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Spotlight on Corbières

The Corbières hills, in France’s Languedoc region, are breathtakingly rugged, and quite beautiful. It’s a hot, dry region, and vines are one of the few plants that do well in the nutrient-poor stony soils. As an appellation, Corbières is the largest of the Languedoc, but you get the impression that the high-end quality revolution that has hit other parts of the Languedoc has passed it by a little: there aren’t many superstar producers here. However, as this tasting showed, there are quite a number of very good, satisfying wines being made, and the situation is one of steady improvement of wine quality.

It’s predominantly a red wine region (94% of all wines), and the key grapes are Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. Carignan has been commonly dismissed as being a second-tier grape, but from low-yielding old vines it is capable of making extremely satisfying wines with some southern spice, good structure and often a slightly ‘stony’ aroma. Producers who are less careful with their yields are still making fairly plonkish wines with it, though.

The region is split into 11 different ‘terroirs’, which are signposted as you drive around. These are Montagne d’Alaric, Lagrasse, Lézignan, Boutenac, Fontfroide, Sigean, Durban, Saint-Victor, Quéribus, Termenès and Serviès. Because of the complex geology of the area, the soil type can vary quite a bit from terroir to terroir. According to CIVL (Conseil Interprofessional des Vins du Languedoc) the aim is to develop wine trails and encourage wine tourism, focusing on the differences between these terroirs -- a worthy goal. Indeed, as the general quality of the wines here rises it would be interesting to try to characterise the effects of these different soil types and climatic factors on the taste of the wines.

Corbières factfile

15 000 hectares under production

2500 producers

49 caves cooperatives

411 independent cellars

Average yield 47 hl/ha

Source: CIVL

The wines tasted here were uniformly of a high standard, and with the exception of the Tardieu super cuvées are all reasonably priced. The Tardieu wines are unusual in that they are deliberately fashioned in a very ambitious, showy style, with lots of everything. The good news is, though, that they retain a sense of place. They may upset purists but there’s certainly a place for them, and in this style they are brilliantly put together.

Eliane ‘Gruissan’ 2000 Corbières
A single-vineyard selection made by Eliane Salinas, who in addition to having her own domaine is also a flying winemaker (in France and Chile). Quite deep coloured, this has a forward nose of sweet ripe fruit with a liquoricey edge, minerally, stony richness and a touch of smokiness. The palate is savoury and dense, with firm but supple tannins and a minerally character. Satisfying stuff. Very good+ (around £6)

Château de Belle-Isle Vieilles Vignes 2000 Corbières
Deep purple/black colour. Savoury mineral nose is stony-edged and leathery. The chunky, savoury palate displays a spicy edge to the fruit. Restrained and quite structured this is quite satisfying. Very good+ (Nicolas c. £7)

Domaine des Courtilles 1999 Corbières
Deep red/purple colour. Very sweet, liquoricey nose which is herby and ripe. Quite seductive. The palate is quite rich but still nicely balanced with sweet herby fruit and some oak influence. Not overblown. Very good/excellent (£8.99 Waitrose)

Château Ollieux-Romanis 1999 Corbières
Unfiltered, unfined, unoaked. Quite a forward herby nose with some sweet liquoricey berry fruit. Good concentration on the palate: this is quite a ripe, forward style with nice, minerally, stony tannic edge keeping things in balance. Quite savoury. Very good+ (Oddbins c. £7)

Tardieu Cuvée No 3 de Castelmaure 1999 Corbières
A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. Very deep purple/black colour. Exotic, lush nose is almost overpowering with sweet herbal liquoricey fruit. The palate is concentrated with rich, intense fruit, spicy oak and some woody, tannic structure. A big wine in a full-on style, but not unbalanced. Oaky though. Very good/excellent (£14.50 La Vigneronne)

Tardieu Cuvée No 3 de Castelmaure 1998 Corbières
Lovely rich, forward nose is noticeably smoky and spicy, with sweet toffee-edged fruit underneath. Quite savoury on the palate with a vanillin streak, some sweetness to the fruit and spicy tannins. Showy, and I’d drink this soon. Very good+

Tardieu Château Roquefort St Martin 1999 Corbières
A blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache and Carignan. Red/black colour. Slightly shy nose with a bit of spiciness. Dense, taut palate with chunky fruit and firm tannins. Quite closed at the moment. Good concentration of savoury fruit on the palate, but not giving much. Very good+ (£13.95 La Vigneronne)

Tardieu Château Roquefort St Martin 1998 Corbières
Very deep purple/black colour. There’s a sweet herby edge to the nose which displays a liquoricey edge. Concentrated, rich palate has lots of rich fruit and some spicy oak, but it is not overdone. Quite firm tannins and some attractive minerality. Good balance. Very good/excellent

Château de Caraguilhes 1998 Corbières
Quite rich but focused herby smoky nose with a roasted edge and a touch of sweet fruit. Intense and very savoury with plumy fruit on the palate, a touch of spice and high acidity. Quite juicy and satisfying. Very good+ (Waitrose c. £7)

Château Le Bouis 1988 Corbières
Sweet old wine nose is beguiling, with leathery, tea and cedar notes. The palate has dried out a little but is still in balance, thinning out but with some minerally tannins. Attractive stuff drinking well now. Very good+ 

Wines tasted at La Vigneronne.

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