JIM BUDD uncovers a Carignan revival and continuing modernisation in the Corbières region.
My first visit to Corbières was in May 1989. Although the region was already starting to change dramatically, the past 11 years have seen some acceleration. The reputation of Carignan has been considerably restored, an increasing number of people from other parts of France and Europe have been attracted to Corbières, there have been significant new plantings, a far greater use of air-conditioning in barrel chais and warehouses, and a considerable widening of the range of wines offered.
Corbières got full appellation status in 1985, but the price of AC entry was to cut drastically the area classified from 44,000ha (hectares) to the present day 19,000. Even so Corbières is the largest appellation in Languedoc-Roussillon with 15,000ha of the 19,000 classified in production. There are more than 2,240 producers, 38 caves cooperatives and 301 individual properties.The topography of the land varies between flat and ruggedly mountainous. Close to Narbonne and around the bay of Sigean there are vines just metres from the sea. In the south of the Corbières around the village of Cucugnan it is wild and mountainous. Then in the west there are steep vineyards around the Montagne d’Alaric. This means considerable variations in climate. The hotter areas are those close to the Mediterranean and in the broad valley of the Aude around Lézignan and the higher vineyards in the centre of the Corbières. Further west around the Montagne d’Alaric the influence of the Mediterranean is tempered by the Atlantic.Over the last decade there has been considerable emphasis on classifying the distinct areas within Corbières. Eleven different terroirs were launched with considerable fanfare in 1991. Unfortunately it is now freely acknowledged that, although there is a lot of diversity within the Corbières, there are not 11 distinct terroirs and that some were created for political reasons to satisfy local pride. None of the different terroirs have yet been recognised by the INAO, though Boutenac is the most likely to be the first to be given the right to add its name to that of Corbières. Whether there will ever be a Boutenac AC, as some would like to see, is another question altogether. Several of the western terroirs, such as Montagne d’Alaric, Serviès and Termenès, are considering amalgamating.
Unfortunately the further classification work required to satisfy the INAO set up tensions within the Corbières producers. Four different groups were formed – Syndicat de Cru Corbières, Syndicat de Haut Expression, Cru Signées and Hommes et Terroirs. There is not the space to go into the intricacies of the sometimes vicious wine politics of Corbières or the shifting alliances among the leading protagonists. Suffice to say that perhaps the central issue was whether the classification should be done solely by terroir alone, the Burgundian model, or to include the reputation of the producers concerned, the Bordeaux model. Fortunately, although there are still four associations, hostilities have abated. However, the Corbières producers did spend far too much time over the last decade fighting among themselves rather than concentrating on the increasing fierce competition from around the world.
In the latter half of the 1980s much talk was of planting les cépages améliorateurs, principally Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah, to replace the widely planted and despised Carignan. The official view at the time was that Carignan was a weed and that high quality would not be possible until much of it had been rooted out. Fifteen years later the view is rather different. ‘It is good to guard Carignan when all Languedoc is moving to Grenache and Syrah,’ says Louis Panis of Château de Vieux Parc.
It has been recognised that old vine Carignan with restricted yields can produce high quality. And in certain parts, especially around Boutenac, it is well suited to the dry climate. Syrah works best further west, particularly in the region of Serviès where it is a little cooler. Mourvèdre has been found to be very temperamental because it only grows and ripens properly in certain sites.The tradition has been to vinify Carignan using carbonic maceration to emphasise the fruit while limiting tannin extraction. However, an increasing number of producers are using classic fermentation for Carignan, especially for top cuvées. Such has been the revaluation of Carignan in Corbières that a few producers are now replanting and more are considering doing so as almost all the Carignan planted in the region (that survived the grubbing up frenzy) is now at least 30 years old. The commonly-held theory is that Carignan is only able to produce interesting fruit once it is at least 30 years old, yet not every producer agrees. ‘I think that if it is planted in the right terroir and the yields are restricted, then even young Carignan will produce good results,’ argues Arnaud de Lamy of Domaine Fontarêche (Lézignan) who is considering replanting. ‘It is often the best vine here,’ he adds.Another clear change in the vineyards is that, increasingly, vines are trellised rather than shaped in the traditional gobelet. This is often an indication that the vineyard is planted with Syrah, whose exuberant growth is fragile. Unsecured shoots are likely to be broken by the wind which blows on average 300 days a year. If the wind isn’t from the east (Marin – hot and humid) it comes from the north-north west (Cers – cooler and drying). Occasionally as light relief it blows from the south.Certainly the standards of viticulture have risen as a tasting of 37 wines from 1985 to 1999 held in mid-June by the Syndicat Haute Expression showed. As well as demonstrating that a 15-year-old Corbières (Château La Baronne), the sole 1985 shown and made from 100% Carignan, remained drinkable, it showed that fruit quality has also improved. For the vintages from 1985 to 1991 the average alcohol level was 12.35% compared with 13.28% in 1998 and 1999. Clearly producers now have access to riper fruit either by picking later, or by reducing yields and so advancing maturity. This change reflects the increased emphasis now being placed on the vineyards.
Over the past decade a number of people both from within France and other European countries have decided to come to Corbièresto grow grapes and make wine. Some like the late Peter Sichel, one of the first to invest in the region, have come with long experience of winemaking. Others come with no experience, only a passion to try. As well as its beauty and climate, Corbières remains one of the cheapest places in France to buy a vineyard.
Peter and Susan Munday (Domaine des Chandelles) came from Croydon, Robert Baudoin bought Château Hélène after working as a négociant in Asia-Pacific, Alain Devillers gave up a job in the Ministry of Finance for the Prieuré Borde Rouge, Eric Piroux gave up being a hotelier in Le Touquet to join two Bordeaux friends in buying Château Villerouge La Crémade, and Guido Jansegers and Marie-Annick de Witte left careers in journalism and insurance in Belgium to buy Château Mansenoble.In the late 1980s and early 1990s, wineries bought new presses and stainless steel tanks, yet it is only more recently that they began introducing insulation and air conditioning into the barrel chais and storage areas. Typical is Panis (Château de Vieux Parc) who is just finishing a new semi-underground warehouse which includes a small tasting area. ‘It is all completely insulated,’ he says. ‘I want to see how constant the temperature is before going to the expense of adding air-conditioning.’Interestingly, although some old concrete vats at Frédéric Roger’s négociant business in Lézignan have been sliced open to hold barrels, concrete is coming back into favour for red wine vinification as the temperature can be more constant than stainless steel.
The number of different cuvées offered has increased considerably and so, too, has the range of prices. There are now some prestige cuvées that retail for more than 100FF (£9.20). Some like le C de Camplong (Les Vignerons de Camplong) at 105FF (£9.65) certainly justify their price tag. Others such as La Forge, an individual vineyard of Domaine de Villemajou, at 200FF (£18.40), offer poor value. Le C de Camplong is one of the cuvées vinified under the guidance of Michel Tardieu and Dominique Laurent. They are also working with three other caves cooperatives – Embres et Castelmaure, Celliers de St Martin and Ornaisons as well as some individual estates including Château de l’Horte and Château Vieux Moulin.
‘Corbières lacks the madmen (les fous) that you find in other parts of the Languedoc,’ says Alain Devillers of Château de Prieuré Borde Rouges. I take Devillers to mean that Corbières is yet to have a quality obsessed maverick. He is probably right but Corbières is a source of an increasing number of good wines at generally very reasonable prices.
n Château Cascadais (Saint-Laurent de la Cabrerisse) Tel: +33 4 68 44 01 44
Philippe Courrian bought this beautiful,
isolated property in 1992.
n Château de I’Ile (Peyriac de Mer)
Tel: +33 4 68 41 05 96
Property right on the Bay of Sigean.
One of the cuvées is made for
Vignerons et Passions (Jeanjean group)
n Château de l’Horte Tel: +33 4 68 43 91 70 Consistent high quality.
n Château Hélène (Barbaira) Tel: +33 4 68 79 00 69
Recently changed hands – one to watch.
n Château de Lastours (Portel de Corbières) Tel: +33 4 68 48 29 17
Probably the best known individual Corbières producer, consistent quality.
n Château St Auriol Tel: +33 4 68 58 15 15 Well known consistent property.
n Château les Palais (Saint-Laurent de la Cabrerisse) Tel: +33 4 68 44 01 63
Long established family run estate.
n Domaine la Voulte-Gasparets (Boutenac) Tel: +33 4 68 27 07 86
Long one of the leaders in Corbières. Cuvée Romain Pauc is the top wine.
n Val d’Orbieu: Cellier de Charles Cros, Château de Ribauté and Domaine de Serres-Mazard. Tel: +44 20 7736 3350
Largest Languedoc group of co-ops and estates – distributed under individual names. Source of own label wines.
n Cave d’Embres et Castelmaure. Tel: +33 4 68 45 91 83
n Vignerons de Camplong Tel: +33 4 68 43 60 86
n Celliers de St Martin (Roquefort des Corbières): +33 4 68 48 21 44