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Heady stuff in France's deep south

Jennifer Choi finds new directions at Les Grands Chemins

Written by . Published on April 4th 2011.


Heady stuff in France's deep south

Fine art and artisan food and wine are perfectly matched in France’s Minervois region, discovers Jennifer Choi

PICTURE perfect. As writers we try to avoid clichés, but sometimes the obvious just fits. The scenery in Minervois is the epitome of life imitating art, which in this case is a Monet painting.

Endless rows of vines line the winding roads, their leaves an autumnal mix of reds and yellows, little 12th century houses tiled with cream and orange roofs, the snow-capped Pyrénées in the background and a cloudless blue sky. It's one of those settings that look good no matter what direction you point your camera.

I'm in the heart of Languedoc-Roussillon in the south of France, far away from the riots, uncollected rubbish and talks of pension reforms that have plagued the cities. I'm here for Les Grands Chemins, a food, wine and arts festival fortnight with enough conviviality to silence any cynics proclaiming that the art de vivre is a thing of the past.

IMG_7671.JPGWe call into Domaine St Leocadie in Aigne, one of the open houses hosting an exhibition for the festival. Three sculptors are chiselling away en plein air; there's a spread put on with tastings of wines from the vineyard literally a stone's throw away.

With breathtaking views and in some cases, live classical music performances too, you'd be forgiven in thinking that these are events firmly targeted at the high-cultured, upper middle class wallet. A surprisingly princely price tag of €15 for all this, however, puts them very much back within the belt-tightened traveller's reach.

The area is still shaking off its bad reputation as the mass-producer of cheap reds, and many vignerons are thinking outside the AOC (designated appellation status) box to develop lesser-known but just as exciting grapes varieties.

If in doubt, Marie Binistri at Les Raisins de Soleil is your go-to. Her cave is a boutique of local wines hand-picked from her visits to vineyards all over the Minervois. Her recommendation for my cash-strapped but still adventurous palate is a Domaine Monastrel 2008 from the hilly terrain in Bize Minervois at less than €8, where even the untrained tongue can taste the 'terroir' of clay and limestone in this powerful yet flowery red.

Those who stay to explore unspoilt villages nearby will be richly and diversely rewarded by the likes of Le Somail, Caunes-Minervois and Minerve.

IMG_7798.JPGLe Somail is a storybook hamlet perched on the Canal du Midi with a barge for their local grocery store, an AMC-sized warehouse converted into a vintage bookshop, and the ateliers of artists eager to chat about their work over a glass of local tipple.

In Denis Carrière's case, it was paintings in oil and watercolours over charcoal sketches, and a Muscat de St Jean from Narbonne, which I was fully prepared to dismiss as cloyingly sweet until the clear floral notes hit my tongue.

Medieval Caunes-Minervois has an eighth century Benedictine abbey with nearly as much marble as the Chateau of Versailles. You'll see why when you get to the vast marble quarry with giant shafts of pink and white carved in unnaturally regular chunks from the mountain. Louis XVII got his Château kitted out here.

Nowadays the cost of treating the marble makes it uneconomical to extract, and sadly what little is produced is exported to Italy for resale. Still, the quarry is home to Thierry Auneau, whose current project of sculpting from a 12-tonne chunk of marble in his outdoor studio is an impressive sight.

IMG_7958.JPGThe capital of Minervois, Minerve, is one of 'les plus beaux Villages de France'. That's thanks to a signature arched bridge, natural, dramatic ledges from its position between two massive gorges, and that dried up riverbed of the River Cesse leading to a large tunnel – a culmination of geographical wonders that can only truly be appreciated on foot.

And finally, we return to Carcassonne, a bustling fortified town with pointed cone roofs and multi-layered ramparts from both Roman and medieval times, and gates which look out onto the River Aude. It’s a great base for visiting the region. Religion, history and architectural buffs alike can revel in the legendary tales of the Cathars while tourists may find irresistible offerings of cassoulet, foie gras and artisan wines.

Factfile

Ryanair flies to Carcassonne from Liverpool and Leeds and to Montpellier from Leeds.
bmibaby are launching a new route from Manchester to Montpellier from July 2, operating twice a week on Tuesday and Saturday for the peak summer season. fares will start from just £40.99 one way including taxes.

For tourism information on the region visit www.sunfrance.com.
 
Accommodation:
La Bastide Cabezac ***
18-20 Hameau de Cabezac - 11120 BIZE MINERVOIS (France)
Tél. (033+) 04 68 46 66 10 - Fax. (033+)04 68 46 66 29
www.la-bastide-cabezac.com.
 
B&B  La Marbrerie
Avenue de l’Argens Double
1160 Caunes Minervois
www.la-marbrerie.fr.
 
Château de Siran ***
avenue du Château
34210 Siran
www.château-de-siran.com.
 
We also visited the self-catering Gites: Bastide Les Aliberts
Les Aliberts
F - 34210 Minerve
Tel : +33 (0)4 6891 8172
www.aliberts.com.

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