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Langeudoc’s à la carte ambitions
Langeudoc’s à la carte ambitions
Published FT November 3 2006 - Photo Chateau Lavagnac

The Languedoc-Roussillon region has for decades been the wine basket of France, pumping out more than half of the country’s inexpensive vin de table, while Provence welcomed tourists and holiday home buyers to its Mediterranean coast.

But this regional divide might soon disappear. Put off by sky-high prices on the Côte d’Azur, property buyers are increasingly turning to the equally stunning and sunny Languedoc. And, thanks to a long-term decline in the market for low-priced French wine (driven by stricter drink driving laws, declining consumption, a flight to quality and foreign competition), land once devoted to vineyards and the chateaux in those grounds are now readily available for new residential developments and owners. In fact, the European Union and a French organisation called Société d’Aménagement Foncier et d’Etablissement Rural (Safer) are promoting such changes by paying farmers to stop production.


There’s no question that the region is ripe for investment. Montpellier, the capital of the Herault departement , has both an airport and a TGV ( train à grande vitesse ) service, while other towns, particularly Pezenas, which served as the centre of regional government in the mid-17th century, offer ­ historic charm, with small, criss-crossing lanes full of antique stores, other smart shops and astonishing architecture, including some fine town mansions. More interesting, however, particularly for developers, are the Languedoc’s rural estates and its wide open, formerly wine-producing spaces.

Richard Edds at local estate agency Leisure and Land is selling a wine estate chateau with 42 acres under vine near Carcassone for €3.5m. The owners were trying to run the building as an agricultural college but have struggled in the past few years and there is now “tacit local council approval” for the land to be redeveloped.

Another property, a fortified farm built in the 16th or 17th century on the Canal du Midi between Narbonne and Carcassone, was recently sold to the Lacoste family and is expected to be turned into a golf resort.

But one of the best examples of the looming transition from past to future in the Languedoc is Chateau Lavagnac, which sits on the site of a gallo roman villa and was reportedly given to a child in 1656 by Isabelle de Mirman, baronne de Florac. (The child’s father was rumoured to be Molière.) Dest­royed and rebuilt many times, the ­chateau is in the Empire style, resulting from a 19th century renovation. In the past century it was a big wine producer and owned by the Comte d’Aulan. He sold it in 1987 and it has been in decline ever since.

“The chateau was bought by a rich Japanese speculator who went on an enormous buying spree in the 1980s, ending up with 50 or 60 across Europe,” says Theirry Loscos of Safer. Following Japan’s economic downturn, several of the chateaux were abandoned and “many fine architectural elements” plundered. This led to “a national scandal and a protracted court battle over ownership”, Loscos explained. “Even though the buildings were listed, the French authorities were unable to intervene quickly.”

In recent years, local mayor Roget Fages decided that something radical had to be done with the site. “Montagnac is essentially a wine-producing town and we need to diversify towards tourism which generates employment,” he explains. So he put together a group that then invited tenders for the building. Nine companies submitted proposals; four mentioned golf.

Edds learned of the Lavagnac plan at about the same time he was approached by four English brothers looking for a project. The Coxess are a colourful quartet, sons of a Walthamstow, London, butcher who set up a chain of shops in the 1950s and hammered home the importance of an entrepreneurial spirit. Barry, 62, the eldest, didn’t want to carry on with the family business so he sold his share, bought a Ferrari and travelled around Europe, ending up as one of the Mini drivers in the cult 1969 film The Italian Job . Later business ventures led him to be a partner in the Hard Rock Café group and a holder of a gold mining concession in Kazakhstan. He has also run a crane hire business in Dubai from a beach in Florida where he’d taken up residence.

His younger brother Charles, 47, was a former golf pro on the European tour in the early 1980s before becoming the manager and owner of the Hainault club in west Essex, England. After selling his share of this busi ness, then trying and failing to buy land in Portugal, he ended up in the Herault. Chateau Lavagnac is his baby. “We’re convinced that this area is the coming thing and we believe we can create a good-quality project,” he says.

The brothers enlisted the help of Edds on the day of presenting proposals to 15 regional, departmental, rural, local and architectural heritage representatives. It was “a stone-faced committee of French planners,” Charles says, “but they were very impressed with our ideas.”

Their plan – to turn the chateau into an apart-hotel with 24 large suites surrounded by new apartments and homes on a 6,500-yard golf course – won the tender in June. There will be more than 800 residences in all, including some six-bedroom houses. The brothers will pay €4m to buy the land, then spend €3m on the chateau renovation and an estimated €28m on new construction.

Their strategy for getting support from the local community is to arrange face-to-face meetings and to try to accommodate any reasonable demands. “They asked me if I could help sell some local wine and I signed a contract for the first 20,000 bottles the other day,” Charles says.

The area’s wine-producing heritage will not be forgotten on the new Lavagnac estate either. “We’ll have about 20 hectares of vines left at the chateau and we’re going to leave them just beyond the semi rough,” he says. “We’re even going to make organic wine.”

Leisure and Land , tel: 33 (0)4-6790 2726
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