A walk on the wine side

Wine walks, such as the one I went on in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois a few years ago, are a great way to discover a “terroir”.  Terroir is a French word that has no direct translation — its meaning encompasses geology, climate and location, and it mainly relates to agricultural land.

Last Sunday, I went on a walk organised by the Maison des Vins in Saint-Chinian, entitled Vins, Vignes & Terroirs, to discover wines, vineyards and terroirs!

The format for the event was that small groups would leave for their walks every 15 minutes from 9am to 11am, and that each group would be guided by a winemaker.  I had chosen the 9.30am departure and our guide was Elisabeth Poux from Domaine de Pech-Menel.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember the food and wine pairing dinner at restaurant Le Village a few years ago, where the wines were from Domaine Pech-Menel.  You can find the post here.

Our little group of seven got kitted out at the Maison des Vins with hats and wine glasses in pouches which were to be hung around our necks.  A list of the wines we were going to taste was also included in each of the pouches.

Elisabeth took us along the Avenue d’Assignan, and pointed out a typical example of a wine grower’s house, just opposite from where we turned onto Rue des Jardins.  Along Rue des Jardins, she pointed out a former spinning mill, part of Saint-Chinian’s heritage from its days as a textile producing village.

The window surrounds on many buildings are made from stone which is typical of the Saint-Chinian geology: sandstone.

At the end of Rue des Jardins we left the village and headed for Les Platanettes, crossing the Canal de l’Abbe on the way and passing some of the walled gardens which are always impeccably tended!

We headed towards La Rive through the vineyards, under a bright blue sky!  I was very grateful for the wide-brimmed straw hat! The vineyards were looking beautiful – lots of lush growth!

As we passed the building in the picture below, Elisabeth explained that many of the buildings that one sees dotted around the vineyards were used to house horses.  Before the advent of tractors, the heavy work in the vineyards would have been horse-powered, and everything was geared towards that.  Often the horses would be stabled in the vineyards for several days, so that they would not have to be walked to and from their regular homes every day.

After we crossed the river on a little iron bridge, we reached La Rive.  Just before the first house on the left there are steps leading down to what looks like a small creek.  Elisabeth explained that there is a spring there, and until not that long ago people would come to drink the water.  I could just about make out the outlines of a basin, but it was all a bit overgrown and neglected.

On we went — after we had passed through La Rive we took a left turn and headed through the vineyards to where the first tasting booth was waiting for us in the shade of the trees!!

Marie Rouanet, who runs Domaine Saint-Cels with her husband Etienne, welcomed us with a selection of three different wines:

A white wine (Fleur de lin) from Domaine La Linquiere, a rose wine from Chateau la Dournie and a red wine from Domaine Saint-Cels.  As we were tasting the wines, Marie passed around a plate of tapas – slices of toasted bread that were spread with tapenade and topped with grilled artichoke slices and sun-dried tomatoes.

After a big glass of water we set off once more.  Our path took us along the Canal de l’Abbe, which was built in the Middle Ages and which supplied water to the many textile workshops in the village as well as water for irrigating the gardens.  The textile workshops have all gone, but the gardens are still there.  You can see part of one in the picture below.

The next part of our walk involved a stretch of uphill climbing – at times it was somewhat steep, but the effort was rewarded by the wonderful views!!

Once we got to the top, the path was fairly level for a little while, before climbing again.  It was on the level bit that Elisabeth spotted the bee orchid!

The Spanish broom was in full flower and its perfume was heavenly!

After another steep-ish stretch we reached the top of the hill!  There were more great views!

Our next stop was just around the corner!!

At the Capitelle de Seguin, Nellie Belot from the Maison des Vins was waiting for us with three more wines to taste:

The white wine came from Domaine de Pech-Menel, the winery of our guide Elisabeth Poux.  The rosé wine was from the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian, and the red wine was from Chateau du Pieure des Mourgues.  There was another bite to eat with the wines, a miniature club sandwich, filled with smoked duck breast and fig chutney.  All highly enjoyable!

After another glass of water, we paused for a group photograph with our guide, before continuing our walk.

Our path took us along the edge of the hill above Saint-Chinian, so the views were wide and sweeping!

Before too long the windmill came into view – we were headed there for the last tasting stop!

After a final climb we reached the windmill, where Nadia Bourgne from Domaine La Madura and Gaylord Burguiere from the Maison des Vins were waiting for us.

At this stop we tasted four wines!

The white wine was from Chateau Viranel, and the red wines were from Domaine Galtier, Mas Champart and Domaine Cathala.  Gaylord had a lovely story to tell about the name of the wine from Mas Champart.  The wine is called Cote d’Arbo after a Mr. Arbo, from whom Isabelle and Mathieu Campart bought the vineyards where the grapes for that particular cuvee are grown.  Mr Arbo pushed his bike up the hill from Saint-Chinian every morning, to work in his vineyeard.  After his day’s work he freewheeled down the hill!!

Our wine tasting by the windmill was accompanied by a toast topped with camembert cream – very yummy!!  All the food we had eaten along the way was prepared by Vince’s Truck.

After we finished the tasting it was all down hill – literally!! 🙂

Our walk back down to the village took us across a former vineyard.  I spied this flowering asphodel just before we got back onto a paved road.

Before long we were back at the Maison des Vins once more.  I was a little tired but so happy to have been able to go on this walk!  Thank you to all the people involved who made this possible!

Below is a map of the walk we took.  The complete loop (starting and ending at the Maison des Vins) is approx 6.5 km long.

 

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Three cistus

You may have come across cistus plants under their common name of rock rose.  They grow very abundantly in the area around Saint-Chinian, and right now they are flowering their hearts out.  I went on a little photo safari last Saturday, to shoot a few pictures for you.

In the map below, you can see the itinerary I followed for my walk, and this link will take you to the geoportail website, where you can see the map, albeit without the itinerary markings.

I started my walk by the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  Most of the walk was on fairly well kept tracks which are used by vineyard workers and hunters.  If you want to do the walk yourself, you should wear reasonably sturdy shoes – high heels are definitely out of the question!!  The whole walk can be completed in an hour.  Of course it took me longer since I stopped frequently to take pictures! 🙂

Before starting the walk proper, I visited the cistus display bed beside the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  It was planted some years ago, and all of the plants have now reached maturity.  A plaque by the bed identifies the various species on show:

Cistus plants thrive in a Mediterranean climate and grow well on poor soils.  According to the wikipedia article, the seeds can lay dormant for up to 100 years before germinating.

Around Saint-Chinian, the most commonly encountered species of cistus are C. monspeliensis:

Cistus monspeliensis

Cistus monspeliensis

C. albidus:

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

… C. ladanifer:

Cistus ladanifer

Cistus ladanifer

… and C. salviifolius:

Cistus salviifolius

Cistus salviifolius

The display bed at the cooperative winery also contains a species which is more rarely seen around here:  C. populifolius:

Cistus populifolius

Cistus populifolius

The plant in the following picture was also growing in the display bed, but I could not find it on the panel.  Cistus species hybridise readily, so, if my identification is correct, this should be C. x purpureus, a cross between C. ladanifer and C. creticus.  It’s a plant with very pretty flowers, and you can see the heritage from c. ladanifer with the purple blotches at the base of the petals!

Cistus x purpueus

Cistus x purpureus

As I was starting my walk, I walked past this stand of trees.  A nightingale, well hidden from view, was singing directly at me.  I thought I would share the video with you!

My walk took me up and down some gentle slopes – being a little higher than the surrounding countryside always makes for nice views!

The first flower picture I took after I started my walk was of an orchid – orchis provincialis:

Orchis provincialis

Orchis provincialis

It wasn’t long before I came to a clump of C. salviifolius by the side of the path.

C. salviifolius

Cistus salviifolius

Wild garlic was also in flower along the path.  The flowers have a pleasant onion/garlic flavour and can be added to salads.

Wild garlic

Allium rosea

I couldn’t pass by this doughnut-shaped tree lichen without taking a picture!

Farther along I found a clump of C. albidus in full flower, it’s pink flowers standing out nicely from the the grey, woolly leaves.

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

Nature’s flower arrangements are always worth studying – here we have lavender and heather flowers, with a background of blackberry leaves! 🙂

The leaves of some cistus species secrete a sticky substance which has a lovely resinous fragrance.  C. ladanifer is one of these species.  Incidentally, the picture below shows the point where the walk starts to loop back.

C. ladanifer

Cistus ladanifer

I came across some more Orchis provincialis – a whole stand of them, in fact.  The leaf rosette showed the typical brown splotches.

In this close-up you can see some of the delicate markings on the flowers:

Orchis provencialis

Orchis provincialis

I rounded a bend in the path and came to this wonderful sight:  a whole hillside covered in flowering cistus bushes!!  The photograph doesn’t really do it justice – it was spectacular to behold!

Here’s a picture of C. monspeliensis – you can see the leaves glistening with the sticky resin.

C. monspeliensis

Cistus monspeliensis

I found some interesting flowers towards the end of my walk:  Serapias lingua is an orchid whose flower petals are like tongues sticking out at you (or me).

Serapias lingua

Serapias lingua

I’ve not been able to identify the following flower, but I think it’s a species of vetch.

Then I found a rather mysterious looking plant – it’s fairly tiny, with a pitcher like flower and one petal folded over that like a lid.  From the top you just see a kind of purple black leaf, about the size of a thumbnail, but when you tilt the flower somewhat, you can see that it’s part of the flower which is pitcher shaped.  I immediately wondered if it was part of the arum family or a carnivorous plant.  Looking through some of the plant books I have at home, it turns out to be Aristolochia pistolochia.

I found a violet limodore orchid just around the corner from the mystery plant above:

Limodorum abortivum

Limodorum abortivum

The last picture I took on my walk is of a white flowered tamarix shrub.  With the flowers not yet quite open, the buds look like white peppercorns, tightly clustered on the branches.  I’m sure it’ll look gorgeous in a week or so.

I hope you enjoyed the wonderful flowers that can be found around Saint-Chinian.  Thanks for coming along with me on this wonderful walk!

What a difference a year makes!

Snow is very seldom seen in Saint-Chinian – temperatures are rarely low enough, and if they are then it is usually very dry.  So when it does snow it’s a memorable occasion and everyone takes pictures!!  Last year on February 28, Saint-Chinian was briefly snow-covered!

The snow is fun while it lasts, but it never lasts long – usually it’s gone by the end of the day!

This year, the weather on February 28 could not have been more different!!  It was a beautifully sunny and bright day, with all the promise of spring in the air!

The mimosa trees were in full flower, spreading their heavenly perfume!

The almond trees were blooming too, the flowers creating a delicate pink haze around the otherwise naked branches!

To my mind, blooming almond trees herald spring like nothing else!  There’s something about an almond tree in full flower that the camera just cannot capture – believe me, I’ve tried again and again over the years!

The violet flowers in my garden are another harbinger of spring.  I can usually smell them before I see them – they are usually so well hidden – they have a wonderfully strong perfume!

The daffodils are flowering already:

The roses are beginning to leaf out:

AND I have the most charming of plants in the garden, which is flowering profusely at the moment. It’s called Erodium pelargoniflorum ‘Sweetheart’ – and what a sweetheart it is!!

Have you seen any signs of spring yet??

Red all over

As a result of our wetter-than-usual spring, we’ve had the most amazing display of wildflowers this year.  Poppies have been truly exceptional!  One field in particular, just by the roundabout in Cabezac, was simply extraordinary, to the point where I made a special trip just to take pictures to share with you!!

Papaver rhoeas is the latin name of the common poppy, also called field poppy, Flanders poppy or red poppy.  It grows particularly well in recently disturbed soil, and hence it’s association with the churned up WWI battlefields of northern France.  In Cabezac, the field had been ploughed, perhaps late last year or earlier this year, in preparation for a cereal crop or some such.  If any seeds had been sown then, they had had no chance against the poppies – I saw no evidence of a struggling crop.

The field was so spectacularly red that many people stopped their cars by the side of the road and hopped out to take a picture or two.  The snails on the post didn’t seem to be particularly fussed about the poppies or the passers-by.

I walked around the edge of the field, careful not to step on any poppies!  I found this beautiful thistle which looks wonderful against the red background, don’t you agree?

There were also some marguerites:

Some of the visitors walked right into the middle of the field, perhaps thinking of Claude Monet’s Coquelicots (Poppy Field) form 1873, which shows a lady with a parasol and a child walking through a field.  It’s a painting which has been reproduced countless times – I’m sure you’ve seen it somewhere!  The original hangs in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

Nobody carried a parasol the day I took the pictures, but there were many mobile phones in evidence!! 🙂

I’ve teased you long enough with my descriptions – here, finally, is the field in all its glory:

Something to think about: a single poppy plant can produce up to 400 flowers during its life cycle!  If only some of the poppy flowers in the field produce seeds, there is a good chance that there will be another amazing display before too long.

And another thing to remember: poppy seeds can stay dormant for a very long time, until the soil is disturbed once more…

Hedgerow colours

A recent post on the blog Life on La Lune spurred me into action – I had to get out and photograph some wildflowers before they faded!!  Today was the perfect day – we’d had rain yesterday and nature looked so lush and clean!

Sturdy shoes – tick.  Camera bag – tick. Spare camera battery – tick.  Macro lens – tick.

In Saint-Chinian we are so lucky to be able to find great walks in pretty much every direction.  Some walks are a little more challenging, such as the one I took today, but it is still an easy walk.  I set off along the D177, leaving the market square in the direction of Assignan.

Centranthus ruber - red valerian

Centranthus ruber – red valerian

In Languedoc, there is something flowering at any time of the year, even if it’s just common daisies.  I promise you that you’ll always find at least one kind of plant flowering, whenever you go for a walk!

Bellis perennis - common daisy

Bellis perennis – common daisy

I kept my eyes open as I walked along the road – there are many flowers along the verges!

Allium roseum - wild garlic

Allium roseum – wild garlic

Trifolium pratense - red clover

Trifolium pratense – red clover

Ranunculus acris – common buttercup

Urospermum dalecampii - prickly goldenfleece

Urospermum dalecampii – prickly goldenfleece

Trying to identify the plants whilst writing this post has been very educational!  In order to differentiate whether the above plant belonged to the genus of taraxacum or hypochaeris, I would have had to have a look at the flower stem and the leaves!  I won’t be able to tell for sure, since I didn’t photograph either…  Luckily, help was at hand – my friend Gill Pound at La Petite Pepiniere identified the flower for me!!  Did you know that in French, dandelion is called dent de lion and also pissenlit?  Yes, it really means “pee in the bed”!!  The young leaves of the plant are added to salads, and they are supposed to have diuretic properties, hence the second of the common names!! 🙂

The orchid below grew just on the other side of the ditch which runs along the road!

Orchis purpurea - lady orchid

Orchis purpurea – lady orchid

On my walk I saw a number of tassel hyacinths:

About 1 kilometre along the D177, a track turns off on the left and climbs the hillside.  That’s where I  continued my walk!  Soon after the turn I came across this pretty flower – it was absolutely tiny, smaller than the nail on my little finger.

Vicia sativa - common vetch

Vicia sativa – common vetch

This plant with the pink flower bud was growing close-by, but I’ve no idea what it could be!  Do you know what it could be?

I was able to identify the following plant – ribwort plantain.  This simple herb is supposed to be highly effective for treating coughs and respiratory problems!!

Plantago lanceolata - ribwort plantain

Plantago lanceolata – ribwort plantain

A tiny thistle grew by the side of the road:

Carduus pycnocephalus - Italian thistle

Carduus pycnocephalus – Italian thistle

The path climbed fairly steeply until it came to a junction with Chemin de la Rouquette.  I turned left here – the path continued level for some time, before it started to descend gently back towards the village.

Wild thyme is flowering everywhere, and insects love it!  I’ve not been able to identify the insect in the picture below left.  I think the one in the picture below right is a bumble bee.

In our area, wild orchids can still be found quite easily – these three beauties were in a field.

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Orchis purpurea – lady orchid

A little farther on, I came across this orchid:

Cephalanthera longifolia - narrow leaved helleborine

Cephalanthera longifolia – narrow leaved helleborine

The following two lady orchids grew within two metres of one another – one appeared to get more sun than the other.

Coronilla forms large shrubs, which flower abundantly in spring!

Coronilla valentina - scrubby scorpion vetch

Coronilla valentina – scrubby scorpion vetch

Certain types of euphorbia flourish in our area – it’s a genus which has around 2000 members.  The poinsettia we see at Christmas time belongs to it.

Euphorbia characias - mediterranean spurge

Euphorbia characias – mediterranean spurge

Euphorbia cyparissias - cypress spurge

Euphorbia sp. – spurge

This delicate pink flower looked so beautiful – there was a little wind, so taking a photograph was challenging!!

Lychnis flos-cuculi - ragged robin

Lychnis flos-cuculi – ragged robin

Another orchid – the first of two bee orchids I saw:

Orphys scolopax - bee orchid

Orphys scolopax – bee orchid

Orphys scolopax - bee orchid

Orphys scolopax – bee orchid

And this is the other one:

Orphys sp. - bee orchid

Orphys sp. – bee orchid

It was thrilling to see so many different orchids in one afternoon!!  But there were many more humble flowers to be looked at!!

Latuca perennis - blue lettuce

Latuca perennis – blue lettuce

Linum perenne - blue flax

Linum perenne – blue flax

Vinca - periwinkle

Vinca – periwinkle

As I got closer to the village, there were a few lovely views!

What a wonderful finish to the walk – I feel so fortunate that I have all this on my doorstep!!

Call of the wild

Last Sunday I went for a trip down memory lane.  About 20 years ago, whilst going for a walk along the canal from the pretty village of Le Somail, I came across a little restaurant on the banks of the Canal du Midi.  It must have been at about the same time of year as now. The restaurant was called La Cascade, after the water which cascaded through an overflow sluice in the canal right next to the terrace of the restaurant.  The terrace looked very inviting, and so I stopped for a drink or an ice cream, or maybe both.  The owners were very friendly and chatty, and I returned there many times for meals and celebrations.  Sadly the restaurant closed down a good many years ago, but the memories remain!

When I arrived at Le Somail I was surprised to see many cars parked everywhere.  Yes, it was wonderful weather, and it was Sunday, but why would there be so many people visiting?  The answer appeared soon enough – the village was hosting a gigantic vide grenier (flea market)!!  There were stalls on both sides of the canal, and lots of people browsing.  The pictures below are taken from the bridge across the canal – you can probably see just how far the stalls stretch into the distance.

Vide Grenier in Le Somail

Vide Grenier in Le Somail

 

View from the bridge in Le Somail

View from the bridge in Le Somail

I was headed in the direction of the big barge in the picture above.  Once I had made my way through the milling crowds and reached the towpath, the peace and quiet of the canal descended.  The plane trees here had not escaped the fungal disease, and for the first several hundred meters of my walk there was no shade.  Boats were moored along the opposite bank to where I was walking – the little cruiser has definitely seen better days!!

Submerged boat on the Canal du Midi near Les Somail

Submerged boat on the Canal du Midi

Yellow irises were flowering along the banks for most of the length of my walk:

Yellow Irises along the banks of the Canal du Midi

Yellow Irises along the banks of the Canal du Midi

I’m not sure what the flower below is called – any suggestions?

Unknown flower on the banks of the Canal du Midi

Unknown flower on the banks of the Canal du Midi

This beautiful butterfly sat still just long enough for me to get a picture:

Butterfly on a thistle flower

Butterfly on a thistle flower

The nightingales were singing away, and in the distance there was a cuckoo calling.  I took a brief video for you – make sure you turn on the speakers!  E-mail subscribers, please go to the website to view the video.

Along the way I came across this mother with her children – what a wonderful sight!  I counted a total of nine chicks!!

Mother duck and her chicks

Mother duck and her chicks

When I eventually reached what had been “La Cascade”, I was not surprised to see that it had changed – not beyond recognition, but it had lost the rustic charm it had once had.  It appears that the building is now used as a private house.  I hope that whoever lives in it now, is enjoying it as much as I enjoyed it when I visited all those many years ago.

On my way back to Le Somail I took this picture – any ideas of what it could be?

Mystery picture - answers  in the comments section please

Mystery picture – answers in the comments section please

There are many wonderful walks along the Canal du Midi, and this was definitely one of them!

Walk along the Canal du Midi

Walk along the Canal du Midi