French festival of wine
IN THE tiny village of Assas, in France's Pic Saint-Loup wine region, preparations are well underway for a celebration. The marquee is already up outside the old stone warehouse, brightly coloured flags flutter gently in the breeze, trestle tables are set up, and the musicians booked. Everyone is ready for a party.
The wine-makers in this part of the Languedoc are aware that their counterparts further east have cornered the market in publicity for their newest wines: Beaujolais Nouveau will be on sale in supermarkets all over the world by mid-November. But while they celebrate in the Beaujolais with a long weekend of fireworks and street parties, the Automnales festival in the south-west takes place earlier and lasts for a week.
The grape harvest finishes only 10 days or so before the celebrations start. The Soiree Primeur, held on the Friday night, is the first opportunity to taste this year's Primeur d'Oc, as the new vintage is known. Anyone - local or visitor - is welcome to join in. Pay at the entrance and you will be given a glass which can be refilled as often as you like, either from the bottles of white wine lined up on the trestle tables, or from "les bag-in-box" which contain the red wine, purplish in colour, fruity and extremely drinkable.
According to local custom, the villagers would take their jugs to the co-op to be filled up, so there is no tradition of bottling the young red wine; instead it goes straight into wine boxes. To soak up the alcohol there are trays of fougasse - a delicious bread with bits of bacon in it - and portions of locally harvested mussels. Outside in the courtyard a brass band plays a selection of tunes.
The region is a collection of 13 picturesque villages that huddle between the Pic Saint-Loup mountain and the flat-topped Montagne de l'Hortus. It feels remote from the bustle of daily life, but with the city of Montpellier, and the Mediterranean coast, only 15 miles away, it is hardly isolated. The countryside is varied, a mixture of garrigue (scrubland), forest, olive groves, and vineyards with their neat rows of Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache vines.
Typical of the estates where the wine is produced is Morties, a beautiful old farmhouse outside St Jean-de-Cuculles, with a sundial on the wall and vast fig tree in the courtyard. Richard Mousties took over the place in 2008, with no experience of wine-making, but a determination to make a success of it.
"I'm very lucky to be here. It's hard work, but it brings a lot of satisfaction" he told me, surveying the neat rows of barrels stacked in his vaulted cellar.
Richard, like many of his fellow wine-makers, offers tasting to visitors; larger establishments, such as the Château Valcyre outside Valflaunes, showcase their wines in their own restaurant.
Conveniently for a wine-producing area, there has been a glass industry on the plateau of the Ortus mountain since medieval times. Regulated by the king, glass-blowing could be practised only by the nobility as compensation for losing their money in the crusades. Modern glass-blowers are from a more varied background. Several have their studios in the village of Claret. These are located across the road from the Halle du Verre, a modern exhibition space which showcases the industry's history and achievements.
Wine and glass industries joined forces in the 17th century, when glass bottles were first produced to hold the local wines. Back then, glass-making was what mattered most in the region; now, as the Automnales festival demonstrates, the wine industry is dominant. The celebrations culminate in an auction of this year's wine, still in the barrel. The sale is held in St-Jean-de-Cuculles, an archetypal French village dominated by its 12th-century church. Most of those bidding will be professionals, others are chefs who want to showcase the increasingly chic Pic St-Loup wines in their restaurants. But the locals will be there in large numbers, because like the Soiree Primeur on the Friday evening, everyone is welcome.
On auction day the main street will be bustling. Stalls sell local produce: cheese, sausages, honey, jams and macaroons. A barrel-maker demonstrates his craft, and actors on stilts move among the crowds entertaining the children. A large marquee will be ready for the auction; another is where older vintages are tasted and sold by the bottle. But nowhere is the wine flowing more liberally than in the lunch tent, where everyone comes to share a midday meal. There are refectory tables and a set menu, a delicious four-course feast of veal or monkfish, cheese and dessert, accompanied by fresh bread. And the local wine is a perfect accompaniment.