You’ll find many kinds of folly in Languedoc, the world’s biggest wine region

This over-productive area in France was once responsible for most of our easy drinking.

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There are many kinds of folly; more, in fact, than I’d realised. There’s the folly of visiting the Languedoc in January, when the vines are mere sticks and it’s too cold to swim. There’s the folly of offering a budget airline the opportunity for wanton cruelty: less than six months left on a non-EU passport, as my Canadian partner discovered, and the plane takes off without you.

Then there’s the other meaning of folly: an extravagant architectural decoration intended to enhance the park of a stately home. I had thought these a uniquely British foolishness, but on this brisk if sunlit day, surrounded by the quietly hibernating vines of a smart hotel and former winery beside Montpellier, I am learning otherwise.

Domaine de Verchant was given by Montpellier’s bishop to Pierre Verchant in 1582. The reasons for this bounty are forgotten, but we can assume Pierre was Catholic, and that his family was on the royalist side 40 years later when Louis XIII besieged Montpellier in an attempt to rid it of the turbulent Protestants within. The king’s victory ensured Verchant’s descendants ownership for another 250 years, when a new owner reshaped the chateau in homage to the sort of pretty, pre-Revolutionary summer residence known, apparently, as a folie Montpelliéraine.

So here I am, in a modern hotel that harks back to a 19th-century desire to emulate the architecture of wealthy 18th-century merchants. I’m tasting the restaurant’s impressive selection of Languedoc AOC wines. The designation incorporates, broadly speaking, the best of this over-productive area’s output: this is the world’s biggest wine region, and France’s oldest, and was once responsible for most of our easy drinking. I’m trying Quintina, a 2014 Grenache made with fruit from Verchant vineyards, and considering what we remember, and why. This wine takes its name from the carving on a Roman-era stone found nearby; a memorial, perhaps to a fifth (quintus) child, as well as another kind of reminder: of the long-forgotten classical villa that probably stood here centuries before Pierre arrived.

Later, with lemony lobster and crunchy lentils, I will drink Rosmarinus from Domaine Calage Resseguier: a fresh, savoury white, blended from Roussanne, Grenache and Viognier, which beautifully enhances a difficult, delicious dish. It reminds me of my father’s wine: high praise, a fleeting sensory recapturing of my well-watered youth. Its name is Latin for rosemary, herb of remembrance.

Within Languedoc AOC are five smaller, individually protected areas, making some excellent wines; the Domaine Mirabel Les Éclats 2014, a luxurious red that’s mostly Syrah, is classified AOC Pic Saint-Loup. This is appropriate given that Languedoc hides within it another region – a linguistic one, the medieval langue d’oc or Occitan language, so-called because its speakers say oc instead of oui.

In this chateau, part upscale hotel and part updated folly, it is easy to feel what Louis XIII should have known before trying to destroy the Protestant enclaves within his Catholic country: that every whole encompasses multitudes, just as every full glass contains the ghosts of plump summer grapes, and every drinker the memory of those who drank before. To oust one element and expect the entirety to remain undamaged is more than folly: it is what the French call folie. Madness. 

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

 

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration