Hi, I'm Veronique Raskin and I am the founder & CEO of The Organic Wine Company. My blog is mostly about organic wine & self-development, as well as anything else that interests and inspires me!
Since I was a very little girl my most favorite thing of all was to spend time with intelligent men. I was fortunate in that such men would frequently come to visit my parents. I remember sitting on laps and asking endless questions about what they did, who they were, what life was about. This began by age five, I kid you not.
“Man does not live by bread alone,” as far as I am concerned, no truer words were ever uttered. A large measure of my existence stems from passion for and being nurtured by human conversation; it is to me what dancing is to dancers and what music is to musicians–they cannot live a day without dancing or playing music; I find it hard to live without daily intelligent dialogue, the kind that when you ring off the phone you realize that you have learned and grown a little bit, your mind has expanded and you are changed for the better.
As it turns out, this man Tim is what I call an intelligent man, husband to my friend Sue Straight. No, I don’t sit on his lap–but he and I began to talk about sulfites in wine (of all things!) and this, as they say, was the beginning of a wonderful relationship, full of enriching back and forth. This travel piece is the first of what I hope to be many contributions he will make to the cause here at the Organic Wine Company.
I could not attend the Millésime Bio Fair this year because of a knee injury, which made me sad. However Sue did go, and Tim accompanied her to Montpellier in Languedoc-Roussillon. This area is my home ground and Tim offers a new perspective on my native land–a welcome and interesting perspective at that.
I think you will find Tim’s travel story engaging, and perhaps endearing–I did.
I recently had the opportunity to join my wife, Sue Straight (The Winewench®) on a press trip to Montpellier (Moan-pell-yay), France. Her assignment was to take part in and write about the Millésime Bio Fair, a trade show featuring organically produced wines from around the world. I had the benefit of a very flexible schedule (nothing I really had to do); combined with my natural curiosity about new places, I knew I would not be at a loss for activities during our brief stay. I was privileged to be invited on a day trip that the press team took on the second day—more on that later—but otherwise I got to spend time exploring Montpellier and its environs. Although the primary raison d’être for this trip was journalistic coverage of the Millésime Bio Fair, the host city, Montpellier, is an interesting vibrant city. This short essay discusses what I learned about and saw in Montpellier while visiting, as well as relating a few thoughts/questions on grape- growing and winemaking as they occurred to me during the visit.
I would like to thank Mlle Roxanne Pinault of Clair de Lune, a public relations agency that coordinated the activities of the press team, who was so gracious in including me on a day-long tour visiting the local oenological laboratory and an organic vineyard and winery, not to mention inviting me to a splendid lunch and a magnificent dinner on the second day of our stay. I would also like to thank Veronique Raskin, whose efforts resulted in my wife’s invitation to the Millésime Bio Fair—without that, I’d have had no reason to go.
I would also like to apologize to my French professor, Mrs. Garrison, for my failure to keep up with the language that I learned fairly well over a four-year period; that apology extends to all those in Montpellier and its surroundings who were subjected to my poor approximation of their language while visiting—I will do better next time, I promise.
As I’ve found nearly everywhere in this world that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit, there is much more to an area than what one might see from the hotel window, or the taxi from the airport, or even a guided tour. Montpellier is no exception. Hence, when I visit a new city or region, I like to learn as much as I can about that place before I arrive; this allows me to direct my meanderings to locations/sights that interest me, and to understand a little about what makes the place what it is. Such was the case with Montpellier, and this piece shares some of what I learned and the experiences I had while I was there.
Montpellier is the Prefecture of the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. This region is a consolidation of the historic provinces of Languedoc and Roussillon, with parts and pieces of other provinces around its edges. The region extends from the mouth of the Rhone River adjacent to Provence south and west along the Mediterranean to the Spanish and Andorran borders, and the Midi- Pyrénées region of France. To the north, this region extends into the Massif Central and abuts the regions of Auvergne and Rhône-Alpes.
The region is often referred to simply as Languedoc, perhaps to the chagrin of those in the historic province of Roussillon. The name is a compound of the phrase langue d’Oc, a reference to the language of the area historically known as Occitania or pais d’Oc (the Oc country). This area extended from present-day northern Spain, arching through southern France and over the Italian border. It had it’s own language, Occitan. This was the language of the troubadours and poets of the 12th and 13th centuries. Thus, Languedoc is the land where Occitan is spoken— or used to be. This Romantic language, sharing much with French and Catalan, is spoken by a minority of the population these days, mostly as a second language. It sounds a little French, a little Spanish . . . and a little something different altogether.
Montpellier is an old city, though not ancient by European standards. It is thought to have been founded by building a wall around two small hamlets, sometime in the 10th century, by the Guilhem feudal dynasty. The name Montpellier stems from mont (hill) and pelé (naked), because the vegetation of the hills making up the site was sparse, reflecting the poor underlying soils. The area was known to and occupied by the Romans much earlier than the founding of the city, and they referred to it as Monspessulanus, which translates to the same meaning as Montpellier. Today, there are plants and animals which carry the city’s name as a specific epithet, denoting that they hail from this area, notably: Malpolon monspessulanus (Montpellier snake); Genista monspessulana (French broom)—a plant in the pea family that is native to southern France (the same plant occurs widely in California and is considered a weed there), and Polypogon monspeliensis (beardgrass), a grass of local origin that occurs in moist/wet soils, also a colonist in areas of similar climate and soils in the western hemisphere.
By the 12th century, the city was a major trading center, and supported a diverse population of many ethnic and religious backgrounds. It was also a center for medical education, extending back from the time of Moorish occupation in the 10th century, with formal schools of law and medicine established in the year 1220. Those schools have continued to the present; there are three universities in Montpellier operating as a consortium.
From the 12th through the 15th century, Montpellier was somewhat anomalous in that Jews, Catholics, Cathars (a Christian group distinct from the Catholics), Muslims and other religions all lived there, apparently in relative peace and harmony. At the time of the reformation in the 16th century, many of the inhabitants became Protestants, or Huguenots as they were known in France. The city became a center of resistance to the French crown, a Catholic monarchy. King Louis XIII apparently lacked a sense of humor about this, laying siege to Montpellier in 1622, ultimately defeating the infidels and building a citadel to provide protection for the Catholic rulers. Montpellier became the capitol of Bas (lower) Languedoc. Remnants of the bastions can still be seen today in the city. What is left of the citadel is today home to the Lycée Joffre (a middle school and high school), just east and down the hill from l’Esplanade Charles de Gaulle.
After the French Revolution, the city became the capitol of the Herault Department. In the ensuing years of the 19th and 20th centuries, Montpellier became an industrial center. The population received a significant bump in the 1960’s when French settlers in Algeria were relocated there after the war with that colony; a war that ended with Algeria’s independence from France.
The current population of Montpellier is around one-quarter-million people. The greater metropolitan area is home to approximately five hundred and fifty thousand. It is the 8th largest, and fastest growing city in France.
Then there is the wine . . . yes, there certainly is. Languedoc-Roussillon supports the largest contiguous vine-growing/wine making region in the world. There are nearly 300,000 hectares (about 740,000 acres, or nearly 1,200 square miles and almost 11 percent of the total land area of the region) in production, much larger than Burgundy and Bordeaux combined. Grapevines outnumber people by dozens, if not hundreds to one. Languedoc-Roussillon is also the southernmost and climatically the driest wine-producing region in France. It accounts for roughly ten percent of worldwide wine grape production. Vineyards, large and small are found nearly anywhere you look, from the outskirts of Montpellier to the mountains up north, with the exception of natural preserves and most urban lands. Grapes are what is grown here, and wine is what is made.
The regional preoccupation with things grape here seems natural. There are fossil indications that grapes were growing in Languedoc-Roussillon during the Pliocene age, 1.5-6 million years before the present. This precedes the appearance of winemakers on the planet by something like 1.49 million years or so. All that the grapes needed was for some enterprising primates to come along to allow them to fulfill their greatest potential—releasing their (literally and figuratively) intoxicating nectars. Grapes have been cultivated and wine has been made here since at least Roman times.
We tend to think of plants as “dumb” or lacking in sentience—but if you think about it—some of them have been very successful at ensuring their own long-term survival and prosperity, If you think a little further, with the possible exception of cereal crops (rice, corn wheat, barley) what plant has been more successful at getting itself shuttled to suitable growing areas all over the world? Moreover, what other agricultural plant is nurtured and cared for like a baby in the arms of loving parents? I rest my case. In exchange, the grape provides us with a source of sensual stimulation and enjoyment—and enjoy I did. Just loitering around the edges of the journalists who were there for “serious work,” I had the opportunity to taste dozens of excellent, organically grown and produced wines from this region.
The focus of the Millésime Bio is on the production and marketing of organic wines [emphasis added]. Organic wineries from all temperate-climate countries were represented here. It set me to wondering, what is it that makes a wine organic? That is a topic I am now pursuing—stay tuned for that.
I did not, however, spend all my time sipping my way from one end of the Millésime Bio Fair to the other. Rather, I spent most of my time wandering around Montpellier and the surrounding area.