Wine in the Corbières

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Grape harvesting
Although mechanical harvesting is more and more common, some wineries prefer hand-picked grapes

The Corbières have been known in the past for cheap, uncomplicated red wine produced in vast quantities to quench the thirst of northern France. However, over the past twenty years things have been quietly changing. The producers have organised themselves and attained Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status, and adopted new technology while still retaining the best of their old traditions; poor quality vines have been pulled up and replaced with better ones. The best Corbières wines can now hold their own with the classic French vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and prove it by regularly snapping up prizes at national competitions. Some of the very best wines, by their nature, are produced in small quantities and it is rare to find them outside the region of production. Yet at the same time, compared to better known wine regions, prices are still very reasonable. The producers are justly proud of their achievements, and willing to demonstrate the point by offering tastings on the spot. Many local restaurants also make a point of showcasing local wines alongside regional specialities.

In this arid region virtually no crop will grow except vines, which have been cultivated here since Roman times. At the height of summer the gnarled black vine stocks still manage to conserve their parasols of lush green leaves, drawing water from deep underground and shading the bunches of ripening grapes beneath. This constantly rippling green sea is only occasionally disturbed by a row of dark erect cypresses providing both windbreak and shade to a pale stucco farmhouse. Above it all rise rocky outcrops where even vines will not grow, spiky with the tough, bushy plants of the garrigue. Under the surface there is an amazing variety of geology, and the lie of the land means that rainfall and soil types can differ dramatically from one side of a hill to the other — resulting in a similar diversity in the wines produced.

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Grape harvesting
Hand picking the grapes is hard work
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Drawing off the wine
Small samples are taken from time to time to check on the ageing process

The vast majority (80%) of Corbières wine is red, with the remainder equally split between white and rosé. Red wines are generally full-bodied and spicy; rosés range from deep pink to the palest of tints, uncomplicated and fresh-flavoured. To those accustomed to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, the whites may seem bland at first but the best are light, dry and fruity. The top AOC wines can cost as much as 20-30 euros a bottle. But at the other extreme you can find excellent wines (both Vin de Pays and AOC) sold direct from the wine vats (advertised as en vrac) in plastic jerry cans ("cubis") at very modest prices — from a couple of euros a litre upwards. Be aware when buying wine like this that it won’t keep long unless you transfer it to sealed bottles. A more suitable alternative for taking home with you is the "bag-in-box", which excludes air to maintain freshness.

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Grape harvesting machine
Harvesting by machine costs about 1/6 of the cost of harvesting by hand

Visiting individual producers is fun for the wine fanatic. But if you don’t have time or your French isn’t up to it, good sources for buying a range of local wines are:
- CDD, route de Narbonne N113, 11200 Lézignan Tel. : 04 68 27 11 55
- Palais du Vin, route de Perpignan, 11100 Narbonne Tel. 04 68 41 47 20 Fax 04 68 42 44 77

Tasting is possible at both these places. In the summer there are frequent produce fairs in towns and villages all around the area, at which wine producers are well represented. Curiously, local supermarkets are not a particularly good hunting ground.

You may also want to try wines from the neighbouring appellations. A few words of advice before tasting ... don’t try to pack too many visits into a day, and learn to spit it out! — especially if you are the driver. If you are travelling a long way, it is always worth phoning first, to check that someone will be there when you arrive. Mid- to late September is probably not a good time to visit wineries, as all hands are occupied with the grape harvest; most are geared to receiving visitors in July and August, when, fortuitously, there is not much to do in the vineyards apart from watch the grapes ripen.

The following pages are for those who want to explore the wines of the Corbières in more depth.

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