One of the most iconic fortified cities in South-west France is Carcassonne, located 60 miles south-west of Toulouse and about 50 miles inland from the Mediterranean.
As you approach the old historic part of the city, it is like being thrown into fairy-land with a beautiful walled town boasting a multitude of round towers with pointy tops, and access through a dark stone gateway complete with drawbridge and portcullis.
Once inside the medieval walls, mainly dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, there is a labyrinth of narrow stone streets criss-crossing the walled city, sometimes opening onto small tree-lined squares with their cafés, shops and restaurants and sometimes leading to the high ramparts with views over the surrounding countryside and nearby hills.
Last week I was lucky enough to stay in Carcassonne and the reason for my stay was not simply because it is a stunning UNESCO Site, but because it happens to be an idyllic centre for visiting the many nearby vineyards.
A strategically placed city, hence its importance in centuries past, the vineyards of the Languedoc region are on the doorstep. Much of this area used to be responsible for the historic European Wine Lake, a huge quantity of very mediocre wine which no-one wanted, much of which ended-up being distilled.
This is now very much in the past, and there are large numbers of excellent wines coming from such regions as Corbières, Minervois, St Chinian, Faugères and Limoux. A new generation of wine-makers combine local knowledge with use of the most recent technology and techniques to make top-class wines which compete on the world stage.
Few people know the quality and character of these wines better than Two Star Michelin chef Franck Putelat.
His restaurant is in the small, cosy but modern Hotel Le Parc, situated a stone’s throw from the old medieval city walls. I had the privilege of dining at his restaurant last week, where I experienced food and wine pairing on a truly epic scale. The wine list itself is, to say the least, impressive with its 53 pages of essentially French wines, with half the pages dedicated to wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon and South west France. Although there is naturally a range of prices, with some of these wines priced up to 380 euros a bottle, it gives some indication of the quality which is being achieved.
My meal started with a glass of Blanquette de Limoux, a local sparkling wine made mainly from the little-known Mauzac grape variety, by the same method as champagne. With flavours of apples and aromas of freshly cut grass, it was matched with the most perfect canapés from chef Putelat. Course after course then ensued, each being a triumph in its own right, with delicate, complex and balanced flavours, produced by one of the World’s top chefs. Each dish was perfectly matched with a different wine, in a local wine ‘showcase’ which demonstrated the range, versatility and quality of the wines from this part of France.
With his kitchen brigade of 12 staff, together with a top-notch service and sommelier team, eating at Franck Putelat’s Restaurant is an experience not to be missed, particularly given the amazing range of high quality local wines which can be enjoyed with Putelat’s classy cuisine. With prices for dinner starting at 59 euros, it won’t break the bank and lunch for 40 euros at this level is an absolute steal. Worth getting a Ryanair flight to Carcassonne just for lunch! Go on, do it!
More information can be found at www.franck-putelat.com.
Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.
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