From Château CapitolWindows, vines spread neatly as far as the eye can see. It’s autumn and the grape harvest is in full flow. the low hum of tractors in the background is like white noise and is pleasing to the ear. Above, in the cobalt sky, swifts and storks, kites and kestrels have already begun to make their way south towards the savannah lands of Africa, stopping at the Roc de Conilhac – just out of our sight from the Château, and then the lagoon Bages – a pitstop for most birds flying south from Europe.
Here in the Languedoc region of southern France, near the Roman town of Narbonne, winter has not yet descended and it’s still sunny enough to enjoy a crisp rosé on the terrace. Rosé, no doubt, will come from Bonfil label, made on the 240-acre estate where Château Capitolul is located. You may have already had a wine tasting – if not, it’s a must. Not only will you taste the fine wines, from Syrah, Roussanne and Viognier grapes, among others, but you will also discover the rich heritage of winemaking sewn into the soil.
Wine is said to have been made here since Roman times, with the surrounding area of La Clape being the first region in the Languedoc to receive the coveted Grand Cru status. A centuries-old wine estate, the Capitol is iconic in the area and, since its reimagining to transform it into a hotel with spa and garden villas, has also partnered with Vignobles Bonfilsone of France’s most respected independent wine companies.
Now part of it Domaine & Demeure hosting company, which was founded in 2008 by Carl O’Hanlon and Anita Fortethe Château aligns with the group’s vision of authentic and sustainable tourism.
Château les Carrasses was the first project from the dynamic duo. It opened in 2011 in Béziers and has been widely recognized as the benchmark for sustainable development in the region. This was validated in 2012 when Domaine & Demeure announced an investment from Vignobles Bonfils, one of France’s most innovative, independent wine companies.
Château St Pierre de Serjac was next, opening in March 2016 and maintaining the same formula of informal, relaxed luxury.
“We’re just temporary custodians of these amazing places,” Carl says of the historic enclaves he’s revived. After a sensitive renovation to preserve the natural environment and the aristocratic heritage, Château Capitol it is the third property to be ‘re-sunk’ like a butterfly, with ‘every aspect of the renewal carefully considered to preserve and enhance the natural environment and rich architectural and social heritage’, says Karl. “We are also determined to breathe new life into the estate.”
You can feel this feeling first in the restored Château itself, which dates back to 1896. An elegant curved staircase ascends its center, leading you to eight suites. Art nouveau chandeliers, freestanding bateau baths and restored mirrors take you back to its roots, while sumptuous plush poufs, sofas and upholstered stools come in shades of inky-blue, sea-green and dove-grey. Blue-veined marble bathrooms add the wow factor and are stocked with thick towels and Cinq Mondes products. Botanical prints, framed leaves and black and white floral photography give poetic nods to the great outdoors.
For longer stays or ‘en famille’ holidays, there are 44 villas within the grounds, which are privately owned but rented out to holidaymakers. All designed with the same French chic aesthetic to give a nod to typical fisherman’s huts. Terracotta roof tiles, traditional wooden shutters and oak beams are mixed with antique finds (both Karl and Anita have sourced many items themselves from antique country markets and fairs). The villas are also cozy with stylish new furniture and accessories (think: handmade ceramics, woven throws and linen-upholstered furniture). In fact, Carl and Anita were asked so often about where they found various items, that they have now started an online furniture and antique store. Domaine Lifefor guests to replicate the look at home.
With a strong commitment to the environment and to reducing the estate’s landscaping footprint, the couple enlisted the talents of garden designer and four-time Chelsea Flower Show gold medal winner James Bassonwho collaborated with a famous botanist Olivier Phillippi. The result is a wild-feeling, free-flowing ‘dry’ garden, created with a rich palette of Mediterranean plants that can thrive without fertilizers or herbicides and, crucially, without drawing on the precious resource of water. Resident Holm Oaks and Aleppo Pines have been underplanted with naturalistic Judas trees, soft grasses, euphorbia, lavender and rosemary. The feel is part Arizona desert and part Mediterranean herb garden.
In a region layered with wine and food heritage, the food here is, as you’d expect, impressive. Méditerranéo is run by the chef Valère Diochet, who, with his sophisticated, modern take on haute cuisine, could soon be in line for a Michelin star. The restaurant is carved out of the Château’s original dining room, and the refined dishes manage to surprise and delight – from the inventive amuse bouche (a green olive on a spoon is actually a chickpea and cumin mousse described as ‘trompe l ‘ oeil’ ) in the decadent dessert of candied kumquats with Piedmont hazelnuts and chocolate and salted caramel ice cream.
Asado, meanwhile, is overseen by a new chef Jan Tendone. The Spanish-influenced bistro-style restaurant sees locally sourced fish and meat cooked on huge wood-fired grills in an open kitchen. From mussels or charcuterie as a starter to veal steak or herb-crusted dreko as a main – dishes are shared and dipped ‘for the table’. A range of house-made sauces – such as Catalane romesco and confit garlic aioli – elevate each dish to new heights, while grilled baguettes arrive warm and crispy, perfect for dipping in Fabi olive oil and Gruissan sea salt.
You can spend your days here taking a dip in the outdoor infinity pool, which is picturesquely surrounded by olive trees, or playing tennis and bocce. The petite spa offers relaxing treatments from Cinq Mondes, perfect if you overdid it on the courts.
But there is so much to discover on your doorstep that it is essential to find and explore. To wander the cliffs of La Clape, to cycle the lagoon and L’Ile Saint-Martin, you can rent an e-bike, with the hotel organizing a guide and a picnic, so you can make a day of it.
Narbonne is also worth a visit. The old Roman town is bisected by the Canal de la Robine and still retains the remains of the original Roman road with its huge cobblestones. Check out the new one Narbo Via Museum (narbovia.fr) which delves further into the city’s Roman past. Foodies will be in heaven with a trip to the Belle-Époque covered food market – where you can shop for endless epicurean delights or dine at one of the many stalls serving everything from local cheeses to handmade madeleines. artisanal bread to the girls.
Best of all you can cycle to the fishing village of Gruissan, famous for its salt flats and views from an ancient tower dating back to the 10u century. Head to the rustic restaurant, La Cambuse du Saunier, overlooking a pink-hued lake where the famous Gruissan salt is harvested. Head to a bare scrubbing table and tuck into freshly-caught groupers, oysters and clams, still sizzling in their pans. As the light changes, you’ll notice the water transform from the faintest blush to an incredible fuchsia. It is a picturesque vision, like the Château Capitol itself.