Wines and Monuments of Languedoc, South of France by Emma Krasov

Photography by Emma Krasov

Ancient Romans are often brought to mind in the wine-producing region of 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 of the golden age. 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 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, 50 kilometers to the north.

The name of the region, Languedoc, which literally means “the language of Oc” and refers to Occitan language formerly used in the South of France, derives its historical identity from Celtic and Iberian tribes, Greek, Phoenician, Etruscan and Roman settlers; Alemanni, Vandal, Visigoth and Saracen invaders; Jewish religious scholars and Cathar religious rebels. The entire region is a rich mosaic of cultural tidbits and architectural monuments from the long gone eras.

The city of Narbonne – the first Roman settlement in France then called Colonia Narbo Martius – was founded in 118 BCE as a port on Aude River. The first Roman road that connected Italy and Spain across southern France, Via Domitia, was built at the same time and gave even more importance to the new colony. A paved fragment of the ancient road can be seen today at the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville right in the city center by the Town Hall, which used to be the Archbishop’s Palace before the French Revolution. A Gothic church of Notre-Dame-de-Lamourguier, a 13th century Benedictine monastery, shut down during the Revolution, is now the Lapidary Museum, where exquisitely carved Roman gravestones are stacked in impressive quantities.
In the Middle Ages, Roman stone blocks were used in the construction of La Cathédrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur, which was never completed, but in the Gothic church tradition conveyed a vision of paradise to its worshippers through the immense beauty of its architecture.

On the outskirts of Narbonne, Abbaye de Fontfroide – one of the best preserved Cistercian abbeys in the world – is built of local sandstone from the surrounding hills and boasts some recycled Corinthian columns from antiquity with elaborate finials which support its massive stone arches. Shut down by the Revolution, then periodically occupied and finally abandoned by the monks, the abbey was saved from decline by Gustave and Madeleine Fayet, who acquired the place in 1908, restored it, and turned into a cultural center.
Our tour group stopped for lunch at the abbey’s excellent restaurant, La Table de Fontfroide which features Corbières AOC wines and beer produced on site following the old monks’ recipes. A small Gallo-Roman town in the 1st century BCE, Carcassonne, located on a hilltop over Aude River valley, became a fortress by the 11th century, and remains the largest medieval walled town in Europe and a tourist attraction visited by about three million people a year.

The history of Carcassonne is literally written on its walls. Typical Roman masonry is defined by neatly spaced arches and large windows for easy spear-throwing. When crossbow became a weapon of choice in times of Visigothic invasion, narrow vertical slits, or arrow loops, fit for an archer, punctured the stone in chessboard pattern.
A stronghold of Cathars, Carcassonne was besieged during the Albigensian Crusade, and surrendered in 1209. In 1226, it was annexed to the domain of the King of France, at which time the outer walls of the fortress were built. Meticulously restored and preserved by the 19th century architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, Carcassonne is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and a fascinating maze of stone passageways, galleries, and watchtowers set against the snow-covered mountain tops of the Pyrenees. Stained glass windows of Basilique Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse de Carcassonne, some dating back to the 14th century, are considered the most beautiful of their kind in the South of France.
From the nearby river port, our group embarked on a short cruise along Canal du Midi connecting the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. Built by Pierre-Paul Riquet, who poured his entire life and fortune into the project, it is considered to be one of the biggest engineering achievements of the 17th century. The tree-lined section of the 240-kilometer-long waterway is now a leisurely route for vacationers from all over the world, houseboat owners, and several short daily cruises, like ours, that showcase bridges, tunnels, some of the 63 locks, and an unparalleled view of Carcassonne.
Thanks to the growing tourist interest, the area is studded with family-owned hotels and B&Bs. One night, our group stayed in Beaucaire, at Domaine des Clos owned by David and Sandrine Ausset. The hotel occupies a remodeled 18th century farmhouse with an enormous garden, green lawns, and an outdoor swimming pool.

Our dinner with the hosts was prepared by Sandrine using locally-grown produce, many from her own garden, and Costières de Nîmes wines.

Another night we spent at Saint-Gilles in a double-hotel Mas du Versadou and Château la Pompe.
This historical property features a bamboo-lined canal that runs between the two buildings, open-air swimming pools, fountains, outdoor sculptures, a couple of free-roaming peacocks, and the hotel’s own Roman baths, made out of several gigantic wine vats placed next to each other, equipped with plumbing, and appropriately furnished and decorated. Both hotel buildings and the land around are owned and operated by husband and wife Marie and Michel Durand-Roger, who were previously engaged in winemaking.

Some of their neighbors combine their vine-growing business with hospitality, renting out a couple of rooms during tourist season, and offering home-cooked dinners made of local specialties. We had a memorable wine-tasting seminar and a delicious catered dinner at Le Château La Baume (“the cave”). The owners, Sandrine and Jean-François Andreoletti, produce white, red, and rosé wines with an image of an ancient Roman statue of Bacchus, the god of winemaking, on the label.
The original Bacchus statue graces the tasting room of the property that leads to the cave. This 18th century mansion occupies a site of an excavated Gallo- Roman villa.
At dinner, Sandrine treated us to a succession of excellent wines with the Bacchus label, and explained the intricacies of the fermentation and blending methods employed by her husband, a fifth-generation winemaker.
In Sandrine’s kitchen, chef Eric Hugnin prepared a traditional Saint-Gilles meal – mixed greens salad with blue cheese; slow-cooked beef with Camargue rice and sage; and a dessert of local strawberries and cream.