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Spotlight: CORBIERES – Spice Trail

The spicy, herbal wines of Corbières in southwest France can compete in quality terms with their increasingly expensive rivals from the Rhône. Nick Faith clambers through the garrigues to make his point.

You know how it is. When property gets too expensive in your favourite place you have to hunt elsewhere. Well that applies as much to vineyards as to houses. So when estates in Bordeaux started looking even more pricy, prospective owners looked elsewhere. At first they were tempted – and still are – by the lure of Chile and Argentina, but then they realised that there were equally enticing prospects a couple of hundred rather than 5,000 miles away. Hence their interest in the southwest of France.

Corbières was a natural. Although the vineyards date back to the Romans this enormous region was only granted its own appellation in 1985. At the same time the vineyard was reduced from 44,000 to 20,000 hectares, and yet it remains France’s fourth largest appellation. It still includes 87 communes between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees offering a dozen types of soil including limestone, schist, volcanic rock and – near the Mediterranean – sand, as well as a variety of climates and grape varieties.

The red wines which dominate the appellation are based on the usual southern French suspects, based on Carignan, which normally constitutes up to half of any blend. But this often ripens late in the best – ie highest – vineyards where Mourvèdre, for instance, is totally unsuitable, though it thrives nearer the Mediterranean. Hence an increasing concentration on Grenache and Syrah.

The appellation’s unity was only in the eyes of INAO, not of the geographers – or winemakers. Even today, no-one can decide whether Corbières should contain eight or 11 – relatively – homogeneous terroirs. Moreover, there is a contrast between the vineyards in the valleys, usually producing wines which are at best mediocre, and the hills, where the best wines come from relatively small fields on rocky slopes, smelling of herbs and spices like their brethren above the Rhône, but too difficult to cultivate to be overly commercial. Nevertheless, the sheer variety of the terroir and the apparent lack of commercial future for the majority of the growers have enabled the newcomers to pick and choose in the best terroirs like Lagrasse, Boutenac and Fontfroide.

Of course Corbières had bred its own pioneers, notably Georges Bertrand and his son Gérard from Boutenac in the heart of the appellation. In 1978 they startled everyone by using wood to mature their wines and now have – on a relatively modest scale – a range of wines, from their own super-cuvées to supermarket blends.

There was also a handful of courageous outsiders with tiny vineyards. Nevertheless, it needed someone with weight in the business and, above all, the structure required to market his wines, to bring them to a wider audience and to impose the discipline of lower yields, a third of the previous level of up to 120 hl/ha.

Luckily, at the end of the 1980s the late Peter Sichel, one of Bordeaux’s major merchants, fell in love with the region. According to his son Allan, he “acquired a passion for the area, its rusticity, its isolation”. In 1989 he started to make wine from bought-in grapes and the following year found a six-hectare estate, Trillol, near Cucugnan, a typically picturesque village in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the extreme southwest of the appellation, and soon bought out his local partners in the venture. “It took us 10 years to learn how to master the vineyard,” says Allan. “We had all the problems of being number one.” Including local opposition to them as “Bordeaux capitalists”. As Allan says, “If we’d been merely Bordeaux merchants we’d never have got anywhere.” But, of course, Peter Sichel had resurrected D’Angludet in the Médoc – where his memorial is a rock weighing six tons brought from his beloved Corbières. In addition, the vineyard “was dry, windy and we needed electric fencing to keep out the wild boars who only ate ripe grapes”, while the locals “were averse to working in the shooting season”. But they persisted and now have 40 hectares, finding that at 400 metres most varieties didn’t ripen and that 200 metres was the ideal height. They also had to change the pruning methods.

Peter and his son Benjie, now the winemaker, stuck to native varietries, although Benjie is now trying out a little Cabernet Sauvignon. They were boldest with the white, using not only Rousanne and Marsanne but also the neglected Macabeu to make a wine without any of the heaviness of many southern whites. The red is more orthodox, featuring Grenache, Syrah and Carignan and is a model of spicy softness. As in Bordeaux the family has also introduced a blend – Reserve du Reverend – made from grapes bought from a handful of trusted local growers, a wine designed to be drunk young as a fruity “picnic wine”.

Seal of approval

In 1999 the idea of Corbières as a producer of quality wines received a formidable seal of approval with by far the biggest investment ever made in the region when Domaines de Baron de Rothschild-Lafite, a sprawling empire with interests as far afield as Los Vascos in Chile, bought a 550 hectare estate, Château d’Aussières near Fontfroide in a sub-region notable for late ripening –  sometimes the harvest can take over a month. Originally, the venture was a partnership with Listel which soon dropped out. It is a massive undertaking, which the Domaine’s boss, Baron Eric de Rothschild, clearly takes very seriously, installing Eric Kohler, a former number two at Lafite, to supervise the estate. It is typical of the region with 100 hectares in AOC, another 60 classified as Vins de Pays, and another 300 hectares of garrigues – the local name for maquis.

Although Kohler was originally from the region he admits that he finds Corbières “another world”. The vines, many of them useless old varieties like Alicante and Aramon, had been abandoned and had not been pruned for several years so Kohler and his team promptly started a massive programme of replanting. As a result the vines are still very young, so Kohler’s major concern has been to limit yields, sometimes to below 30 hl/ha. Kohler, true to the Lafite tradition, is aiming, above all, for light, elegant wines. The result is a range of wines that are crisp, elegant and spicy thanks partly to Kohler’s attempts to lengthen the maturation period. They range from a Chardonnay, the Aussières Rouge Vin de Pays DOC, up to the Château d’Aussières – 80% Syrah which combines depth and elegance – and the top wine, A d’Aussières with 28% Grenache blended with the Syrah. Notably, like all the newcomers, Kohler has gone easy on the wood. But clearly this is a massive work in progress. Watch this space.

Every rule, notably that any newcomer to the Corbières has to be backed by a major marketing apparatus, has its exceptions and today there are three of them. Two are from Bordeaux. The first was Philippe Courrian, who had made such a success of Château La Tour Haut Coussan in the far north of the Médoc. In 1992 he decided to devote the last 10 years of his working life to an estate “looking for the basis through which wine is created” in a region which “offers a certain virginity which has disappeared in the Gironde”.

Just as brave was Philippe Dourthe, owner of Château Maucaillou in the Médoc and a small merchanting business. In 2001 he bought Château Aigues-Vives in Boutenac and went in for the classic recipe. The vineyard was completely restructured with an increased emphasis on Syrah rather than Grenache; vines were planted closer together; tables de trie were introduced; the wine was left in wood for up to 15 months. The result, as so often with newcomers, is wines which are lighter than the traditional toughies, while retaining the spicy herbiness characteristic of the region.

But if you want exceptional exceptions they don’t come more unusual than an English couple Nicolas and Linda Steiner. For most of their life they had had no real contact with wine, except as drinkers. But then Nicolas retired after selling his business and his son thought he needed an occupation, so they decided to use some of the money from a family trust to buy a vineyard. While looking around the Corbières they stumbled upon Les Auzines, a 173-hectare estate with 43 hectares of vines superbly placed at between 200 and 300 metres overlooking Lagrasse, the most picturesque village in the region in an area always cited as one of the best viticultural prospects. The Steiners’ adventure has turned into one of those arranged marriages which turn out to be a love match. Nicolas promptly went off to the Université du Vin at Suze la Rousse and hired his teacher, Bruno Bernet, formerly of Château Loudenne, as winemaker.

Harvey Nicks

Today, he and his wife Linda are totally absorbed by Les Ausines. Nicolas can explain every detail of the 29 parcels of vines scattered through the hillsides on the estate, which itself is only accessible over tracks that would challenge Jeremy Clarkson. Linda, who created the Elemis skincare business, shows a disconcertingly sophisticated knowledge of the intricacies of wine marketing and labelling. To sell their wine they have successfully relied on the British market, despite the lack of a ready-made marketing organisation. Thanks to Vine Trail, a specialist importer in Bristol, and a respected marketing guru, Sophia Gilliatt, their wines are now available at an astonishing number of outlets in Britain, including Harvey Nicks and The Connaught.

The wines are variants on the trio Grenache, Syrah and Carignan. Their Fleur de Garrigues is an unoaked blend with 60% Carignan and 20% each of the other two. It’s spicy, brambly, fresh, a model of fruity quaffability. Indeed, the refusal to use oak on blends destined to be drunk relatively young is the key to the future success of the region’s less expensive wines. By contrast, the premium wine, Cuvée des Roches, is 90% Syrah and uses some new wood, so it’s a keeper not a quaffer.

The depth and fruity spiciness of wines like these are going to provide a major challenge to the winemakers of the Rhône, some of whom are getting inflated pricing notions worthy of the Bordelais.

As for the Steiners, they are now investigating whether they can find truffles under the oak trees which gave the estate its name. That’s what I call really moving upmarket.  db

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