Our departure point for Stage 11 boasts a wealth of historical and economic points of interest. Two of the most celebrated are the medieval Cité de Carcassonne and the 17th century Canal du Midi. Both have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, and they serve as potent reminders of the two most powerful forces in Southern France for centuries: the Catholic Church and agriculture.
Cité de Carcassonne
The Cité de Carcassonne was founded during the Gallo-Roman period, and has been occupied at various times by Romans, Visigoths, and Saracens. It was absorbed into the Kingdom of France in 1247, creating a secure buffer zone between the French frontier and the territory controlled by the Crown of Aragon. When the Treaty of the Pyrénées was signed in 1659, ending the war between France and Spain, the surrounding province of Roussillon became a part of France. As a result, the town’s strategic value as a military outpost declined, and it shifted its fortunes to the textile industry instead. Through strong preservation efforts during the 19th century, the city was saved from demolition and was designated as an historical monument. In 1997 UNESCO added Le Cité de Carcassonne to its list of World Heritage Sites.
Le Canal du Midi
A true marvel of engineering, Le Canal du Midi was instrumental in connecting wheat producers in Southern France with the commercial ports along the Atlantic coast. As you can see from the map,
the canal links the Mediterranean Sea with the Garonne River to the north, via the Canal de Garonne. The Garonne River, which runs through the famed vineyards of Bordeaux, serves as the final link in the chain, making it possible to transfer goods from the agricultural centers in the south to the Atlantic shipping channels. The project’s biggest sponsor was King Louis XIV, who ceded both ownership and authority of the land for the canal to the organization overseeing the implementation. Today, the canal hosts more tourists looking for a leisurely ride through the countryside than it does any type of commercial trade. But Le Canal du Midi remains a powerful driver of the local economy, albeit for different reasons. In 1996 it, too, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We are still rolling through the vineyards of the Languedoc, a surprisingly large expanse of Southern France. Our departure point for Stage Eleven begins in Cabardès, which we discussed in the report for Stage Ten. Today, the peloton will cycle through the areas of Minervois, St.- Chinian, and Faugères on its way to the finish line in Montpellier.
The three appellations share much in common, especially the grapes that dominate their blends: for reds, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Lladoner Pelut. For whites, Bourbulenc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino. Some of these grapes might be familiar to you if you drink a lot of wine from the Rhône Valley. Syrah is the red king of the Northern Rhône, with Roussanne and Marsanne starring in the aromatic white wines of that reigon. Grenache, of course, is the staple of the reds from the Southern Rhône, including the powerful but elegant wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
While the wines of Minervois, St.- Chinian, and Faugères do indeed share some of the flavor profile of their cousins to the east, I find that they also bring something unique to the table. Maybe it’s just the suggestion whispered down from the garrigue-adorned hills, but I always detect a distinct herbal (as in thyme or rosemary) element in the reds. That, and a little dirt. Juxtaposed with the juicy blackberry fruit, it makes for a complex and delicious wine, perfect for keeping you company as you enjoy a summer sunset.
As for the whites, if you tend toward the more aromatic varieties (Albariño, Viognier) then the blends of the Languedoc should suit you. The rosé, most of which comes from Cinsault, is usually crisp and light, the perfect summer quaff. Perhaps the most attractive thing about wines from this region is their price: the Languedoc remains a relative bargain, especially when you consider the steady increase in quality over the past decade. Lucky for us, they are also widely available.
So raise your glass today, and toast the peloton with a red, white, or rosé from Minervois, St.- Chinian, or Faugères. Chances are, the riders passed by the winery in which it was made.
Cheers and Vive le Tour!