GRAPEVINE with LIZ SAGUES: Vintage welcome in the Languedoc
Montpeyroux is rare among the villages which draw tourists to the Languedoc. There are no encircling walls shutting out strangers; instead the village is open to the world, stretching along the old mule route where wine, oil, salt, even (so one historian
Montpeyroux is rare among the villages which draw tourists to the Languedoc. There are no encircling walls shutting out strangers; instead the village is open to the world, stretching along the old mule route where wine, oil, salt, even (so one historian records) rhubarb were transported between mountains and sea.
And later on this month, it extends a particularly warm welcome to wine lovers.
The vignerons of Montpeyroux are unusual too. Alongside families who have tended vines for generations are a doctor, an internationally known wildlife painter, a computer specialist, a scientist, a journalist. Co-ordinating them all in the biennial wine festival, Toutes Caves Ouvertes - this year on April 19 - is an escapee from north London.
Patricia Kirwan was Greater London Council member for Paddington for three years until she was ousted by Ken Livingstone, then served on Westminster City Council until 1989 and "a very public bust-up with Shirley Porter". Now she's honorary secretary of the Association pour la Reconnaissance du Cru de Montpeyroux ("epitomises French bureaucracy", she says wryly).
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Husband Peter has even stronger links with Ham&Highland. He succeeded John Major as Conservative parliamentary candidate for St Pancras North (subsumed into Holborn and St Pancras in 1983), losing in 1979 to sitting member Jock Stallard.
Retirement in Gloucestershire didn't work out for the Kirwans, and in 1994 they moved permanently to Montpeyroux, to a house they'd bought "on the spur of the moment" five years earlier, and into wine.
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Patricia explains: "In those days it was difficult to find good wine, but there were quality pockets developing, and we formed the Languedoc Wine Club, sourcing quality wines from small, new producers and selling direct to individuals, company dining rooms, small merchants in the UK.
"We got to know the area and its wines very well and really saw a transformation. It's now difficult to find bad wine; some is spectacular and there's a lot of reasonable stuff."
The Languedoc Wine Club is no more, but Patricia has remained involved, translating websites and publicity material for an increasing number of respected producers.
Toutes Caves Ouvertes is part of the determined effort to establish Montpeyroux as a cru in its own right - it's already a named area within the Coteaux du Languedoc appellation. There's a lot going for it. The complex limestone-based soil plus a climate which combines sunny days, cool nights and winds which keep the vines healthy allow some very fine wines to be made from the traditional red grapes, grenache, carignan, mourvedre and cinsault, plus the more recently introduced syrah, and from a fascinating basket of white varieties, too.
The April 19 festival promises to be a lot of fun - I've been to a similar one in Beaujolais, which mixed wine, food and entertainment in the happiest of atmospheres, merry but never drunken.
Fly into Montpellier, and Montpeyroux is an easy drive, some 40kilometres to the north-west. A five euro engraved tasting glass is the entry ticket, the village will be closed to traffic, decorated for the occasion, bands will play and 17 cellars will be open. There's plenty of accommodation - the village website, www.montpeyroux34.fr, is a good starting point.
Even the local brasserie is run by London emigres, a former dancer and violist from the Royal Ballet.
But if an escape to southern France isn't possible, toast Patricia and her vignerons here. Sources of Montpeyroux wines include: Wine of Course, Archway Road, Highgate (superb reds from Alain Chabanon, including La Merle aux Alouettes 2004, �27 - an earlier vintage beat Petrus in a blind tasting); Berry Bros & Rudd (star wines from Sylvain Fadat, Domaine d'Aupilhac, including Les Cocalieres red and white, �16.35/�17.35); The Wine Society, www.thewinesociety.com (Domaine La Jasse Castel red, �9.50). Chabanon's wines are also in a bevy of Michelin-starred London restaurants.