galets (“pebbles”) wines – crisp white, exuberant rosé, and dark full-bodied red with soft tannins – but some other local delicacies, like picholine olives, almonds, and goat's milk cheese Pélardon that has been produced here since Roman times.
Ancient Romans are often regarded in AOP Costières de Nîmes. The city of Nîmes, a BCE colony of the Roman Empire, today maintains its rich heritage reflected in the majestic ruins and modern-day reflections on the golden age.    

When in Nîmes do as Romans do

Located in the sun-kissed land and surrounded by seven hills, just like Rome, Nîmes still bears the coat of arms dedicated to Caesar’s victory over Egypt in 31 BCE. The image of a crocodile chained to a palm tree can be seen on ancient coins; in the paving of the old town; in a fountain on a busy city square, and in various contemporary art pieces.     
The city mythology has it that Roman legionaries returning from Egypt were granted lands in Nîmes, and turned it into little Rome – with all its conveniences.
Roman-built grandiose amphitheatre, Arènes de Nîmes, for twenty thousand spectators is now used for bullfights, concerts, and games; La Maison Carrée is the best-preserved Roman temple right in the heart of the city, and the nearby Pont du Gard is the most spectacular fragment of the ancient aqueduct that delivered water to Nîmes from the Eure River near Uzès, 50 kilometers to the north. 
Although the city had its own water, the civilization-spoiled Romans needed more of it to fill their luxurious baths and fountains. The aqueduct, merely a stone pipe, ran right underneath the surface, coming out in places of various depressions in the ground, where it had to be supported by the arched bridges.
Pont du Gard is the largest of these bridges with its three levels of graceful arches still rising over the Gardon River.     
In the following centuries, when the colonizing Romans were washed away by the successive waves of subsequent occupiers, the aqueduct was mostly destroyed for its stones, used for houses. Pont du Gard survived, although by the Middle Ages no one could remember what this construction was all about. Since it was not possible to cross the river though the bridge because of its solid partitions between the arches, the rumors were spreading that the bridge was built by the devil himself. What saved the Roman ruin for future generations? Some say, its unparalleled beauty.
Today, a visit to the aqueduct starts with a fun and educational tour of the Site du Pont du Gard museum, and ends with a walk through a former water pipe at the top of the bridge with ages-old lime deposits on its walls.  

Tasting Roman wines at Mas de Tourelles

Long-lasting Roman influences are well-traced and cultivated in and around Nîmes. Ancient Romans were not only prolific in monument-building and bath-culture development, but also the first to produce wine from the locally-grown Gallic grapes.
Mas de Tourelles winery in Beaucaire, not far from Pont du Gard, owned and operated by the Durand family, is located at the archeological site of a Gallo-Roman villa whose dwellers were presumably engaged in some winemaking in the 1st century CE.
Inspired by the historical connotations, Diane and Herve Durand, and their son Guilhem started a wine-producing enterprise following the detailed descriptions of the Roman winemaking process found in Pliny The Elder’s, Lucius Columella’s and Palladius’s writings.
While visiting Mas des Tourelles, we stepped into the replica of a Roman cellar in the 17th century stone farmhouse on the property. Inside the dark high-ceilinged room, cool even on the hottest day, there was a giant wine press made of an entire tree and suspended on ropes; half-ton clay vats, buried in the ground for temperature control; and piles of amphorae – the wine bottles of antiquity.
At harvest time, Mas des Tourelles employees, dressed in rough tunics, reenact all the steps of the Roman slaves producing wine – from harvesting and barefoot crushing of the grapes to introducing various additives during fermentation.
While the ancient winemakers didn’t know sugar, they tried to improve the taste of their product by adding honey and fruit juices. If the wine appeared to be too sweet, they poured some sea water and spices into the vat. Limestone dust, ash, saffron, and whey could be added to wine to make it better tasting – and better looking, too.
Strange as it sounds, the Roman wines produced at Mas des Tourelles according to the ancient technology are delicious and beautiful to behold.
Mulsum is blended with honey, cinnamon, pepper, thyme, and other spices; Turriculae is dry, with additions of seawater, fenugreek, and concentrated grape juice; Carenum is made of late harvest grapes and contains quince juice and herbs. 

Home-made goodies at Domaine des Clos

Thanks to the growing tourist interest, the area is now studded with family-owned hotels and B&Bs. Our group stopped for the night in Beaucaire, at Domaine des Clos owned by David and Sandrine Ausset.
The hotel occupies a remodeled 18th century farmhouse with nine guestrooms and nine apartments with full kitchens. An enormous garden with green lawns, cypress and palm trees, and an outdoor swimming pool stretches behind the rose-planted yard.
Our dinner with the hosts was prepared by Sandrine using locally-grown produce, many from her own garden, and Costières de Nîmes wines.
Chilled zucchini soup with spinach and asparagus garnish; salmon en papillote in fig leaves; roasted potatoes, and carrots with olives, shallots, and rosemary were gracing the table in the land of plenty.
Next morning, we were treated to a breakfast buffet of freshly-baked breads and pastries, fresh-squeezed orange juice, yogurts, cheeses, fruit, and delicious jams made by Sandrine – before hitting the road in search of new adventures in Languedoc.
More information:  Atout France - France Tourism Development Agency  Air France  Languedoc-Roussillon Regional Tourism Office  Gard Department Tourism Office  Aude Department Tourism Office


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