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Farewell Adelaide, hello Montpellier

Early spring in Collioure where vineyards ramp down right to the water’s edge Writer and broadcaster Andrew Jefford wrote so eloquently for Societynews about his time in South Australia that, now that he has relocated to the South of France, we asked him to share his impressions of life in the Languedoc.

Nothing is ever quite that easy, of course, and moving a family of four through three countries in two hemispheres in under eighteen months (plus some transitory vagabondage en route) is not something which can be accomplished without unbitten nails. By the end of the process, we never wanted to look at another cardboard box, fill out another application form or heave another pushchair onto a luggage trolley piled with suitcases. Professionally speaking, though, the ride has been an exciting one: from a house next to Penfolds' Magill Vineyard in the Adelaide suburbs, to a village called Prades Le Lez, lying on the cusp of Grès de Montpellier and Pic St Loup.

There was a logic to the choice. The family enjoyed the warm, sunny Adelaide climate, and I'd relished living in a wine area which had both deep historical roots yet which also felt relaxed and open-minded. There are plenty of French winelands which would have guaranteed neither. I love the wines of Burgundy, for example, but winter there lasts long and bites deep, and I suspect it wouldn't have been easy to infiltrate the sense of shuttered privacy and deep-cellared reserve which lurks behind the small brass plaques on the mute village streets. Champagne? Even colder and more business-like.
Bush vines cling bravely to a rock-strewn vineyard in the Agly Valley
Bordeaux? Tempting – yet I knew the Atlantic and its moods well-enough already, while the social summits would always be well beyond us. Madiran or Cahors were a little too remote, given my professional need to travel; while the Southern Rhône … well, it's only an hour up the road, and here we get the beach as a plus. I'd always liked Montpellier, with its trams, its radical pedestrianisation and its Olympic swimming pool. Montpellier it was. Or as near as we could manage while still being able to afford to rent a house with a little garden. The last northern summit of the agglomération, interfingering the sunlit pine forests which ramp slowly to the Cévennes, isn't a bad compromise.

The first lesson which I learned was just how big the region was. So, of course, is South Australia – yet it's a much shorter journey from Adelaide up to the Barossa than it is from Corbières to the Pic. It may be that I can eventually claim some intimacy with the region – but not soon. There is too much ground to cover, too much scattered effort and endeavour. I have to take my time.

I already knew that Roussillon was another country altogether, and the couple of trips I have made there since moving to France have confirmed that. The wild, wind-harried vineyards in the upper reaches of the Agly Valley are as tough a wine-growing location as you'll find anywhere in France: the mangled wreckage of a slow collision between limestone and granite. Cross over into the spectacular dark schists of Collioure and Banyuls, Banyuls, hanging over the water and staining it ruby, and you've reached the rather more sheltered ante-room to Spain. What I hadn't realised until my recent trips to 'northern Catalonia' was this geological complexity (only Alsace can match the chaos of this part of the Pyrenees), and the nascent grandeur of the finest wines. If you love minerality in wine, Roussillon (like Spain's Priorat) can provide spoonfuls with every glass.

Another surprise was what you might call the Atlantic drift of areas like Limoux, Cabardès and Malpère. The climate changes markedly once you're past Carcassonne and heading for Toulouse, and the grape-variety pack sees merlot and cabernet shuffled in with the Mediterranean varieties. These areas struggle for recognition, but it will come; they offer a fresh alternative to craggy, rangy, thorny Corbières and the lusher, fleshier wines of Minervois.

La Clape, I've come to realise, is hard to beat for sheer sensual force. Most of the great zones of Languedoc are up in the hills which back the plain; this one is a former island of limestone which seems almost ready to cast off again, and join the cruise liners out in the Golfe du Lion. So much gathered light gives its wines a richness and a voluptuousness which contrasts strongly with the stony asperities you find elsewhere.

Harvesting oysters on their ‘watery scaffolding’in the Bassin de Thau I've crossed the plain several times now, usually on the companionable Spanish train which leaves Montpellier daily for Barcelona and Cartagena; it's a pretty bumble through lagoon country, the still skin of the water punctuated by pale flamingos unobtrusively picking life from brine. The best varietal Vins de Pays are the result of hard work rather than any favours of landscape, though muscat has a natural grandeur on the bright flats, and so, too, does the late-ripening picpoul, made for the oysters clinging to their watery scaffolding in the Bassin de Thau.

St Chinian, Faugères, Terrasses du Larzac: my guess is that many of the greatest wines of the Languedoc will eventually come from these three zones, and a future project is to pick my own way through them like a wine-loving flamingo. (The Terrasses enfolds Montpeyroux and St Saturnin: one day all these names will make sense.) Yet it's hard, living where I do, not to have a soft spot for Pic St Loup itself.
The majestic Pic St Loup and Hortus seen by the author from a glider window
I climbed the Pic from the gentle, southern side early one spring morning. The path is forest-sheltered for most of its route; a final scramble takes you up to a little chapel, and a small terrace with a majestic view echoed, a little further down the ridge line, by the view from the ruined Château de Monferrand. Another great way to meet the Pic is in a glider: the updraft of wind as the Mistral thumps its northern face is reliable enough to warrant a local aerodrome for sailplanes. In either case, the lesson is the same: this is an extraordinarily varied terroir, ranging from cool and breezy in the wide trench which separates the Jurassic crag of the Pic from the Cretaceous cliffs of l'Hortus opposite, to sunny and warm in the open land which spills out to the east and the south. All the wines of the Pic, though, have a purity and an aromatic refinement to them which you don't necessarily find elsewhere.

We knew no one when we arrived, but we're slowly making friends in the village (more slowly than in Adelaide, of course). The boys are beginning to speak French, after a year in the village school, and I am beginning to envy their effortlessly good accents. I don't know if we'll still be here in ten years. For the time being, though, every day is a treat.

Andrew Jefford has a regular blog and column in Decanter magazine and is contributing editor for The World of Fine Wine magazine. He was named 'International Wine Columnist of the Year' at the Louis Roederer Awards 2010.

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