If you're heading to the south of France this summer there is no shortage of vineyards, many with a fascinating history.

There is always some point in a summer holiday when you need to get off your sunbed and go and look at something.  It might be no more spectacular than the wine shelves of the local supermarket, but if you are in the South of France and want a relaxing, enjoyable excursion, then Abbeye de Valmagne is a splendid choice (www.valmagne.com).

Located near Villeveyrac, about an hour’s drive south west of Montpellier, this huge 12thcentury monastery nestles in the landscape, barely showing above the neighbouring vineyards.  What sets this Abbey apart from any other historic monument I have toured in France is that there is a strong Yorkshire connection here.  I was greeted by the son and daughter of the owner of this privately owned historic monument and expected to have to muddle through a conversation in Franglais, but that wasn’t needed.  Roland d’Allaines speaks perfect English although he does have to think occasionally for the right word, and explains that he really doesn’t get enough practice.  With an English mother and a childhood spent holidaying with relatives in Ilkley and Harrogate he is now in charge of the vineyards and the restaurant at the Abbeye. His sister Eleonor is also involved in running a busy programme of events at the Abbeye – from weddings to a summer jazz festival.  Her English is totally fluent, since she is married to an Englishman.

Roland d’Allaines and his sister Eleonor

Apart from this Yorkshire connection there are many reasons to visit this Abbeye.  We are more used to the ruins of Fountains or Riveaulx abbeys but this one is pretty much complete and it still has space, light, beautiful buildings and cloisters.

There is a sense of history and contemplation here.   Through gifts from local landowners it became one of the richest monasteries in southern France, but over time its population of monks dwindled. Eventually the French Revolution took it away from the Cistercian monks who had lived there for over 600 years and it was sold to a wine grower who installed huge barrels in the side chapels of the church.  Many of these are still in place, definitely unused now  apart from displaying local artwork.  I have seen barrels stored in many places but these monster barrels lining the nave of an Abbey was a first.

The whole estate, with 350 hectares of land, including 40 hectares of vineyard is now family owned and presents a vast amount of work for the small family team.  ‘Maintaining the fabric of the building is a constant job,’ explained Roland, and while I was there a small patch of ceiling was being repaired with the help of three large cranes and a great deal of money.

This is why the vineyards are so important to the Abbeye de Valmagne.  Cistercian monks certainly knew where to plant vines and when Roland took over the management of the vineyards he decided to implement a programme of replanting the plots that were not performing well.  I toured the various vineyards, some on steep breezy hillsides, some on rich red soil and some with a clear view out to the huge sea lagoon known as the Etang de Thau.  Each plot has been studied, its soil evaluated and matched to a grape that will do well there.  In addition the vineyards are being cultivated biodynamically.  This is one step beyond organic, when all vine treatments are based on plants and naturally occurring minerals and the phases of the moon dictate when treatments, picking and ploughing take place.

When there is so much to do, why did Roland decide to take this route?  ‘I tasted a lot of organic and biodynamic wine and I just love the vitality and vibrancy of  wines made according to biodynamic methods.’

It certainly means a lot of work, in particular for vineyard worker Adil who was hand-weeding a vineyard in hot sunshine while I was there.  Not all the vineyards are new.  There are many old plots of vines, planted with Carignan, Grenache and one old, almost extinct variety known as Morrastel Bouschet.  Each one finds its place in the range of wines that are made in the on-site winery.

I tasted through the range in the restaurant known as a ferme-auberge which continues the theme of natural produce. Everything served in the restaurant is organic and is produced on their own or local farms and the fresh flavours in the food are amazing. Lunch at this ferme-auberge is well worth a detour, especially if you get there early enough to get a table on the terrace.

All of the wines shone out with flavour and style.  I particularly enjoyed the delicate, fragrant Nicoläy rosé 2018 made from Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache.

Light enough to be an aperitif it had enough flavour to partner my starter vegetable terrine. The Portalis Blanc 2018, made from Roussanne and Marsanne grown on the chalky part of the vineyard has savoury, herby notes as well as structure and finesse.  The top wine, named Cardinal de Bonzi after the last Abbot of Valmagne is made in tiny quantities from old Mourvèdre vines and it shows deep rich, complex flavours and will certainly age well. My favourite on that hot sunny day was Vitrail sur L’Abbeye 2018, a red wine made from Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and that almost extinct variety Morrastel Bouschet.  This was served chilled and its raspberry fruit jumped out of the glass, with enough depth and complexity to accompany my main course.

These wines are available locally in France, but at the present time, no one is importing them into the UK.  ‘The next time I come over to visit my Yorkshire family, I will bring some with me,’ said Roland.  If any merchant or restaurant is interested in trying these wines, just let me know.

If you are heading to the South of France this summer, the city of Montpellier is also well worth a visit, for its grand facades, for its informal, quality restaurants and for the huge open city square of Place de la Comédie where you can sit in the cool of a Mediterranean evening and enjoy a glass or two of local wine.

 

 

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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