September is a beautiful time of the year to be out and about — and to explore the wine region all around us. Alex Francis, proprietor of Vins & Vinos in the center of Carcassonne, proposed a half-day bike tour to visit a couple nearby wineries. We and two American friends were Alex’s inaugural bike-tour customers. Alex has for many years led tours by car; however, he is an avid cyclist and wanted to try a more open-air approach.
We were happy to be wine-tasting guinea pigs.
Alex arranged electric-bike rentals. We had never ridden electric bikes, and now we want some for ourselves (although we learned that they are enormously expensive). If and when you want, the electric motor quietly adds a boost. Perfect for steep hills. And older legs.
Alex had tested out the bike route before taking us on it. This morning, he quickly realized that he, as an experienced cyclist, had sped through the route considerably more quickly than we novices — who were more interested in savoring the beautiful day than rushing to our destination. After the tour, he said that he will revise it to be a full-day tour rather than the half-day that he anticipated. He can thank our dawdling.
We cycled out of the center of Carcassonne along the Canal du Midi. We are very fortunate to live near this 17th-century marvel. Can you imagine the audacity of building a canal connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean? 350 years ago! Excavating and constructing 150 miles / 240 kilometers of canal and 100 locks, with only human and animal power. Today it is a lovely tree-lined leisure waterway.
We are in the AOC (L’appellation d’origine contrôlée) region of Cabardès, to the north and west of Carcassonne. Like all AOC’s in France, there are strict rules about locations and wine varieties for Cabardès. A unique requirement is inclusion of grapes from the Atlantic (think Bordeaux) climate and grapes from the Mediterranean climate. Very specifically in fact: 40% of some combination of cabernet franc, cabernet-sauvignon, and merlot; 40% of some combination of grenache and syrah. A few other supporting grapes are also allowed.
From the AOC Cabardès web site:
Cabardès is a painting we like to linger in front of … with a magnificent view of the Pyrenees.
The winds cross here. From east or west, coming from the sea or the ocean, they deliver Mediterranean softness and Aquitaine humidity. The nights bring freshness to this idyllic scene and thereby offer the alternation conducive to the blossoming of grape varieties hitherto unknown in Cabardès. The liveliness of the red fruits of Atlantic grape varieties, such as Cabernet and Merlot, are combined with the complexity of those of Mediterranean origin, such as Syrah and Granache. The south-facing foothills of the Montagne Noire hosts lush vegetation of holm oaks and large chestnut trees, contrasting with the nearby Mediterranean flora such as scrub oak, lavender, thyme and rosemary.
The diversity of the terroirs and the mastery of the blend of grape varieties bring complexity, freshness, richness and harmony to the wines, perfectly expressing the duality between the harshness of natural elements and the finesse of human know-how.
Our first winery stop was at Château La Mijane.
From La Mijane web site:
The Château La Mijane was built on a land rich with history. Roman remains traverse the estate, which is protected by the Black Mountain and bordered by the Canal du Midi. Part of the Roman road, Via Aquitania, forms today’s pine-tree-lined entry allée.
In the 17th century, during the construction of the Canal du Midi, many traders settled on the banks of the Canal. They quickly established commercial activities along this new axis linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
The domain of Mijane was created in 1770. Mr. Tapié, originally from Caunes Minervois, from a large family of traders, bought the current land of the château. He created a soap factory to complement the flourishing trade of cloth weaving in the Aude. The location of the estate along the Canal du Midi brought many visitors and business people. The estate is located halfway between the urban center of Toulouse and the Mediterranean port of Sète. The estate was prosperous; its population increased. The patriarch of the estate built the château for him and his family — which we still see today — , vegetable and summer gardens, a washhouse, reception rooms, visitor accommodations, a building for the workers, and a Sunday school.
The estate had always produced simple wine for local consumption. However, in 1818, determined wine-growing activity saw the light of day when the wealthy Carcassonnais banker, Jules Coste, bought the estate. He constructed the first wine cellar and started commercial wine production.
Fabrice, the actual hands-on vintner, showed us around the vines and the chais, which is where the wine is made. We were taken with how open and enthusiastic he was. He honestly enjoyed telling us all about the vine varieties, the history of wine making in this region, and the process, in detail, about how he turns these grapes into tasty local wines. He was so willing to answer our questions that Alex had to call ahead to our second winery to rearrange the schedule.
Any time wine makers explain the history of wine production in the Languedoc, and in anywhere in France, they tell the story of the disastrous infestation of the American aphid phylloxera in the 19th century. We learned quite a bit about this history when we visited La Maison du Rire; you can check out the blog post. It’s a horrid tale of vine devastation in Europe, and the eventual solution of grafting European grape varieties onto the roots of American grape varieties — which are naturally resistant to phylloxera. This approach continues today.
Fabrice shared two details that we found interesting. We were standing amid the Syrah vines. He pointed down to the base of the vines all around us. There, evident, was the knobby top of the American vine roots, out of which the European vine grows. From abstract history to tangible example.
There are a few situations in this region where vine growers can still use European roots. Phylloxera lives and reproduces in the vine roots. They spread through the soil from vine to vine. In some vineyards at Marseillette, along the Mediterranean coast, the wine growers flood the fields each year. The aphids can’t survive the inundations. In another place, Lirac, at the eastern edge of the Languedoc, the soil is so sandy that the phylloxera bugs can’t transit from one vine to the next. Fabrice said, think of the ball pits at McDo (McDonalds for Americans!) where kids jump and dive. That’s what it’s like for phylloxera amid the sand grains.
We were visiting the estate right in the middle of harvest time. That meant that Fabrice could show us, and let us taste, some of the grape juice that was just starting the process toward wine. As you’d expect, the juice is sweet and fresh. All that sugary goodness will become alcoholic goodness.
For the dégustation, or tasting, we sampled a rosé, a white (surprisingly made from cool-climate gewurztraminer grapes, which are more commonly associated with Alsace in the northeast of France), and two reds. We particularly enjoyed the reds. (A couple days after the bike tour, we returned, by car this time, to buy a few bottles.)
Our next stop was the winery of the Château de Pennautier. We have visited here many times over the years. We enjoy bringing our visitors from afar here for their excellent instructive wine tasting and welcoming restaurant. Here’s an example from a 2017 blog post. Lunch outside on the terrace and wine tasting afterwards were as nice as ever.
The route back to Carcassonne took us among more vineyards. Evidence of the vendange, or harvest, were everywhere. We encountered impressive grape-picking machinery, and tractors pulling open carts for the fresh grapes.
More reason for our maintaining a leisurely pace were beautiful tree-lined old roads, and routes through the forest and along the canal. A very nice day, indeed.