We were told about the vinous delights to be found at Domaine La Croix Chaptal in the heart of France’s Languedoc wine region, but nobody prepared us for the charms of Montpellier.
When he heard we were going to the big VINISUD wine show in Montpellier (southern France) in February, 2006, our mentor Christian Esparza of Inter Caves wines (now called Caves et Domaines) in Saint-Rémy de Provence told us to look up Charles-Walter Pacaud. “He produces a treasure trove of remarkable wines from the Languedoc,” he enthused. So, early one morning, somewhat subdued after a week of tasting hundreds of wines, eating too much and getting far too little sleep at an earlier wine trade show in Cannes, we ventured into one of the huge exhibition halls and tottered our way over to the Domaine La Croix Chaptal booth where the ebullient Charles-Walter Pacaud was holding court (nobody should be ebullient that early in the morning). Even at this most disagreeable hour, agents from around the globe were hovering, awaiting their few moments with this emerging wine-world luminary. Fortunately, M. Esparza had forewarned Charles (the Walter was quickly dropped) that we were coming and soon we were talking and tasting with our engaging host (actually, as usual, Hélène was talking and I was tasting). “Wow!” I enthused several times. I just couldn’t help myself. Wine after wine, white to rosé to red and finally sweet, was chocked full of tantalizing flavours and was beautifully made. Once again M. Esparza had guided us in the right direction.
The wine that really caught my eye and taste buds was Charles’ white, a 2004 Blanc Vieilles Vignes (old vines) Clairette du Languedoc. Clairette Blanche is a white wine grape that is grown primarily in the Southern Rhône, Provence and the Languedoc wine regions of France. In fact, Clairette Blanche accounts for the largest portion of the blend in the white wines from Châteauneuf du Pape, just ahead of Grenache blanc. By the way, if you haven’t tried a white Châteauneuf du Pape, I highly recommend you do so.
Here’s what I said about this lovely white when we introduced it to our wine club a few months later for $15.95 the bottle. “This is a very, very good white wine at a very reasonable price. The grapes were all hand-picked and destemmed, pressed and left in contact with the skins for a very short time. It received traditional vinification on its lees (25 per cent in new oak and 75 per cent in stainless steel tanks). Total production was only 8,000 bottles. It is a full-bodied, fresh and very clean white wine with tantalizing aromas of butter, toasted bread, almonds and grapefruit. It is very smooth and finishes with a nice citrus aftertaste. It is a great wine to drink alone as an aperitif and will go well with shellfish, fish in white sauce or soft cheeses. This wine is drinking well now and will evolve to a hazelnut taste in the second or third year (it then goes well with white meat accompanied by mushrooms in a white sauce), and later to a walnut flavour (then it goes well with a whole range of cheeses). Delicious stuff.”
I should tell you a little bit about the owners, Huguette and Charles-Walter Pacaud. Huguette, a special educator in Montpellier (she helps gifted students prepare for their admission tests into advanced acedemic institutions), has wine flowing in her veins. Her maiden name is Chaptal and her relative, Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal developed the process of chaptalization whereby sugar is added to unfermented grape must in order to increase the alcohol content after fermentation. Huguette is a charming, intelligent person who steadfastedly supports her husband’s wine-making dreams.
Charles was born in Cognac and studied viticulture and oenology in Montpellier. Before creating Domaine La Croix Chaptal, Charles worked for several wine companies in the UK, USA and France that were known for their innovative spirit and modern wine-making techniques. He has combined this experience with a healthy appreciation for traditional wine making practices to produce truly remarkable and enjoyable wines. Charles possesses a sardonic wit, intensity, a huge respect for the history of his land (he created a new wine based on a relic he found in his vineyard) and an all-consuming passion for grape growing and wine making.
They have three children, twin daughters Héloïse, who works in the wine trade in Bordeaux and is married to St-Émilion Grand Cru producer Cédric Valade and Amaylis who is a clinical researcher with an international pharmaceutical firm, and son Aymeric, a college student.
Their vineyard and winery can be found near the prehistoric (at least 4,500 years old) hamlet of Cambous which is located 30 kilometres north-west of Montpellier. The estate dates from at least 1826 where it was listed in the area’s first land registry as part of the Seigneurie of Cambous owned by Edouard Auguy de Vitry, a lawyer in Gignac. He built the existing cellar and adorned it with the Croix du Languedoc, enhanced by a heart which gives rise to today’s name of the estate. Charles and Huguette purchased the property from Auguy de Vitry’s descendants in 1999 and have been restructuring, restoring and expanding it ever since.
The estate consists of 57 acres of vineyards (half with vines over 50 years old), 38 of which are found in the vaunted Terrasses du Larzac appellation. There are a further 25 acres of woods sprawling over the slopes leading up to the Terrasses du Larzac. Large multi-coloured pebbles and gravel are the main constituents of the poor soil that is naturally dried by those pesky winds, the Mistral and Tramontane. It all sounds rather nasty, but it is ideal for growing superb wine grapes.
Domaine La Croix Chaptal is found in the Languedoc, part of the huge Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France (producing more wine than Australia or Bordeaux). The Languedoc is a large, varied wine area that fans out from Montpellier near the Mediterranean up to the Massif Central. While wine grapes have been cultivated in the area since Roman times, it was the Benedictine Monks who developed the reputation of the Languedoc from the tenth to the nineteenth centuries. For trivia fans, here is how the area got its name. Languedoc describes the division between southern France where yes was ‘Oc’ and the north where yes was ‘Oïl’ which became ‘Oui’. It simply means the place where they say Oc!
Andrew Jefford in his article ‘Enjoy the Laguedoc’ published in the January 2009 edition of Decanter magazine had this to say about the Languedoc: “…Geologically, the Languedoc hills are a synopsis of everything which makes France so propitious for winegrowing… Surely in any other country those Languedoc hills would have been a star region; their misfortune was to find themselves sharing a nation with Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire and the Rhône. And too far from Paris. But where is the best spot in the Languedoc? My theory is that Terrasses du Larzac is the greatest spot in the Languedoc… Stone and slopes alone don’t make for great wine – as much of Provence proves – but when skilled winegrowers grapple intelligently and sensitively with nature here, the results seem to me to have the same aromatic, textural potential as the best of the Rhône…”
Recently, Charles and his neighbouring Terrasses du Larzac vignerons were rewarded for their for their wine making prowess by being granted AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) status from the Comité National de l’INAO, the French governing body that regulates the designation of special sites for agricultural products. This was the first red wine area in all of the Languedoc region to attain this distinction (the white wine area of Picpoul de Pinet received similar status two years earleir). All to confirm what those of us who have been enjoying Charles’ wines for years already knew – very special wines come from the Terrasses du Larzac.
Over the years our families have gotten together on both sides of the Atlantic. Huguette, Charles and Aymeric stayed with us a few years ago. We did all the usual touristy things together – Niagara Falls, lunch at the top of the CN Tower and so on. But the highlight was a Blue Jays game where Aymeric found it to be great entertainment to eat by. It was cool to see him sporting his Blue Jays cap when next we saw him in southern France.
We have thoroughly enjoyed our stays with the Pacauds at their home on the outskirts of Montpellier. I recall with great relish the evening they served us duck five different ways including barbequed over vine clippings (all delicious and washed down with a variety of Charles’ elixirs). And, Huguette’s tours of nearby Montpellier were real highlights. With a bustling population of just over a quarter million people, it is France’s eighth largest and, for the past twenty-five years, fastest growing city.
The focal point of this Mediterranean city is the expansive Place de la Comédie (shown in the feature image). While amply endowed with historic buildings and monuments as well as medieval ruins, it is a thoroughly modern, sophisticated city thanks in no small part to the efforts during the 80s and 90s of their socialist mayor Georges Frêche. Montpellier is enlivened by thousands of university students, has a sleek tramway system and is home to the huge, marvellous Sauramps bookstore (one of the largest independent book shops in France). And then there are the restaurants , dozens of them to delight the palates of the most discerning diners. On our last visit, we went to one of them with Huguette called Les Bains de Montpellier so named because it was the site of the city’s public baths established in 1770. Could this be where the expression ‘w(h)et one’s appetite’ comes from? There were no sign of bathers, but we got along swimmingly with the delectable fare.
I see that once again I have exceeded my allotted space. Time to bid you adieu. When I return next month, I’ll tell you about some of our frothy experiences in Champagne. Cheers!