Meggan Robinson on September 9, 2015 0 Comments The Mediterranean Coast Craggy hillsides covered with grapevines, sunlight on the Mediterranean, a town so small the only commerce is a bread van that visits a couple of times each week: welcome to Languedoc-Roussillon, a place with more foie gras than you can possibly consume. This region in France is notable for the delicious wines from appellations you’ve never heard of. Oh–and did I mention the castles? Languedoc-Roussillon is in the southwest of France. It borders the Mediterranean Sea, and the Pyrenees straddle its southern border with Spain. While French is the official language, both Occitan–an old language spoken across southern France–and Catalan–historically spoken along the French-Spanish border–persist even today. It is a region steeped in history, food and wine, and a place that operates at a languorous pace, encouraging you to slow down and soak up the atmosphere. A few years ago, my husband and I traveled to Languedoc-Roussillon. Though we’re both in the wine business, we didn’t make winery appointments, as we wanted to wander and enjoy being completely free of alarm clocks and any sort of schedule except for what we felt like doing at the moment. Along the way, the goal was to savor as much as we could–the natural beauty, customs, food, and wine. What follows isn’t an itinerary intended for others to follow, but rather a fond recollection of what we learned and the experiences–sometimes simple, sometimes grand–that marked our journey. Toulouse to Assignan We left the tiny Toulouse airport, walked through the parking lot, and found our rental car–fortunately equipped with the last English GPS at the rental agency. The roads toward our first destination were lined with fields and farms. We saw fruit trees covered with nets to protect fragile crops from voracious birds, fields of tournesols (sunflowers) with their faces seeking the sun, and vines…vines everywhere. Stopping for espresso to ward off the travel weariness that set in after a couple of hours’ drive, we double checked the map to make sure we were headed in the right direction. We felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. We still had an hour to go, so we got back on the road. When we turned from the main road toward the little hamlet of Assignan, we saw nothing but vineyards ripening in the September sun. We parked the car near the little cluster of houses we assumed was the town, though it was smaller than we ever imagined. The caretaker showed us around the 300-year-old house–the only one in the village with a rooftop terrace, we learned, and she told us which days the bread van visited. That was the extent of commerce in Assignan. St. Chinian is only about five kilometers away, and boasts several restaurants and a pretty little municipal park. We dined on huîtres (oysters), gigot d’agneau (leg of lamb), and we even savored a little foie gras, not realizing, of course, that the latter part of our journey–in the heart of foie gras country–would find us unable to bear the thought of yet another course with the delicacy. After dinner we returned to our little rooftop terrace for a glass of wine, and the town was so quiet after sunset that we whispered, not wanting to disturb the neighbors whose windows were little more than an arm’s length from ours. The red wines of St. Chinian are bright, lively, acidic, and a bit tannic. They balance the garrigue-infused cuisine of the area beautifully, and their minerality is reflective of the steep, rocky hillsides on which the grapes are grown. The primary grapes are Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah, and nearly all the wines are blends. Wine in French Restaurants Before my husband and I left, folks we knew assured us that wine in France was both delicious and cheap. Over and over, we heard how spectacular the house wines were and how the inexpensive table wines were better than anything we have in the states. We excitedly ordered our first glass of house rosé, prepared to be bowled over by the transcendent quality. To say we were disappointed would be putting it mildly. What we learned was that there’s a lot of poor quality wine consumed in France. We tried glasses of house wine in a few different spots before we gave up and ordered bottles which–while not cheap—were absolutely delicious. In France, as in lots of other places, sometimes you really do get what you pay for. Finding Wine Bargains in France That being said, it’s not like you can’t find stellar wine values. Our favorite places to buy wines were at little roadside farm stands. We would pick up succulent plums, apricots, and berries, and then shop for wine. There were crisp, delicious white Bergeracs made of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, and Ugni Blanc. We picked up rosés from Bergerac as well, blends made of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Cot (Malbec), and Merlot. Grocery stores had outstanding selections of everyday wines at wonderful prices. Tavel, not from Languedoc-Roussillon, but rather from the Rhône, is typically fairly pricey as rosé goes in the U.S. We drank bottle after bottle for next to nothing. Typically sturdier and deeper in color that many other rosés, Tavel is typically a blend of Grenache, Cinsault, Bourboulenc, Clairette, Mourvedre, Picpoul, Syrah, and Carignan, in any configuration. In fact, it was a bottle of grocery store Tavel that lead us closer to the coast. Béziers and Cap d’Agde After stopping at a little boulangerie–French for bakery–and picking up breakfast pastries, we wandered toward the coast, stopping along the way to pick up a few picnic supplies from a supermarket. With our Tavel chilling in the cooler bag, we wound our way up to Béziers to wander through the ancient city situated on the river Orb. Sipping espresso under the shade of a tree, we were surprised to hear the thunderous roar of large group of motorcycles. It seemed so out of place to have the bustle of a busy town center drowned out by the thunder of the engines, but as we headed toward a little corner bookstore, I stopped in my tracks. What had sounded like a few bikes was in fact an enormous throng of Harley Davidson enthusiasts who roared through the town. We stood transfixed as men in helmets adorned with rainbow mohawks zipped past, waving to the open-mouthed crowd that rapidly gathered. Women in leather and metal-studded underclothes blew kisses. We certainly hadn’t expected to find a parade of Harley Davidsons in Béziers. Surrendering our spot in the municipal garage to a couple of bikers, we headed closer toward the sea, again without much of a plan. Arriving in Cap d’Agde, we parked near a jetty and hauled our lunch out to the rocks. We settled on the flat tops of rocks, close enough so the sea spray just barely reached our feet when a big wave broke. We poured the ice cold Tavel into a Badoit mineral water bottle, as we didn’t want a police officer to accost us for drinking wine in public. It probably didn’t matter, but we did it anyway. We shared sips of rosé from the plastic bottle as we dined on smoked duck, some random sausages, a ripe peach, a baguette, and A.O.C. butter–who knew butter had regional appellations! On our next trip I’d like to spend more time near the coast, but the bulk of our journey was still ahead of us. We would head northeast, past Carcassonne, Toulouse, and Cahors, before we arrived for our week in Sarlat-la-Canéda. Dordogne Though we didn’t want to leave the rugged landscape around Assignan, more adventure awaited us to the northwest. On the morning of our departure, we watched from our little rooftop terrace as a farmer–just past daybreak–carted off a load of freshly harvested green grapes, likely destined to become the dessert wine of the area–the AOC Muscat Saint Jean de Minervois. Carcassonne We stopped for lunch in Carcassonne, the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though we’d read the guidebooks that told us restaurants close between lunch and dinner hours, it took several days of growing hungry around two o’clock before we finally believed that you’re lucky if you can find a place to serve you a crèpe and a beer. Fortified by a savory spinach, artichoke, and cheese crèpe, a sweet one filled with Nutella, and a pair of Kronenbourg beers, we explored the city. We soaked up a little history in the medieval fortified town that’s been occupied since the sixth century BC. We marveled at the stained glass in the cathedral whose construction was begun in 1270, and we meandered through the cemetery, fascinated by the elaborate ceramic decorations on the gravesites. But soon it was time to leave–we still had kilometers to go. Sarlat-la-Canéda We left Languedoc for Dordogne. Our drive toward the little speck on the map called Sous-Lestevenie took longer than we’d expected, and by the time we arrived at our villa it was late, and we were hungry. The owner of the house we were renting for the week made a quick phone call, told us to follow her, and jumped in the car with her husband–a man who really didn’t look like a racecar driver, but was nearly impossible to keep up with as we sped the five kilometers separating us from the town of Sarlat. Our stylish hostess–something of a local celebrity, we learned–kissed the owner’s cheeks, deposited us at a wonderful table in the little garden dining terrace of the restaurant and bid us bonne nuit. Weary from traveling and my poor excuse for French-English translation, I have no idea what we ate or drank that first night in Sarlat, but I do remember our much slower-paced drive back through the town. I couldn’t wait to explore further. Castelnaud and Beynac After a visit to the Sarlat supermarket to stock up on more picnic supplies, we left our villa in search of the nearby castles. We wound our way down into the valley of the Dordogne River, and the sight was simply breathtaking. I begged my husband to pull over to the side of the road so I could take pictures of the three castles I could see at one time. We claimed a picnic table just above Chateau de Castelnaud. We shared bread, cheeses, cured meats, and a little Bergerac rosé we’d picked up for next to nothing at the supermarket. An elderly French couple shared the table next to us, and their repast was nearly identical to ours. We spent the day touring the 12th century castle, and we crossed the Dordogne to explore its historical rival, Chateau Beynac. The ascent from the parking lot at the base of the very vertical town led to a dizzying view at the peak of the hill and a magnificent look at the castle across the river where we’d had lunch. We dined that night at a tiny restaurant in the shadow of Castelnaud, right along the bank of the Dordogne. We lingered riverside as we polished off the first (but not last) bottle of an absolutely delightful wine from an appellation neither I nor my husband had ever heard of. Pécharmant is an AOC located northwest of Bergerac, which is due east of Bordeaux. Its wines are made of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Malbec–roughly the same grape varieties as Bordeaux–but since the appellation isn’t well known outside the area, the wines are stunning values. We drank many more bottles of Pécharmant while in Dordogne, though we’ve not been successful at finding the wines in the US since. I suppose that gives us a good reason to return to southwest France. Cuisine in the Dordogne In a word: rich. Sarlat is known as the foie gras capital of the world, and indeed, duck and goose pervade many menus. From duck confit–duck preserved in its own fat–to pommes sarlandaises–potatoes cooked in (you guessed it) duck fat–to foie gras in literally every course but dessert, dinners can be heavy. We did a prix fixe dinner at a quaint little restaurant on a side street in Sarlat, and my salad had three different kinds of paté of foie gras. Three. Fortunately, there’s plenty of wine to counter all the fat. Wines from Bergerac, Bordeaux, and Cahors dominate the menus, which are almost exclusively French. We stopped in every little roadside stand we passed to replenish our produce and aperitif wines, opting for cheap and cheerful rosés and whites to accompany our daily ping-pong match before dressing for dinner. Foie gras is so ingrained in the region that by the end of our trip, we’d sworn off the delicacy (just for a little while), and we groaned when passing yet another sign advertising a spot where you could observe gavage (the feeding process that fattens the livers of geese and ducks). Hearty fare aside, one of the most magical evenings in Sarlat found us dining at yet another sidewalk table, where we were surprised to discover–near the end of our fantastic and light Italian meal–we were seated next to a woman who’d had a tiny dog on her lap throughout the entire meal. After dinner, we meandered through the streets–busy on the beautiful September evening. We paused to listen to a street musician, peered in windows of shops that had closed for the evening, and were pulled into the Sarlat Cathedral by the sound of organ music. Settling quietly in the back, we spent a few moments in silence in the surprisingly full evening service. Though I didn’t read up on the history of the magnificent building, the music and the atmosphere were mesmerizing. For the rest of the week, we explored from our home base of Sarlat, visiting Domme with its sweeping, breathtaking view of the Dordogne valley and Rocamadour, an ancient city clinging to the side of a cliff. Cahors and Toulouse With our tiny rental car packed up, we started our trek back toward Toulouse, stopping for lunch in the medieval town of Cahors, which is famed for its bridges–particularly the 14th century Pont Valentré, which spans the Lot River. Known for its wines made of Malbec, the Cahors AOC is marked by deep, tannic, and earthy wines that are lovely foils for the region’s cuisine. We ended where we began, spending our last night in Toulouse. Another ancient city, Toulouse is a sprawling, picturesque town on the Garonne River, and it’s now home to a large student population attending the University of Toulouse. We managed to find a restaurant that opened relatively early for dinner, as our flight left early the next morning. In a little garden courtyard, we celebrated with a bottle of Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne and discussed all the sights we’d missed and were determined to visit when we return to the area someday.