The Languedoc may be a hidden gem now, but the route there couldn’t be easier. After flying to Paris, you hop on a quick 90-minute flight to Montpellier and—voilà—you’ve arrived. You’ll want to rent a car to explore wine country, which right now offers a striking mix of cobalt skies, silver-green olive groves, golden light and russet-orange vineyards.Tell people you’re headed to the Languedoc for a vacation, and they’ll either smile knowingly or scratch their heads. That’s because this southern region of France with a blossoming wine culture remains relatively undiscovered, which is just fine for those who treasure cozy mountain villages, oyster-rich seaside towns and small wineries—all overlooked by the masses flocking to the flashy French Riviera on the other side of the Rhône.
What’s new about the Languedoc is the quality of its wines—reds and whites, sweet and sparkling. Historically, the region was known for growing grapes and producing inexpensive quaffers. Then, about a dozen years ago, some renegades decided the region could do better. Taking advantage of the Languedoc’s diverse soils and weather patterns, these vintners began producing excellent wines using traditional and imported varietals, like grenache noir and gewürztraminer, respectively.
A perfect place to taste some of these new Languedoc wines is Domaines Paul Mas in the commune of Montagnac, about 45 minutes by car from Montpellier. Fourth-generation owner/winemaker Jean-Claude Mas—one of the pioneers of this new wine movement—founded his multi-estate enterprise in 2000, starting with the Mas family’s own centuries-old estate.
Upon your arrival, head to the tasting room, where the English-speaking staff will pour some of the 100 or so beautifully crafted wines, ranging from rich, spicy reds, like the Paul Mas Estate Carignan Vieilles Vignes, to elegant whites, such as La Forge Estate Chardonnay. Fill your glass again over lunch or dinner at the upstairs Côté Mas restaurant while sampling local specialties, like sizzling foie gras, juicy lamb with garden vegetables and regional cheeses, such as Roquefort.
Should that pungent blue be a favorite, you can visit the cheese’s namesake town, about an hour by car from Montpellier in the heart of the Pyrenees. The brand Société offers a nice little tour, which includes a film explaining how Roquefort is made, a trot through the company’s chilly cellars (bring a jacket!) and a final tasting.
No trip to the Languedoc is complete without a visit to the coast, and in particular to the area of Étang de Thau famous for its oysters. You’ll find some of the best at La Palourdière in the commune of Bouzigues, where you can sit on the terrace overlooking miles of rope-grown oyster farms while slurping up the meaty bivalves with some cold, citrusy picpoul, a white varietal commonly grown in the nearby vineyards.
For a taste of history to pair with all that wine, visit the charming town of Pézenas, once host to raucous medieval festivals and now home to a fabulous Saturday open market. The old town brims with 17th- and 18th-century homes that retain their vaulted ceilings, mullioned windows and elaborate ironwork, as well as winding cobbled paths dotted with cafes, boutiques and craft shops selling traditionally made goods like hand-tooled leather belts. The playwright Molière spent several years in Pézenas; pick up the pamphlet at the Tourist Office, and you can follow in his footsteps on a self-guided walking tour.
Here’s another point of history, one few people know: France’s first sparkling wine was not Champagne, but Blanquette de Limoux. Benedictine monks in the abbey of Saint-Hilaire near Carcassonne were making it back in 1531, nearly a century before the advent of the better-known bubbly. Expect to see more of this supremely elegant yet affordable wine—along with other Languedoc offerings—popping up in stores and on restaurant menus here in the U.S. And it seems likely that 20 years from now, the Languedoc will be as familiar to visitors as the Rhône and Loire wine regions have become. So explore the fruits of this gorgeous landscape now, while it still lies in happy anonymity.
– If you’re lingering in Pézenas, consider a stay at Hôtel de Vigniamont, a small luxury inn with flower-filled courtyards and a generous breakfast buffet with homemade jams.
– For an experience right out of a Monet painting, book lunch or dinner on a riverboat cruise down the beautiful, tree-lined Canal du Midi.
Air France (800-237-2747) airfrance.com
Domaines Paul Mas, Route de Villeveyrac, 34530 Montagnac, France, +33 (0)4 67 24 36 10, paulmas.com
La Grande Visite Roquefort Société, Avenue François Galtier, 12250 Roquefort sur Soulzon, +33 (0)5 65 58 54 38, visite-roquefort-societe.com/en
Restaurant La Palourdière, Chemin de la Catonnière, 34140 Bouzigues, +33 (0)4 67 43 80 19, lapalourdiere.com