The Languedoc part of southern France in its ensemble has been considered for some time by many specialists as a sort of eldorado for winemakers in France. Vast, varied in its relief, and with a generally mediterranean and therefore friendly climate, it also offers the possibility to produce a fairly wide range of types and styles of wine, depending on the specific vineyard site and the grape varieties used. If one opts for the appellation system, the varieties are selected for you, but one also has the choice of using the less restrictive vin de pays system (soon to be known as indication géographqie protégée) and planting more or less what you like, although it cannot then be named Corbières.
Corbières is by far tha largest single appellation within the Languedoc region. In fact it is the 4th largest French wine appellation, covering some 17,000 hectares (almost 43,000 acres). It lies just south of an imaginary line between the towns of Narbonne, to the east, and Carcassonne, to the west (not shown on this map, although you can see roughly where the place is within France). From this line it stretches south into and around the foothills of the eastern part of the Pyrennees mountain range, climbing as it goes, and stopping when it meets the Roussillon region, more or less along a line sketched by those magical Cathar ruins that perch on craggy mountain tops. The French adminstrative département within which Corbières lies is called the Aude. In the higher parts, winters can be quite severe, but summer is always hot & arid. Rock clearly dominates the soils in some places.
As this is an extensive area, its wines correspondingly vary quite a bit in quality, although over the past 20 years or so they have improved enormously. I recently had the opportunity to taste this for myself at a small tasting organised to celebrate the 20 years of the creation of the official appellation Corbières. A year or so ago, the central area around the small town of Boutenac created a seperate designation for itself, called Corbières-Boutenac, since they consider themselves to be the best area within the larger one. I expect that some other sub-areas will follow in due course. I personally doubt the wisdom of this tendancy to create ever smaller place appellations for wines in France. And I am not entirely convinced that one can actually systematically recognise a significant difference in quality, as I discovered in a recent blind tasting when Minervois and Minervois La Lavinère wines were mixed, and I found as many good (and less good) ones in each appellation. There are already far too many wine appellations in this country, and all this does is to confuse the consumer even more, making him turn to wines that are a little easier to recognise, and whose names they can memorise.
Grape varieties in Corbières
Carignan, often from very old vines, is the main variety here. It cannot legally exceed 50% in the blend, although this is not always fully respected I understand. It used to have a poor reputation, but this was probably due to poor farming and/or wine-making. It can taste a little rough and ready, but the best wines from carignan can have sensational, brooding intensity and great freshness to boot. Other varieties authorised are: Syrah, Grenache noir, Lladoner Pelut, Mourvèdre, Piquepoul noir, Cinsault, and Terret noir.
Wine types, styles and prices
Reds account for 90% of production, followed by rosés, rather fashionable here as elsewhere. Whites are rare but can be interesting from the cooler parts. The young reds are often produced using the carbonic maceration technique, of which I am not a geat fan as I find it makes them small very similar and not very pleasant. The best wines have some barrel ageing to them, which helps to refine their tannins and calm their youthful ardour a bit. These wines manage to combine intensity of dark fruit flavours with smooth, inky textures and great freshness.
Privces are, on the whole, very reasonable. One can find decent to good wines at levels between 5 and 10 euros (prices here in France), and the best cuvées may go up to 20 euros. Higher prices that this are not always justified. In particular, avoid anything in a heavy bottle. These are unnecessary and wasteful and only ensure that the wine is sold above its real value.
Some good wines from Corbières I have tried recently
Prieuré Sainte Marie d’Albas, Saisons 2010
This was my favourite of the younger and less expensive wines that I tried. It had plenty of clean fruit and was crisp and fresh to the finish. Only 6 euros.
Château Grand Moulin, Terres Rouges 2008
A wine that is regularly amongst the very best from Corbières. This is deep in colour and aromas, with good fruit flavours and quite a refined texture. I loved it and its price is very reasonable for this quality level (around 10 euros).
This producer also makes a delicious white wine from Vermentino, Grenache blanc and Maccabeu grapes. Called La Tour du Grand Moulin, it is available for around 8 euros (see below).
Domaine Serres-Mazard, Altitude 2006
Fine aromas of spices and aromatic plants like citise, over an intense core of cassis. Deliciously fruity, softly textured and chewy, this has depth, length and freshness. Very impressive at about 15 euros.
Like the colours of this place in the autumn too