I’ve been going on for years in this column about how enjoying wine is more than a question of how it looks and tastes. Find out something about where it comes from, how it’s made and by whom, and you add an extra dimension of enjoyment and understanding. So far, however, I’ve avoided the question of how best to do this. I remember, as a young man, turning up in Bordeaux, bewildered by the rather uniform dull landscape and the identical closed iron gates in front of the chateaux. I came away not much the wiser. Now, in Bordeaux, it’s much easier with a Visitors’ Centre that introduces you to the area. But I also want to recommend a different approach, more suited to the lesser known winemaking areas: attend the annual Wine Fair. In the part of France where I have a house it’s called Le Grand Saint Jean, although everyone calls it the Faugères Wine Festival. Faugères is a small village 23km north of Béziers in the Languedoc, where they make tremendous rich but also complex reds, and not bad whites. Le Grand St Jean is usually held on the second Sunday in July.
Approaching from the north through dense stunted oak woods you round a corner to find yourself looking down on the vineyards of the Languedoc, with the Mediterranean glittering 30km away. This dramatic change in landscape is the key to why wine is made here and not much further north. The soil is poor, stony and perfectly drained, the slopes are south-facing, but cooled on the hottest days by breezes either from the mountains or the sea. The first village you reach is Faugères itself, normally sleepy but packed with people for the Festival. This is how it works: you pay 3 euros for a wine glass. You walk through the narrow streets; every few metres there’s a stall representing one of the Domaines. Hesitate long enough and the winemaker will start you on a tasting tour of her produce. You are not expected to buy, which is just as well if you’ve flown in. Waitrose and Majestic both have really good Faugères for when you get back.
Domaine des Trinités is typical, except that the winemaker, Simon Coulshaw (pictured) is English.
For the reds he’ll start you on Le Portail, his entry level wine made from Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre grapes – deep in colour, full in fruit, nothing special. Next comes Le Pioch – same grapes but matured in oak barrels, giving it greater complexity. Finally you reach Cuvé 42, made from the same grapes again but a different vineyard within the domaine. Simon says that even when picking the grapes for Cuvé 42 he can smell that they are special. Why 42? Isn’t that the meaning of the Universe? To taste it is to understand why he calls it that.
Repeat that process at even half a dozen stands (spitting, not drinking, and above all, taking notes) and you will come away with enough understanding to form the basis of a lifetime of drinking Faugères. And you’ll have had a great day. I haven’t mentioned the procession of winemakers in their robes, the gourmet lunch or the three different jazz bands. Fly Easyjet to Montpellier for under £60 return, B&B for £50 a night nearby, hire the smallest car you can get into, keeping the price down by buying car hire insurance at home before you go, and it’s a relatively inexpensive weekend away. And it doesn’t have to be Faugères of course; just Google ‘wine festival’ and the name of your preferred area. You just have to wait till next year.