We started May in France and ended it in California, with a bit of sweet ‘real’ life in between. The trips allowed us to bask again in warm favorite spots, and afforded us – in good measure – the opportunity to sit in new seats and chat with new voices. We’ve got stories to tell, that’s a for-sure, and I’d love to start with an introduction to a little spot on the map called Ventenac-en-Minvervois in southern France’s Languedoc wine region along the Canal du Midi, in the Occitanie department.
Driving into the village it is this: a road lined with plane trees, vines stretching beyond them. And in sight is the stunning commander, le cave (which looks more like a church) and le château (which looks more like a stylish, saucy fortress). Waiting ready: a small shop (which looks like a cozy chalet) and a canal-side eatery, full of vigor with a huge wood oven. This is the sort of place that makes me hungry, remembering.
Ahead is the Canal du Midi, which must be crossed by bridge in the decorum of the politics of the day: it is always someone else’s turn first and there is only room for one car. Do what you must and cross the bridge safely. Families float their canal path on barges which slip under the bridge with smooth grace. Kids try to touch the stone bridge – it looks that close– but they don’t. Immediately over the bridge the car begins to climb and wind and the place begins to get a bit mysterious. Every door brings curiosity, what’s around this corner? At the top of town, roads lead to le Mairie and le château, and (lucky us) we have a friend in the château tower.
Jodi and her husband Peter are the founders of La Tour du Château, an experience-driven nest for travelers who enjoy a strong dose of luxury. Jodi and I had ‘met’ in the standard of today’s global setting: on the phone after connecting online. A mutual connection put us in touch and plans were made. Jodi knew I was visiting the Languedoc to taste and learn about the wine and so the visit was fully shaped around my interests. As soon as we were welcomed in, Jodi poured elegant glasses of local sparkling rosé from the cave. This wine, made via méthode traditionnelle is said to be named after the original occupant and visionary of the cave facility, Jean Meyer, a Jewish négotiant who left behind his hometown and livelihood in fear of the the Nazi terrors during the Second World War.
When my hubby tells the story of our trip he always starts with our first few moments, when we met Tap, the plumber helping Jodi with her gourmet kitchen installation. Tap was one of the first people we met in Ventenac, and he’s memorable because we actually encountered him later that evening, at his adorable tapas resto L’oncle Jules in nearby Ginestas. Walking into a cozy dinner spot in a darkened southern French town and being personally greeted by the owner feels nothing less than exquisite and this is the magic that Jodi specializes in.
But back to the day… La Tour du Château is actually “the tower of the château”, which happens to be the imposing structure, well-viewed as one enters town. There are several luxe bedrooms (each with mattresses shipped from America) which are filled with modern comforts and gems from Jodi’s personal antiquities collection. Original floors and tiles were maintained by previous owners, allowing Jodi the ability to curate around incredible bones to fashion a sense of authentic luxury. La Tour’s neighbor is the local wine cooperative cave. When I say neighbor, I should say that that the cave surrounds La Tour. Just outside the front door is the functional cave, where grapes enter the facility at a higher level, utilizing gravity in the winemaking process. Follow a winding stone staircase down toward the Canal du Midi and there is a majestic entrance to the cave‘s public spaces: a tasting room, shop and fill-up station where local wine is tapped into plastic containers to be consumed immediately, as the regulars do.
At the cave we were welcomed by Loïc Bousquet, who set forth to pour us several wines for us to taste. In any given tasting room, in any given winery, in any given place on the globe a person pours wine into glasses. Loïc, a Ventenac resident who learned English in Birmingham (one can tell by the most charming accented English we heard on our trip), however, made us smile. He served our small group, while being peppered with questions by a local top sommelier (a lovely woman of such poise we all wanted to impress her) and topping up wine orders for locals on their way to the weekend.
Outside of the cave waits the Marie Therese, an aged wine barge that once was the height of technology when she was pulled – by man or beast – along footpaths lining the canals. I’ve been told that once-upon-a-time she sank, and was boldly refurbished for her post outside of the cave, looking unlike anything that has seen the murky floor of a canal.
Jodi suggested a wonderful method for dinner that evening, a progressive meal featuring mussels at La Grillade Du Château followed by tapas with Tap at L’oncle Jules after. Wine at both, bien sûr. La Grillade is set directly on the canal, with a vision of plane trees and vines in the distance. The patio seating area is nested under a canopy of trees splashed with colorful string lights. Indoor seating is a continuation of the outside, with the benefit of a roof as well as the gorgeous canal view. When we entered, the chef was at the huge wood-fired oven and offered a hand (actually a wrist, his hand was covered in flour) to Jodi and a friendly nod to our group. Proving life really is good, we ordered a carafe of local rosé and several steaming posts of mussels: garlic and white wine, Roquefort and Catalan-style. Avec frites. It was my night, I guess…because while eating this I watched the sunset over Minervois vineyards.
We popped over to nearby Ginestas, a darkened village where the only lighted establishments in town were the pizza truck and L’oncle Jules. Now, in a big city or even in other villages…darkened might nudge scary thoughts, but in this case it created the most welcoming effect when we pushed open the doors to the restaurant and found buzzing music, a friendly atmosphere, plenty of glow and a little “windy” pup (we were warned). Jodi and Tap held a meeting at the blackboard and ordered us the most generous round of tapas ever eaten. We had a rustic local omelet, Camembert baked in tomato and Spanish spices, a charcuterie platter, cigars of breaded spinach and cheese and fried calamari. La Cigalade Saint Chinian rosé was in our glass. The sense of fun and humor was impeccable – the same fun we’d have with our best pals at home, but with southern French flair.
Later, after we said our goodbyes to everyone at L’oncle Jules, even the dog, we walked to our car. Holding my husband’s hand we noticed a light streaming from a nearby window. With a nosey peep, we looked in a room of men and women playing cards, perhaps a dozen tables going at once. Each person was eating and drinking and laughing. Later we talked about how incredibly special it was that Jodi had given us the chance to eat and drink and laugh just as the Languedoc locals. Travel as it should be, life at it’s finest – never feeling as if we are on the outside looking in.
Where to Stay
La Tour du Château offers customized wine, gastronomy, canal and other experiences. Several room styles are available and all stays can be fully customized. I highly recommend a call with Jodi to let her know preferences – you won’t be disappointed. If you like it, she’ll find it!
latourduchateau.com / firstname.lastname@example.org / +33 126.96.36.199.70
“We are located in the south of France, just 1 hour from the Spanish border and 7 hours from Paris, in the small village of Ventenac en Minervois (~500 residents). There are a number of travel options to reach La Tour du Chateau. Barcelona is a direct flight from many large airports. From there, it is a three-hour drive to the chateau tower. Guests may prefer to fly to Paris and then take a connecting flight to either Montpellier (1.5 hours away) or Toulouse (~2 hours away). A ~5-hour train ride from Paris is also an option. Smaller airlines like Ryan Air serve airports like Carcassonne (30 minutes from the chateau tower). La Tour du Chateau is located just 30 minutes from Mediterranean beaches, 30 minutes to the medieval city of Carcassonne, and just half an hour to the Cathar Castles. The Pyrenees and Spain are located just an hour away. “
Follow along here on L’occasion for additional posts about this visit, including Narbonne Market and Sel du Gruissan salt harvest. Thank you to Jodi for hosting us – all opinions are my own!