Attending the 2012 Olympics is the trip of a lifetime and, if you're making the trek, you may want to stick around the continent for a while longer. Many Americans are using the games as an excuse to cross the Atlantic and explore the best Europe has to offer. If you're a wine aficionado, Languedoc might be the perfect place to unwind after several days in central London.
Located along the Mediterranean, this sun-soaked corner of France is known for its vineyards, as well as its scenic beauty and centuries-old locales. A former province, it's a Shangri La for oenophiles. Many of the region's wineries offer tours, bed and breakfast-style lodging and fine dining.
Abbaye de Valmagne, a former abbey near Pezenas, recently opened what its owners call an “auberge.” Unlike more conventional cafes, it only serves lunch, and all of its menu items are organic and created locally. Vegetables and herbs come directly from the abbey’s gardens and its meat dishes are raised on nearby farms. The property itself is gorgeous and rich with history. Visitors can enjoy an annual live music series in the abbey's cathedral where one wall is still stained from soot from a fire built by rebels during the French Revolution.
Abbaye de Valmagne
The tradition of winemaking dates back to the Roman-era at Chateau de Flaugergeus, a large estate on the outskirts of Montpellier. Here, visitors can tour a large outdoor garden and a centuries-old mansion before enjoying the vineyard's offerings in Flaugergeus' tasting room. The estate is currently operated by Pierre de Colbert, a tenth-generation winemaker who recently made the controversial decision to cap his bottles with screw-tops instead of less reliable corks. The "corks vs. screw-tops" battle is one that's still hotly debated among the region's winemakers.
Those interested in a much more modern take on the art of the vine might enjoy Les Vignerons de Florensac, a cooperative winery near the Étang de Thau lakes that seeks to combine the culture and history of Languedoc with a 21st century attitude. Its flashy “Vinipolis” opened in 2007 and offers visitors a contemporary tasting room lined with interactive computer kiosks. A glass floor looks down over a more traditional cellar filled with wooden casks. Out in the parking lot, there are even power outlets for electric vehicles.
A similar ethos is at work in the cellars of Noilly Prat in Marseillan. The famous winemakers have updated the property with an interactive complex that now leads visitors through each stage of their production process and past a “Room of Secrets” into a sleek lounge that looks like something Tony “Iron Man” Stark might dream up during a day off. You may recall the brand from a different action film series: James Bond might not approve of Noilly Prat’s Ambre – a sweet, silky wine exclusively sold in the gift shop – but he does prefer his martinis with a splash of the company’s legendary dry vermouth.
In addition to winery tours organized by companies such as Herault Tourisme, other winemarkers in Languedoc offer overnight lodging. At Salente, near the town of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, owners Benedicte and Loic Tournay have lovingly restored the several hundred year-old estate, adding two charming guest rooms and an elaborate “vanishing edge” swimming pool. The property overlooks acres of vineyards that glow like gold on sunny mornings. A leisurely breakfast underneath their poolside elm tree might as well be heaven on earth.
For the more courageous, there is the Terroir d’ Art et de Nature. A winding trail through the hills of Bessilles leads hikers through the vineyards near Montagnac, a small village. Along the way, fourteen statues depict the lives of the region’s winemakers. “Au Pressoir,” by sculptor Kay Vygen, often draws giggles. It features two lovers locked in passionate embrace as they stomp grapes after a harvest. The full trek covers around 17 kilometers and can take an entire day. If you go, keep an eye out for the snakes and scorpions known to populate these hills.
Beyond wine, Languedoc is known for its beaches and gorgeous ancient cities like Béziers, which hosts an annual bullfighting festival every August that draws over a million attendees. The mountainside village of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert harkens back to the medieval-era, and its "Liberty Square" contains a fountain topped with a miniature Statue of Liberty that serves as a tribute to democracy and the French Revolution. The historic centers of cities like Pezenas are filled with gorgeous architecture and shops offering everything from fashion to fine chocolates.
There's also, of course, the former province's capital of Montpelier, located along a stretch of the Mediterranean Sea. It's easy to lose a few days – or even a week – among the city's winding streets, shops and the Place de la Comédie, its large central plaza. As for Languedoc, it's a region that could take years, or even a lifetime, to completely explore.