My first four nights in the South of France were spent just outside of a little village in the Agly Valley in a beautiful old stone building that was once a winery, built in 1763, and that is now a house for a local winemaker and her family. I came across the property on AirBnB and booked a room. Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet is located 43km west of Perpignan. It is beautifully rugged countryside, with rocky peaks above scrubby garrigue with vineyards below, full of old vines. This is Cathar country in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains and there are several ancient castle ruins visible in the nearby hills. This part of France is not far from the Spanish border and the locals speak with a much heavier accent that starts to take on Spanish tones. All village signs are bilingual: French and Occitan. Occitan is a descendent of the Latin spoken in the Roman Empire and is an official language in Catalonia, the region in Spain immediately to the south of this part of France.
Within about a 20 minute drive of Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet there are dozens of wineries to visit. During the summer months there is a Wine Train that runs the length of the valley, stopping at wineries along the way. There are also plenty of local hiking spots, with spectacular views. Upon the suggestion of my hostess I headed up to the Gorges de Galamus and despite it being a bit cooler and overcast that day it was still a great site to behold, not to mention quite the challenging (but fun) drive on the very narrow winding cliffside road. Meeting an oncoming car generally means one or the other backing up to a suitable passing spot and trying not to shear off side mirrors in the process. I loved it!
I found a fabulous little restaurant in the nearby village of Caudiès-de-Fenouillèdes, the Café Rivière. There is a bar area to the front where many villagers hang out for some drinks and pizza, and some restaurant seating (approximately 20 seats) toward the back, opening onto a patio in good weather. The menu is not large, and apparently changes regularly. I chose the Duck Leg Confit, which was served with a delicious mushroom sauce, perfectly crisp potato wedges, roasted peppers and a salad with a balsamic reduction; this was served with a small carafe of the house red wine and a bottle of water. Dessert was a fabulous raspberry panna cotta. The meal was very well-executed and all flavours were so complementary – delicious all round! I found out the next day that it is owned by my hostess’ eldest son and his wife, and that he is the chef.
While I didn’t actually get to any of the local wineries, other than Mas Amiel, I did get to sample some of the wines that my hostess made. She is a winemaker at the Côtes d’Agly Cooperative in Caudiès-de-Fenouillèdes. We sat down together one evening on the front patio for apéritifs, wine and tapas, and to visit. We started with a lovely complex white wine from Château Montner, 2012 vintage, a blend of old vines of Maccabeu, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris that was barrel-fermented. It was a pale gold in colour. It had beautiful minerality and complexity with citrus flavours, a creamy mouthfeel and a long finish. Next we tried a red from Château Montner, a 2011 old vines blend of Syrah, Carignan and Grenache noir. It had aromas and flavours of dark fruit, hints of liquorice, some stewed fruit, vanilla, herbs and spice, with medium-plus body and silky tannins. Finally we compared two different bottles of Carignan, one that I had picked up at Domaine Rimbert in Berlou – 2010 Carignator (old vines Carignan) and one that my hostess had made – 2011 Vielles Vignes (old vines) Carignan from the Agly Varietal Collection (Collection Cépages), Vin de Pays. The Carignator is made each year from the same group of vines and had aromas and flavours of dark fruit and sweet spice. It was dry with medium acidity, silky tannins and medium-plus intensity. It was not overly complex (the winemaker is aiming for simple but highly drinkable wines) but very tasty! The Agly Vielles Vignes is made from grapes from 70-year-old vines and yield is relatively low at 20hl/ha. There is a 25-day soak post-fermentation before pressing off the skins, providing further extraction, although stopping short of over-extraction. This wine is complex with great mouthfeel, rich dark fruit, baking spice, great fruit concentration, nice acidity, medium rounded tannins and a long finish.