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!
Here is the second part of Sue Straight’s husband travelogue.
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.
Read the first part here!
“Where my destinations were too far to walk, there was public transportation to get me there, and quite cheaply. A round-trip ticket on the local rail line is 2.50€, about $3.00US, and you can reach nearly any part of the city and into adjacent communities in the metropolitan area using it.
The first day was primarily one of trip recovery and getting my bearings. Not having my familiar landmarks around me, I reached for the Compass and Map apps on my iPhone. I walked around the streets that were near the hotel, noting the places to eat, shop, and identifying landmarks. It was not difficult to find a landmark—Antigone—a significant part of which was visible from the hotel foyer. Antigone is not a single structure, but more what I’d refer to as a neighborhood, or district. The major feature is a development of the same name that begins just east of Rue Poseidon with an immense arching building, l’Esplanade de l’Europe, on the right bank of the River Lez. Sitting like a taut bow aiming into the rest of the project, it is so large that capturing it photographically from the ground is impossible.
Antigone is over a kilometer (0.6 mile) along its axis, from the River Lez, to the edge of the historic city center beyond the perpendicularly placed Polygone, the entrance of which looms like a tiny bull’s eye on a distant target when viewed from the gap in l’Esplanade de l’Europe. Colossal is not too extreme a term of description for this complex. It is said to be the largest single development project ever built in France.
The development is hard to pin a date on with its classical pilasters and pediments, until you enter the Polygone near the western end and note the worn floor tile that reads: Architecte – Ricardo Bofill, 1988. M. Bofill also designed the Mercure Antigone Hotel where we stayed during our visit, across street to the north. Bofill also design several other buildings in the district. The Antigone development occupies 36 hectares (about 90 acres), but appears even larger owing to the scale of the architecture and the open spaces making up the center of the development. It is flanked on the north by Boulevard d’Antigone (Boulevard de l’Aeroport International), and on the south by the park-like Avenue Sud Champlain.
Within the development are numerous shops, salons and eating establishments, the Piscine Olympique pool, a library, a hotel, and residences in the upper stories. Vehicles are largely excluded except for one street, and the tramway which crosses in front of the Polygone. The Polygone is multi-level, and filled with cafés, shops, a department store, and the very important (to a California guy) super marché, Monoprix, which conveniently has an ATM right at the entrance. This market was the source for sustenance and cash during our stay in Montpellier, and only a ten-minute walk from our hotel.
Day two of our stay was taken up with being shuttled to various venues and activities in the area surrounding Montpellier proper. I was just along for the ride, compliments of Roxanne Pinault, and had a great time visiting the oenological laboratory in St. Clément de Rivière, a little north of the city, having an excellent lunch at Clos des Olivières, a little farther north in St. Gély de Fesc, then traveling out into the country to visit the vineyards and winery of Abbaye Sylva Plana in the hamlet of Laurens, about thirty miles (fifty kilometers) to the west of Montpellier. I got to see not only the towns and agricultural areas, but also the garrigues (shrublands) and forests in the foothills of the southern Massif Central. If I blurred my eyes slightly, it was not difficult to imagine that I was driving through the inner ranges of hills and mountains along California’s coast, between Santa Barbara and Monterey. It is definitely true that similar climates produce similar vegetation types.
While the vegetation had a very similar general appearance, the species of plants were of course, entirely different—except for the weeds. Wild oats, thistles, French broom, rockrose, and a host of small herbaceous plants like those found in any California suburban garden were present and fairly abundant. Earlier, while speaking with Jean Natali, director of the oenological laboratory, he mentioned a widely occurring North American native, horseweed (Conyza [Erigeron] canadensis) that is becoming a common vineyard weed in the region. He remarked that it imparts an off aroma and flavor to wines where it is found growing among the vines. I suppose if the west can get some of their weeds, they can get some of ours.
In contrast to the similarities between my home state’s vegetation and that of Languedoc-Roussillon, the vineyards I saw on the trip to Laurens appeared quite different. Most lacked trellising, almost all were head-pruned, and there was a complete absence of the “vine” seen in nearly all California vineyards—namely the lianas of black, drip-irrigation lines that hang just under the spreading vines. Dry farming is the rule in Languedoc-Roussillon, and it is clearly the exception in California, typically in evidence only where very old vines (commonly zinfandel) planted by European immigrants, some over one hundred years ago, are still in cultivation.
In general, the soils of the vineyards we saw appeared to be rocky and of fairly low fertility, judging by the thin cover of plants (other than the sleeping grapevines). At the vineyard we visited, I estimated the soil to be at least fifty percent rock, primarily schist. Schist is metamorphic (developing from other rock types) and may be derived from many types of parent material, including igneous rocks such as basalt, and sedimentary siltstones, mudstones and shales. It tends to be laminated (cleaving into thin plates), porous, flaky, and has a very high water-holding capacity—up to forty percent by weight—this could help explain the absence of irrigation.
Additionally, the true Mediterranean climate of southern France is somewhat different than the Mediterranean-type climate in California. The Napa Valley, for example, receives an average of twenty-seven inches of rain per year, about the same as the hills of south-central Languedoc-Roussillon. However, The Napa Valley typically receives no rainfall for nearly half the year, from mid-May well into October. Languedoc-Roussillon receives an average of at least an inch or so of rainfall in every month in a typical year—there are of course dry years and wet years, in California as well as in France. Summer temperatures reach similar average highs of 80-85oF (27-29oC), but the season of peak heat is much longer in California (June through September) than in the South of France; there, only July and August have average high temperatures above 80oF (27oC). The combination of temperature, rainfall, and perhaps planting in soils of lower fertility may spell the difference in the approach to grape farming in Languedoc-Roussillon, compared to that of similar grape-growing regions in California. History and local practice likely also play a role in this.
While at the Abbaye Sylva Plana winery, we tasted through several of their wines—all quite enjoyable, some truly excellent, and all organic. They were gracious hosts and I truly enjoyed this visit. The visit to these vineyards and winery somewhat catalyzed for me a question that had been floating around in the back of my head for some time . . . “exactly what is it that makes a wine ‘organic?’” More on that later.
We returned to Montpellier in the late afternoon, traveling back on the A750 highway, under a forbidding sky and occasional rain. We rested up for a short while, then we were swept away to a magnificent dinner at Le Petit Jardin in the city. My first course was paté de foie gras served with a poached egg, followed by pork over cabbage with mashed potatoes (much more elegant than it sounds), with a chocolate mousse served over a waffle/cookie for dessert.
The following day, I decided to head to the beach. It was clear and fairly warm. I took the tram to the end of the line in Perols, southwest of Montpellier, then waited for the bus. I had been told at the hotel that I should take the 132 bus from Perols to the beaches of Palavas-‐Les-‐Flots. However, no such bus appeared. I discussed this with the driver of another bus (who spoke no English), and we managed to communicate with each other that the 132 operates only during the summer months, but the 131 bus runs to Palavas-‐Les-‐Flots year-‐round. That bus eventually arrived and I took the fifteen-‐minute trip to the beach. I disembarked near the center of Palavas-‐Les-‐Flots, not far from the mouth of the River Lez.
The sandy beach area is actually an island, or technically a sand spit, on average about a mile from the mainland, similar to the barrier islands that occur along the east coast of the US. A series of groins (rock revetments) extend from the shore out 25-‐30 meters into the water at regular intervals, apparently to prevent erosion by longshore current flow. On the mainland side of the barrier islands are a series of étangs (ponds), and a built up canal, almost arrow-‐straight, that extends from the mouth of the Rhône River in the east to the city of Sète, on the Mediterranean coast southwest of Montpellier.
Palavas-Les-Flots is clearly a resort town, with a high density of summer cottages and condominiums. The beach is wide and was largely deserted, except by the gulls and cormorants during my visit. I imagine the scene is quite a bit different in July and August. I dipped my feet in the waters of the Mediterranean, a ritual I’ve performed during my travels all my life—oceans, major rivers, lakes, seas, I’ve felt many of them on my feet, and hope to feel more.
I returned to Montpellier the way I came, to find that my lady had come down with a nasty cold. I ventured out to the supermarket and pharmacy, returning with drugs, tea, brandy and honey to soothe her and relieve her symptoms. That evening I had dinner at Les Arches Antigone situated at the riverside, and returned with a container of soupe de l’oignon as nourishment for the ailing Susie
On our last full day in Montpellier, Susie mostly convalesced in our hotel room. I took the opportunity to wander the streets of Montpellier, visiting places that had caught my attention during preliminary reading about the city.
My first stop was the hilltop area that comprised the historic city center. I took the tram to the base of the hill. I walked up the Allée de la Citadelle past the Corum (home to the Opéra Berlioz) and crossed Jardin du Champ de Mars (parade ground), and walked along l’Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. This large open area, flanked by museums, restaurants and shops was very busy with passersby, mothers (and some fathers) and children in strollers, and others simply enjoying the bright warm day. I briefly visited the Musée Fabre, which has an impressive art/book store, and I purchased a couple of coffee mugs and some soaps from a store next door featuring items made by local artisans.
From there I went back down to Boulevard Louis Blanc, and walked around the hill north then west to Boulevard Henri IV. My target was Jardin des Plantes, just northwest of the historic city center. Being a “plant guy” I couldn’t miss this, and I’m glad I didn’t.
Jardin des Plantes is the oldest botanic garden in France, founded in 1593. The garden occupies about 4.5 hectares (11 acres). Signage in the garden indicated that this jewel in the middle of a bustling city was (in part) originally created to showcase botanical elements that corresponded to Montpellier’s role at the time of the garden’s founding; that is as a center of trade and commerce. Thus plants from areas elsewhere in the Mediterranean region and around the world with whom Montpellier traded were imported. The garden features nearly 2,700 plant species, some of which (about 900) are grown in greenhouses. One of these greenhouses features cacti and other succulents from around the world. Another greenhouse (there are several, large and small) showcases orchids, bromeliads and ferns from the colony of French Guiana. Outdoors there are mature trees from all over the planet. A number of palms and shrubs were wrapped with thin foam sheeting as protection against frost. I enjoyed just walking around on the pathways and spent a few hours entertaining myself in this magical place. It seemed a bit odd that I didn’t run into any grapevines here.
From Jardin des Plantes, I meandered among the narrow streets upon the hill. University buildings stood out here and there from among shops, offices and upstairs residences.
As an American and a Californian with the good fortune to have visited Europe a few times in my life, I’m always struck by the juxtaposition of old and new. Even as a child, living near one of the California missions (San Gabriel, 1776), I tried to imagine the landscape that was there when the mission was built. In Montpellier, as with most European cities, the very old abuts the new. I stood for a while at the north end of l’Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, looking down upon the ultramodern Corum arts complex (1990) and into the remains of the Citadel (1624), now occupied by the Lycée Joffre. It is much more complicated here, with remains of structures built by successive iterations of this city tucked in here and there among “newer” structures—some quite recent, but many over one hundred years old, some much older—a mixture that makes the view, at each place you stop to take it in, a unique tapestry of human occupation. Comparing a European city to the many “towns in a box,” or “instant cities” that spring up seemingly overnight in California and elsewhere in the US is a contrast that is hard to wrap one’s head around. The views here however, fuel the imagination and bring history to life.
The image above may partly illustrate my point—a modern restaurant in a building of who knows what age, next to the Musée Fabre (1825).
On my way back to the hotel, I stopped briefly at Place de la Comédie, just south and east of the historic city center. This large plaza is clearly the social center of the city. There were thousands of people there, shopping, walking, eating, navigating between school or work and home, and many just enjoying the warm, sunny day. The centerpiece of this plaza is the Opéra Comédie, an Italianate building datinfrom 1888. Together with Opéra Berlioz around the bend in Corum, the venue is home to Opéra National de Montpellier, Languedoc-‐Roussillon.
Although I could have spent hours, even days, just walking around the city, soaking up its pleasant ambience, the day was waning and I needed to get back to the hotel to see how my lady was doing. I stopped again at the super marché, and an eatery in Antigone so that she could sit up and take some nourishment.
We prepared our belongings and the few treasures we acquired during our stay that evening, because our flight from Montpellier to Paris was scheduled to leave at 6:45 the following morning. We made our flight, had a short layover in Paris, then the long flight home. Our route home was more northerly than the flight from SFO, up the center of England/Scotland, over the middle of Iceland, crossing Greenland about one-‐third up from the southern tip, and coming down over Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, landing at San Francisco International fourteen-‐plus hours after leaving Montpellier, but only seven clock-‐hours later (2:00PM), local time. Both coming and going, the flights were long but uneventful (a good thing), and on the way back I spent time making friends with Nicolas from Nîmes, also in Languedoc-‐Roussillon, about 36 miles (58 kilometers) east-‐northeast of Montpellier. Nicolas was on his way to Carmel Valley, California to prune olives for clients there. He has his own orchards (over three thousand trees) near Nîmes, and travels to California each year to maintain local olive orchards for his clients. We talked some about where he lives (in “Frenglish”)—I would very much like to visit there on another trip. It sounds like a very interesting city, about the size of Santa Rosa, the closest urban area to where I live, and it’s fairly close to the mouth of the Rhône and Camargue marshes—places I’ve long wanted to visit.
In all, it was a memorable trip. I found the people of Montpellier and the other communities I visited to be engaging, friendly, and nearly all spoke English to some extent. I look forward to another visit soon.
The trip also provided me with a bit more understanding of what it means to grow grapes organically and also to produce the wines using organic methods. I found out that standards are not uniform worldwide—no surprise there. I was stimulated to pursue this topic and will be posting a recap of what I’ve found out in the near future.