- As a wine lover and epicurean how would you best spend 24 hours in Montpellier and surrounding area?
This slightly depends if you are here in summer or winter. If you’re here in the summer when it’s very hot, you might want to be near the sea and go swimming: sandy, super-safe and very child-friendly hereabouts. There are a lot of seasonal/pop-up restaurants along the beach in summer, on either the Petit Travers or the Grand Travers beaches between Carnon-Plage and La Grande Motte. It’s not starry cuisine, but these are nice places to hang out, particularly in the evening, very languid and dreamy (if you avoid the noisy ones). A bit like Death in Venice without the cholera. Alternatively head for the Bassin de Thau just down the coast and eat seafood in some of the jolly places there, and drink Picpoul. You could also visit the Noilly-Prat ‘factory’ on the Bassin de Thau at Marseillan which is much more interesting than you might imagine. Did you know the recipe includes Greek Muscat from Samos, and raspberry liqueur?
If the seaside isn’t your thing, head inland towards Pic St Loup (the small peak you see from the airport) and have lunch at Le Pic St Loup (a restaurant) in the pretty village of Les Matelles, or at Le Bistro attached to the Auberge du Cèdre (there’s a more ambitious restaurant open at weekends), which is in turn attached to the wine estate of Ch de Cazeneuve. Of, if you are more energetic, walk up Pic St Loup itself (though not in the heat of the day), taking a picnic dinner and wine, and eat it up at the top by the old chapel where the view is magnificent and the breeze will cool your exertions. The enticing path up through the garrigue forest starts at the car park at the far end of the village of Cazevieille. It will take you 60 to 90 minutes to get up and involves around 300m of climbing (Pic St Loup is 658m but the car park lies at 300 m or so); boots advised, as the path is very stony and the limestone strata are folded at the beginning. Take water, too!
In the winter, you’re better off sticking to Montpellier itself – see some of the recommendations below. (Though the walk up Pic St Loup is best of all on a sunny day in winter.)
- What are your favourite places to eat and what makes them so appealing (atmosphere, wine list, great food?)
First of all, I should point out that the Languedoc is not a top gastronomic destination by French standards. Maybe it’s the Protestant tradition, maybe it’s centuries of relative poverty, maybe it’s something else, but pot luck hereabouts can often result in disappointment, which isn’t true in many other French regions. I have had plenty of dreadful meals in Languedoc restaurants. With a bit of care, though, you can find good things.
The only 1* restaurant in Montpellier is La Réserve Rimbaud which my wife and I visited once with friends and found very good. It’s very pretty, too, with many of the tables along an elongated balcony over the river Lez (though this situation means that it is not a town-centre restaurant). The wine list was decent enough – we drank a very good Jamet Côte Rôtie, which was perhaps a bit disloyal but that was the mood of the night. There are also a handful of places in Montpellier with the Michelin Plate symbol and a couple with a Bib Gourmand, but I’m afraid we haven’t tried them for various reasons.
We also like Les Bains de Montpellier since it is such a pretty place – an old public baths. And it’s much more handily situated than Réserve Rimbaud, close to La Comédie in the centre of town. We’ve heard good things from our friends about L’Arbre, a restaurant at the bottom of one of Montpellier’s new architecturally zany apartment buildings (there is a tradition of ‘folies’ here) called L’Arbre Blanc. In London, they would have already nicknamed L’Arbre Blanc the toilet brush – each flat has one or two enormous terraces so it’s a very heavily flanged white building, which looks exactly like …
- What are the top local dishes / cheeses not to miss?
The local ‘grand’ cheese hereabouts is the almost suicidally salty Roquefort, made up in Larzac: great in small helpings. There are also lots of fresher (and less salty) little sheep cheeses. If there is an unmissable local dish, I have yet to try it.
- Who has the best wine lists in the area?
L’Endroit is fair, as is Réserve Rimbaud, but I don’t think there are any great lists here. Certainly nothing to match the No 5 Wine Bar in Toulouse.
- What are your favourite wine shops for fine wine and bargains in the area?
I haven’t found a great wine shop here yet. In France it is so easy to buy directly from growers anywhere in the country that this is generally what I do. There are many good on-line regional wine specialists in France, too. All of this is a bit tough on local cavistes, alas.
- Montpellier is ideally situated close enough to some top wine regions for great day visits – where is the best place to visit and who best caters for visitors?
Pic St Loup is a very attractive wine region, and I recommend Domaine de l’Hortus, Mas Brugière and Mas Mortiès for a visit and direct purchase. If you like Picpoul de Pinet (and it’s a great ‘little’ wine) the leading co-operatives do a very good job with it and have attractive shops where you can load up very inexpensively. Mas de Daumas Gassac is a bit further away (but under an hour from Montpellier) and welcomes visitors, and if you do visit the Guibert brothers then you should also try to visit Ch Capion next door, now owned and run by an enthusiastic Russian called Oleg Chirkunov. By that stage, you will be in Terrasses de Larzac where I strongly recommend Mas Jullien (though you will need to make an appointment in advance to visit) and Mas Cal Demoura (best to call in advance here too) – or just hunt down their wines. A little further will get you to Pézenas and to Prieuré de St Jean de Bébian (also Russian-owned but very well run by Australian Karen Turner), and this has a restaurant and a boutique hotel attached to it (De Lauzun). (The Distillerie in Pézenas is another great place to stay, by the way.)
- There are plenty of smaller producers who might not be on everyone’s radar – whose cellar door is worth the visit for the quality of their wine?
St Chinian is an hour or more from Montpellier but well worth a discovery visit (or a pilgrimage if you are a Charles Trenet fan – he was born here). This is a very beautiful and wild region with a limestone sector and a schist sector; big wines but great value and often very exciting. There is a terrific Maison des Vignerons in the village where you can try different wines and put together a mixed case or two, but if you want to visit a young star of the region, give Vivien Roussignol or his partner Marie Toussaint a ring at Domaine Les Païssels, up in the schist zone. They are doing a great job: stars of tomorrow.