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Who would know that there are still some wine regions and vintners in France that American’s don’t know enough about? I do now, and soon you will too. I got an intriguing email on a Monday evening asking if I’d like to come meet one of the most influential and visionary French vintners -- Gerard Bétrand – on his turf – in the South of France., and by the way would I like to attend his annual Jazz Festival while I was there? The catch was… I would need to drop everything and hop on a plane in 24 hours. Could I do that? Would my own wine world fall apart without me? Not so much. I was able to rearrange my schedule, ask some fellow wine writers to step in for me here and there, and poof! I was off from San Diego, California on a big plane in business class to meet one of the most extraordinary men ever.
I’ve interviewed my share of winery owners, winemakers and growers. Some have passion for the wine, some have dedication for the business of wine, some for the pleasure of wine…and then there are those who have the vision not only for the wine they make, but for the place that wine comes from. It does not take long to understand that I was in the presence of a man who could easily be called a wine visionary for the South France. Don’t mean to gush here, but the man has presence, passion, and potential oozing from him.
Gérard Bertrand owns five estates in what many consider the best wine regions of the Languedoc: Château Laville Bertrou, Domaine de L’Aigle, Domaine De Villemajou, Cigalus, and Cháteau L’Hospitalet. Each features its own terroir and wine program. While I was fortunate to visit three of those Chateau’s, my main focus was on Château l’Hospitalet. Lying between Narbonne and the Mediterranean on what was once an island, Château l’Hospitalet Gérard Bertrand’s headquarters comprised of 978 hectares of moorland and 82 hectares of vines in an beautiful sea-view location in the heart of the Coteaux du Languedoc - La Clape appellation.
In 2002, the Bertrand company purchased Château l’Hospitalet adding a new dimension to the wine region. Whereas the other Château’s are mainly wineries with limited visitor facilities, Gérard created a welcoming concept for discovering not only the wines, but also what he calls the” Mediterranean lifestyle. “Château l’Hospitalet definitely is a wine estate, but one with a strong sense of self based on hospitality. Mr. Bertrand has adopted a strict carbon neutral sustainable approach to his vineyard management while offering wine-tourism related activities focusing on the Mediterranean lifestyle: cellar visits and tasting of course, but also exhibitions, crafts workshops and an annual jazz festival on the first weekend in August showcasing the facilities at the Château. Guests can expect a full range of luxury services at the hotel, including a lounge and restaurant. If the culminating vision is to develop loyalty among locals and overseas visitors, then he has my vote!
The key focus of my short 3-day stay was a 3-day pass to Jazz at the l’Hospitalet. Located on the Chateau’s property in the heart of the Natural Pack in Narbonne, the event is designed entirely to promote ecotourism. Five concerts, 6,500 attendees, 5 gala dinners on the Chateau’s gorgeous grounds, means this is THE place to be the first week of August. A typical night’s schedule includes a 7 p.m. tasting, 8 p.m. Mediterranean dinner created by some very talented chefs, a 10 p.m. concert, and a midnight after party at La Cave ầ Jazz. Wow does not do this justice: spectacular maybe, or once in a lifetime perhaps. I realize this was their 8th annual festival, so I would expect it to go smoothly, but this was more magical than smooth. Think premium wines (I actually got to taste a 1936 Gérard Bertrand Rivesaltes- bottle 623 of 869), French food at its most local and finest, vineyards everywhere, the waft of sea air, a big French moon, and the most glamorous people ever as my dining partners.
The Jazz talent is handpicked each year by Gérard and his team. He told me he tries not to repeat any act so that each year guests can look forward to something new and exciting. This year’s acts included Manu Dibango, Tito Jackson and his Bowler Band, China Moses
and Incognito, Yuri Buenaventura, and Véronique Sanson. Each had their own vibe and that made each show an experience in itself.
What wine story would be complete without a discussion of the wines? The wines bearing the Gérard Bertrand signature share a common identity: balance and elegance, they truly express the thoughtfulness of the winemaker and the South of France terroir. There are 4 levels or ranges to meet the needs of the different markets:
1. Vins de Pays and Varietal Wines: pleasure guaranteed
2. AOC wines for more character and complexity: culture of flavor
3. Great wines: experience the emotion
4. Natural Sweet Wines and Sparkling Wines: region’s softer side
Gérard Bertrand wines win tons of medals bearing testimony to the consistent quality of his products. Awards include: the Paris Agricultural Show, the official reference in French quality wines ;the equally-prestigious Brussels Concours Mondial ; the Grands Vins de France Competition in Macon, Vinalies “OEnologues de France”, the Blaye Bourg International Wine Challenge, the Wine Challenge (UK and Japan), and the Anivit National Vins de Pays Competition organized by the Union of French Oenologist.
As nice as it is to have all those words of praise from your peers, the true test comes in the hands of the consumer. Trust me; you’ll love any one of them no matter where you are on your wine journey – novice to aficionado. On a warm French evening under a romantic moon my favorites included Cremant de Limoux Brut, Natural Grenache (Organic), Cigalus blanc, and the yummy Gerard Bertrand Banyuls. These are great value wines. In the US, you will be able to find them in the $15-$75 range depending on where you live.
Conclusion? You haven’t completed your wine journey – be romantic or more pragmatic – until you join Gérard in the South of France at l’Hospitalet to experience his vision of ecotourism as you groove to sweet & sassy jazz, dine in culinary excellence, drink inspired wines from sustainable vineyards, dance under French moonlight, and be pampered at the l’Hospitalet hotel. Check out the Gerard Bertrand Web site for other interesting events like the L’Art De Vivre in June and the exquisite Truffle Hunt in December. A vote santé!
** All photos by Linda Kissam, except group at table photo taken by Paige Donner)