The Languedoc's pleasures include thriving Montpellier, one of France's fastest-growing cities, and quiet villages beside the Canal du Midi. In the Languedoc, overall figures from French notaires show that property prices fell 6.2 per cent last year to an average of £158,450 compared with an average throughout France, excluding Paris, of £140,345.
Restoring the past
Karl O'Hanlon has lived in the Languedoc for a decade with his wife Anita and three young children, first working on leaseback projects and, for the past three years, with his own company, Domaine & Demeure. He specialises in taking tired châteaux and transforming them into working wine estates with comfortable, well-priced homes for sale.
Once restored, he runs the estate as a hotel, providing rental income for owners who can use their homes as often as they like — but otherwise must put them in the rental pool.
O'Hanlon also reintroduces vines to the estates, albeit on a small scale; but it means that owners can drink the wine grown on their own land. His first solo project, Château Les Carrasses, near Beziers, defied the global slowdown to open its doors in 2011.
Château Les Carrasses is a 19th-century wine domaine in the Hérault, an area of the Languedoc dominated by vineyards. The romantic, turreted château has a series of outbuildings, barns and the winery, in extensive, peaceful grounds.
O'Hanlon has renovated the estate into a boutique hotel with 28 individual apartments, townhouses and villas, a large swimming pool overlooking the vines, tennis court, bistro and bar. The properties sold out in four months, pre-renovation, to buyers from across Europe and the Far East. After full refurbishment, the hotel opened in 2011, achieving an impressive 50 per cent occupancy rate in the first year with net rental returns of up to 4.7 per cent for owners' rental homes.
"The hotel is the anchor for the estate. It creates activity," said O'Hanlon. "Empty houses don't make sense for the local community or for owners. That's my aim, to create holiday homes that make sense."
Creating a new vintage
Domaine & Demeure's new project is Château St Pierre de Serjac, a 230-acre, 19th-century wine estate previously owned by a local aristocrat. It has a château, winery and extensive range of barns, stables and outbuildings in need of care, money and good imagination.
The mature gardens with pine parasol trees and views across rolling vineyards and rural forests and fields are quintessential lazy, languid Languedoc.
O'Hanlon intends to create 36 apartments and houses including eight new-build homes in the grounds, with plans to open the hotel in 2015. There will be good sports facilities, indoor and outdoor pools, tennis, kids' club and a bar and restaurant. Prices start from £169,650 for a studio and £307,930 for a two-bedroom apartment of 880 square feet with terrace. Furniture packages start from £10,280 and some homes have private pools. Ten homes have already sold.
"I love restoring old buildings, bringing them back to life," said O'Hanlon, 42. "The local architecture is worth not only preserving but also celebrating. Taking a tired estate and adapting it for tourism and also making wine for today's tastes is what excites me."
Design clearly excites O'Hanlon too, and his clients take obvious delight in creating beautiful interiors in their small piece of French history.
At Les Carrasses, his designer Michelle Crouzet, a former catwalk model-turned-Parisian antiques dealer, has used large industrial metal doors, softened with pale grey shutters and cream linens.
Stylish, functional and deeply comfortable furniture includes handmade tables and cupboards from Indonesia, sofas from Ireland, Eames chairs and classic French and Belgian brands. O'Hanlon promises a bourgeoisie-chic style at Château St Pierre — more Louis XV but with his usual modern twist.
The location is good with three villages within two miles, the sea 30 minutes away and airports at Beziers (20 minutes), Montpellier (60) and Toulouse (1 hour 45).
Domaine & Demeure: domainedemeure.com
Château Les Carrasses: lescarrasses.com
VAT:Allow two per cent for notaires' fees. VAT is included in the sales price.
Tax:These projects incur no tax on rental income for seven years.