Château style: fine wine and a fine time

A short distance from Beziers, the Château St Pierre de Serjac offers great opulence and beauty

 

Karl and Anita O'Hanlon are living a dream that many Irish people will find familiar. After working and living in London and Ireland, the pair decided to give France a shot. Their introduction to the area came via Karl’s father, Redmond – he used to write about wine for this newspaper, among others, and part-owned a holiday home in the region with Terry Keane.

So they decided to try their hand at perhaps the most challenging but enticing French fantasy of all – taking over a French château and renovating it as a hotel. In 2006, they took the plunge and worked on a number of projects with partners, including the highly regarded Le Couvent d’Hérépian, before striking out on their own with Château les Carrasses, which opened in 2011.

Driving up to that property, even now Karl still can’t contain his enthusiasm: “The first time I saw it I knew I had to have it.” It’s easy to see why. The property is fairytale pretty, its turret and towers poking out from tree cover, which is wrapped around by vine fields.

With their company, Domaine & Demeure, they have just finished their latest property, Château St Pierre de Serjac, which is about 20 minutes from the city of Beziers (a third is in the early stages of development).

It’s one of the most beautiful wine estates in the region, sharpened by an extensive €25 million renovation that took two years. The château itself sits on an elevated site above 200 acres of vine, olive groves and vegetable patches that stretch out to the horizon. Strolling around in the evening, the light softens everything into lush blues and watercolour pinks.

On the one hand, this is luxury of an extremely lofty order. The main building was designed by Louis-Michel Garros and was formerly the seat of the deCrozals dynasty. The decor is infuriatingly chic and every elegant stick of furniture looks well worth stealing.

Each element seems to have been carefully considered; even the menu covers in the airy main room of the restaurant are lovely to look at. We visit just a few weeks after the jet-set opulence of the BBC’s The Night Manager has been raising temperatures on television. If Hugh Laurie’s heinous Richard Roper strolled into this hotel, he would look right at home.

Outside, a spa and its indoor pool hide in the pine trees. In front of the hotel, a jaw-dropping 30m infinity pool seems to tumble into the fields below. Behind the main building, a sleek conference and events room and bar, and a winery that will soon bottle its first wine, are taking final shape.

And yet, Karl and Anita are keen to differentiate themselves from many of the château hotels in France. There is a sense that many of these places are to be seen and not savoured. Guests are allowed, but only on their best behaviour. You can stay, but it’s certainly not your home.

Not so in Château de Serjac. Children are encouraged and the atmosphere throughout is informal. Restaurant times are relaxed and open. Every seat seems so comfortable it would be a shame not to have another glass from that fine new cellar. The accommodation is split between rooms and self-catering (see panel).

So how have they managed it? For starters, their work ethic is formidable. Strolling around the grounds of Château Les Carrasses, Karl never stops pointing out where little improvements can be made, pausing to pick up a few leaves or brush some gravel. He worries about a pine tree – the “oldest on the estate” – that is being decimated by butterflies. He reckons the white umbrellas by the pool, which look perfectly serviceable, need replacing.

Later on, in a vast warehouse containing odds and ends accrued over a decade of renovating properties and furniture, he shows us a pile of unsorted ancient pottery that they found on one site. “I’m going to rebury it on the grounds so when children come and stay at the hotel, they can go on digs and discover a bit of Roman pottery and then take it home with them.”

Another factor is partnerships. Buzzing around the region we stop to chat to plenty of other château owners and managers, who are all delighted to give us the time of day. The wine operation at the château is thanks to an extensive partnership with winemaker Vignobles Bonfils. It has a portfolio of 21 estates, making it one of France’s largest independent winemakers.

A weekend in the chateau might give you inspiration to pursue your own French dream. It does seem like an awful lot of work though.

Perhaps it’s best then to leave this one to the experts.

HOW TO...

STAYING AT CHÂTEAU DE SERJAC
The château has two accommodation options, with all facilities in the estate open to both. Luxury rooms in the main hotel are each decorated in their own style . Prices are from €220 to €345 per night per room, depending on the season. The main accommodation is in self-catering houses throughout the estate. The finish and facilities on all are first-class. Nearly every house has a private swimming pool, jacuzzi, garden or terrace. Sizes range from one bed room to four. There is even a sunken wine cellar in one of the kitchens. Prices per night in the low season range from €178 for the one-bedroom up to €425 for a four-bedroom house with a pool and garden. These prices change significantly in the high season. The same properties in July, for example, are €249 and €850. See serjac.com

GETTING THERE Aer Lingus flies direct from Dublin to Perpignan (117km from the château) and Montpellier (80km). Ryanair flies direct to Carcassone (112km). Driving directions to the chateau at serjac.com

THING TO SEE AND DO
Nightlife: For something utterly different head to Château Vaisseries and Beziers Plage club in Beziers. It might look like another grand French home from the outside but inside is the sort of mindbending nightclub that could happily call Berlin home. During the summer months, the grounds are transformed into a beach club despite it being miles from the sea. Both mad and brilliant in equal measure.
Village life, city charms: The area around the château is dotted with small French villages and towns, including Magalas, Pouzolles, Puissalicon and Roujan, which are perfect for small markets and sipping coffees in the sun. Nearby is the town of Bezier, which has its own workaday charm, or the elegantly stylish Montpellier, one of the finest destinations in France.
Hit the beach: There are hundreds of beaches along the Languedoc coast to choose from. Among the best are Espiguette near Montpellier, Argeles sur Mer and, about a 25-minute drive from the château, are Portiragnes and Serignan.

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