Vineyard Visits

Australian winemaker Karen Turner is working her magic on a Languedoc estate with a history going back to the Romans

I was fortunate to arrive at Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian before sunset. The estate was hidden away in the heart of Languedoc’s vineyards, so maps and satnavs were of limited use and I felt relieved as I pulled up beside the brightly coloured priory.

“Glad you could make it,” said the-then estate manager Pierre-Étienne Chevalier. He had booked us a table at Restaurant L’Entre Pots in nearby Pézenas, so we set off by car into town. In the small open-air courtyard behind the restaurant we both ordered the cuisses de grenouille and my host graciously indulged me when we learned only a single portion remained.

Our conversation turned to Prieuré Saint-Jean de Bébian and its vineyards. “The estate’s history goes back 2,000 years,” he said. “In the 1st Century AD, the land was awarded to the Roman centurion Bebianus as recompense for his valour in battle. The wines produced at the estate were exported all over the Roman Empire, as far away as England.”

In the 11th century, Cistercian monks settled at the site, in the historic region of the Pays d’Oc, and it became a centre of worship after its chapel was built in 1150. “The monks were good winemakers,” Pierre-Étienne chuckled, “they became infamous for over-indulging in their own wares.” From the 17th century, the estate was owned by a succession of state officials and merchants, who benefited from its proximity to the port of Sète and the Canal du Midi.

The Prieuré owes its current prestige to the work of Alain Roux, who began an overhaul of its vineyards in the 1970s. Pierre-Étienne said: “He planted syrah vine clones taken from Jean-Louis Chave’s famous estate in the northern Rhône, grenache cuttings from Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and mourvèdre vines from Domaine Tempier in Bandol. The estate’s ancient cinsault and carignan vine stocks were carefully preserved and white Rhône varieties such as roussanne, marsanne, clairette and bourboulenc were planted.”

The next morning I had a chance to explore the restored 17th-century building and grounds before entering the cellar, where I found winemaker Karen Turner wrestling with a hose in front of an ancient stone wine vat. “This cuve was built in the 17th century,” she gestured, “at the same time as the house.”

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Karen had begun her career in Australia as a medical scientist. Like many Aussies, she was driven by wanderlust and craved the outdoors. “One day at a party, I got talking to a chiropractor who always wished he had been a winemaker. My mind was made up.” Karen did a vintage at the Brown Brothers estate in the state of Victoria while working in a wine shop, before returning to university in Adelaide to study for a postgraduate diploma in viticulture.

“I always intended to return to Australia,” Karen explained, but in 1997, while working for Hugel Père et Fils in Alsace, she met her future husband. The couple travelled widely, working in South Africa and Portugal, before settling in the Languedoc. In 2004, Karen found a job at Prieuré Saint-Jean de Bébian, where she was quickly promoted to the role of viticultural director.

In the tasting room, Karen talked me through the estate’s range of wines. The whites were fresh, rich blends of roussanne, grenache blanc, clairette, picpoul and bourboulenc grapes; the reds complex and velvety, made mostly from syrah, grenache, mourvèdre and cinsault. I asked Karen if she found the French winemaking regulations restrictive compared to the relative freedom enjoyed in her native land. “On the contrary,” she replied, “the Languedoc is very similar to Australia in its pioneering spirit. We’re free to try just about anything.”

With that, Karen produced a bottle of L’Autre Versant (The Flip Side); a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes. The wine showed ripe, spicy cabernet aromas, with a smooth, elegant feel in the mouth. “So is this your own ‘Super-Tuscan’?” I suggested, referring to the fashionable Bordeaux-style blends that emerged in Italy in the 1970s. “I’ve never thought of it like that,” Karen laughed, “but if you don’t mind, I might quote you on that in the future!”

Learn more about Languedoc wines:

Visit the estate:

Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian

Route de Nizas

34120 Pézenas

Tél +33 4 67 98 13 60

Choice wine:

Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian Rouge 2010


Black cherry, prunes and pepper spice on the nose, with a rich, structured palate.

Best drunk with:

Game dishes

Price at the estate:

26 Euros