Exclusive for Vagobond, story and photos by Linda Kissam
Many of us think we need to travel to Paris or Champagne to experience what France has to offer in the way of wine travel. I’ve been to both, and they were great for family holidays, but I find the small, less known wine regions featuring family owned wineries to be much more intriguing.
There’s a story behind these out-of-the way spots that call to the soul of people who love wine, food, and the soft adventure activities that support that mindset. And if you seek the unique captivating sense of discovering a rock star in the making, then I guess I now have your attention.
I often receive wine samples to review. I love that, but the true test of understanding a wine is to visit where it is made and to get to know the people who made it. As luck would have it I received an invitation from one of the most influential and visionary French vintners — Gerard Bétrand – to visit him on his turf – in the South of France. I would be his guest for 4 days to experience the food, wine and jazz Bétrand style.
Who could resist that invitation? Not me. In a few short days, I was off from San Diego, California to the South of France (SUD) to taste SUD wines as they are meant to be experienced. Follow along my friends and then recreate this trip for yourself.
I’ve interviewed my share of winery owners, winemakers and growers. Some have passion for the wine, some have dedication for the business of wine, some for the pleasure of wine…and then there are those that have the vision not only for the wine they make, but for the place that wine comes from. It does not take long to understand that I was in the presence of a man who could easily be called a wine visionary for the South of France. The man, his wines, and his wine region have presence, passion, and potential oozing from him.
Gérard Bertrand owns five estates in what many consider the best wine regions of the Languedoc: Château Laville Bertrou, Domaine de L’Aigle, Domaine De Villemajou, Cigalus, and Cháteau L’Hospitalet. Each features its own terroir and wine program.
While I was fortunate to visit three of those Chateau’s, my main focus was on Château l’Hospitalet. Lying between Narbonne and the Mediterranean on what was once an island, Château l’Hospitalet Gérard Bertrand’s headquarters is comprised of 978 hectares of moorland and 82 hectares of vines in a beautiful sea-view location in the heart of the Coteaux du Languedoc – La Clape appellation.
It is 2.5 miles from the sea and 4 miles from Narbonne’s center. This facility is the perfect spot to base your 3-4 day exploration of the region. It is the third most visited tourist attraction in the region. The top two are the old city in Carcasonne and an African themed safari park. Those of you who favor or support Eco Tourism will be glad to know Mr. Bertrand has adopted a strict carbon neutral sustainable approach to his vineyard management while offering eco-friendly wine-tourism related activities.
The regional character of the Chateau L’Hospitalet will charm you. It’s Mediterranean hip, edgy and comfortable all rolled into one. Enjoy the pleasant atmosphere of the small modern bistro, the comfortable dining room, and the lounge bar for relaxing breaks and (in season) smokin’ jazz evenings. I especially appreciated the luscious meals and snacks made from regional products (olive oil, olives, jams, honey, etc.) The restaurant serves Mediterranean cuisine and premium wines. Unwind in the comfy lounge bar armchairs, enjoy some music, and taste some Tapas along with a glass of premium regional wine.
Chateau L’Hospitalet has 38 spacious rooms accommodating 2 to 4 people. The hotel is set on a large property overlooking a small park-like area, gardens, and vineyards. All rooms feature lovely amenities such as spacious beds and flat screen TV’s. You’ll enjoy the swimming pool and the short walk to the tasting cellar. Get adventurous and take a hike up the hill for a breath taking view of the sea and surrounding vineyards.
Château l’Hospitalet definitely is a wine estate with a strong sense of self based on hospitality focusing on the Mediterranean lifestyle: cellar visits and tasting of course, but also make time for to explore the art exhibitions, crafts workshops and an annual jazz festival on the first weekend in August showcasing the facilities at the Château. Try booking your visit during the August Jazz Festival (held at Chateau L’Hospitalet) if you can. If it’s booked, try one of the local hotels located on small waterways and beaches where you can become part of the local scene. Don’t expect big fancy accommodations. Think small family friendly vacation rooms.
A key focus of my short stay was a 3-day pass to the International Jazz event. Located on the Chateau’s property, the event is designed entirely to promote ecotourism. Five concerts, 6,500 attendees, 5 gala dinners on the Chateau’s gorgeous grounds, means this is THE place to be the first week of August. A typical night’s schedule includes a 7 p.m. tasting, 8 p.m. Mediterranean dinner created by some very talented chefs, a 10 p.m. concert, and a midnight after party at La Cave ? Jazz. Wow does not do this justice: spectacular maybe, or once in a lifetime perhaps.
This was their 8th annual festival, so I would expect it to go smoothly, but this was more magical than smooth. Think premium wines (I actually got to taste a 1936 Gérard Bertrand Rivesaltes- bottle 623 of 869), French food at its most local and finest, vineyards everywhere, the waft of sea air, a big French moon, and the most glamorous people ever as my dining partners.
The Jazz talent is handpicked each year by Gérard and his team. He told me he tries not to repeat any act so that each year guests can look forward to something new and exciting. Each performer had their own vibe and that made each show an experience in itself.
What wine travel adventure would be complete without a discussion of the wines? The wines bearing the Gérard Bertrand signature share a common identity: balance and elegance, they truly express the thoughtfulness of the winemaker and the South of France terroir.
There are 4 levels or ranges to meet the needs of the different markets:
1. Vins de Pays and Varietal Wines: pleasure guaranteed
2. AOC wines for more character and complexity: culture of flavor
3. Great wines: experience the emotion
4. Natural Sweet Wines and Sparkling Wines: region’s softer side
Gérard Bertrand wines win tons of medals bearing testimony to the consistent quality of his products. Awards include: the Paris Agricultural Show, the official reference in French quality wines ;the equally-prestigious Brussels Concours Mondial ; the Grands Vins de France Competition in Macon, Vinalies “OEnologues de France”, the Blaye Bourg International Wine Challenge, the Wine Challenge (UK and Japan), and the Anivit National Vins de Pays Competition organized by the Union of French Oenologist.
As nice as it is to have all those words of praise from your peers, the true test comes in the hands of the consumer. Trust me; you’ll love any one of them no matter where you are on your wine journey – novice to aficionado. On a warm French evening under a romantic moon my favorites included Cremant de Limoux Brut, Natural Grenache (Organic), Cigalus blanc, and the yummy Gerard Bertrand Banyuls. These are great value wines and can be found worldwide. Conclusion? You haven’t completed your wine journey – be romantic or more pragmatic – until you join Gérard in the South of France at l’Hospitalet to experience his vision of ecotourism as you groove to sweet & sassy Jazz, dine in culinary excellence, drink inspired wines from sustainable vineyards, dance under French moonlight, and be pampered at the l’Hospitalet hotel. Check out the Gerard Bertrand Web site for other interesting events like the L’Art De Vivre in June and the exquisite Truffle Hunt in December. A vote santé!