The port’s big attraction is the Noilly Prat distillery, which produces the famous vermouth aperitif. Guided tours in the historical part of the factory show visitors every step of the production process and include tastings. In a vast warehouse, barrels were lined up against the walls, and the smell of wood, wine and something sweet immediately hit us; the cool air was very pleasant after the scorching weather outside.
“These are the original barrels,” said the guide, Lisa. “You can see there are small leaks on some of them.” The barrels were indeed blackened by seeping liquid but they were safely held together with massive metal bars and bolts that could withstand the pressure. Tiny latches, the size of small cat flaps, were visible at the bottom of the barrels. “That was for cleaning the inside,” Lisa said. “The men used to lay on their side on a table, level with the hatch, and squeeze their arm, shoulder and head into the opening to check and clean the inside.”
An astonishing sight met us outside: row upon row of smaller barrels, each a different size, were placed in a huge courtyard. Just like Banyuls sweet wine, vermouth is matured for weeks in the Mediterranean sun. Lisa approached one barrel, flipped the stopper off and inserted a pipette which she then emptied into a glass. “This is the wine after it has matured but before we’ve added the spices,” she said. The wine was slightly thick and sweet, tasty but not quite vermouth yet.
At the other end of the courtyard stand two imposing buildings which are off-limits to visitors, “to keep the recipe secret,” Lisa winked as she led us to a room with more barrels, although slightly oval this time. One had a long, hooked rod propped up against it This is used to stir the vermouth to ensure the spices mix well with the wine. The tour ended with a fun cocktail-making masterclass using Noilly Prat’s various vintages. As I left the factory, a family was loading their car with cases of vermouth, the father pushing a trolleyful and two boys carrying a couple of bottles. “People come from far away to purchase our vermouth, we are very proud,” Lisa said as she turned her smile to waiting customers.
The town of Sète had been visible all day on the top of its hill, and it was now time to drive around the lagoon and sample its attractions. Marie-France Parra, our tourist office guide, squeezed us into her little car for a tour, which included stunning views of the Thau lagoon and the Mediterranean from Mont Saint-Clair, and the historic fishing district of La Pointe Courte.
“I’m not from Sète originally, but when I came here I fell in love with it,” Marie-France said. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.” Another outsider who fell in love with Sète and never left is Nancy McGee, a Canadian expat who founded a travel company showing visitors the authentic South of France.