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When it sparkles in the glass, from purple to garnet red, from lemon to golden yellow, then - unfortunately not always - a wine sky opens up, with a firmament full of stars near and far. They are often miniature planets that one would love to explore. At least, that's how I feel again and again. Descriptions of the wine, points, names of the winemaker, the winery, the grape variety - all this is not (always) enough for me. I would so much like to get to know the micro-world in which good wines are made. Not just to get to know a region, an appellation, an area where a lot of vines grow, but rather the landscape, the villages and hamlets, the people with their everyday life, their culture and history. I want to know what the people there are proud of, not only in terms of wine; what has shaped them, what they dream of and probably also what annoys them.

Roquebrun% the village on the mountain (Photo: P. Züllig)

That is why a wine often becomes the starting point of a big or a small journey. It is the small journeys that we tend to forget or not even take, we much prefer to talk about the big ones, to other countries, to other cultures, to distant wine regions.

In my glass, a wine is tempting me that was pressed almost sixty kilometres away from my "second home" in France, in Roquebrun, a village between Montpellier and Toulouse, almost at the foot of the "Black Mountains". The statistics reveal 540 inhabitants, and the tourist advertising beckons: "The charming village in the nature park of the Haut-Languedoc overlooks the Orb valley. Its microclimate is favourable for mimosa, orange and lemon trees, the climate has made it the 'little Nice of the Hérault'." I probably would never have come to this village without wine in my glass. It lies apart, almost hidden, where the Orb, which comes from the Cévennes, squeezes through the valley between the mountains to reach the sea fifty kilometres further on at Béziers.

Roquebrun lives from viticulture and "small tourism", from hikers, canoeists, families, nature lovers who descend here and seek silence, warmth and relaxation. "Good French food, excellent lamb chops, local wine, nice service and not expensive," a visitor wrote in the guest book of "Le Petit Nice". The climate, but nothing else, is reminiscent of the fashionable seaside resort of Nice.

Le Petit Nice (Photo: P. Züllig)

Here you are in the countryside, where vines also grow, not just exotic fruits. Actually, I have known the village - from wine literature - for quite some time. I've even driven through the village once or twice, on wine exploration tours in the Haut-Languedoc, which rises up the mountain as if glued to it, almost always eliciting admiration but not the need to stop. That is a mistake. Wine is not only made in the vineyard and the cellar, it is also shaped by the culture of a village or hamlet, not only by the climate and the soil (here mainly slate), but also by the people who live here.

Warmed by the sun (Photo: P. Züllig)

Life here - at least in the village centre - is not easy. At the bottom of the narrow street, through which the tourist traffic squeezes, especially in summer, there are a few shops, many old houses, a few restaurants (not many), a bistro with a tobacco shop, even the village school and the mairie (the mayor's house), above which the houses rise, tightly nested one inside the other, actually only accessible on foot. In winter, the village is almost deserted, almost all the pubs are closed. Those who go to work are in the fields (pruning) or "down below", closer to the sea, where there are more opportunities to earn money. Here in Roquebrun, people wait until small-scale tourism returns for a few months.

And yet, thanks to the sheltered location - at least when the wind is not whistling - and the heat storage of the rock, winter often brings spring for a few hours. Only the noise of the chain saws, with which the plane trees are trimmed back to a few branches, betrays the fact that it is still winter. Not only a few visitors - you can count them on one hand - but also the bumblebees on the blossoms don't want to believe it.

So this is where the wine of Roquebrun is made. Down the road is also the cave where the wines are made and marketed. A cooperative cellar - one of nine in the Saint-Chinian appellation - where two thirds of the wines are pressed, about 135,000 hectolitres per year. In Roquebrun, it is primarily the cooperative that has made the village's wine famous, rather than the few winegrowers who press their own grapes here. This is quite different in nearby Faugères, where it is well-known names and idiosyncratic winemakers who make the best wines. In Roquebrun, as in nearby Berlou, the cooperative can hold its own, and even produces better wines than the region's self-pressers.

Vineyards of Roquebrun (Photo: P. Züllig)

Anyone who sees the compact village and the valley surrounded by mountains, who senses the traditions that are also revealed in the architectural style, who walks on the warmed slate and enjoys the winter sun, can easily understand why the wine from Roquebrun is like this and not different: idiosyncratic, personal, oscillating between familiar taste patterns and unusual, distinctive aromas. Mourvèdre, an idiosyncratic old grape variety - which is slowly disappearing from the wines of the Languedoc - occupies a dominant position here, usually with a share of more than 20 percent, in the case of one wine (Sir de Roc Brun) it is even 60 percent. Since I experienced the village - even if it was only for a few hours - I experience the wines very differently, much more intensely, much more authentically, much more personally. The village, the valley, the Orb, the bridge (of which they are proud), the people, the climate - they come to me from the glass, with their wine.

It is not my intention to highlight one or the other of the wines, nor to play off one cooperative against the other, one winemaker against the other. This kind of prestige is lost in the starry sky of the sparkling wine. The little star in the firmament happens to be called Roquebrun, it could also be called something else entirely.

The cooperative cave (Photo: P. Züllig)

It is like the little astroid of the "Little Prince" (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), "hardly bigger than a house" and threatened - not by three monkey trees, but (like many little wine astroids) by the fashions of wine lovers, the "noble" grape varieties and cuvées and the worldwide market that reacts to them ever faster. For me, it is therefore important to look for and visit the small stars in the wine firmament or the small astroids, to experience for myself how people live and work there, how a culture has developed or changed for centuries or even only recently. Even here, where, figuratively speaking, "fox and hare say good night to each other", the most quoted saying of the fox in the "Little Prince" is still valid: "One only sees well with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes." Put less pathetically: The sparkle in the wine glass that sends me on my travels again and again leads more quickly to the essence of a wine than what I note under the keywords eye, nose, palate, no matter how analytically fathomed and succinctly formulated. You can't see, smell and taste everything, but you can experience a lot. Even a small village where wine is made.


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