Corbières is the main appellation of the Languedoc-Roussillon, with its wines making up almost 50% of the region's total production in 2005. The spicy, earthy red wines are made from a variety of places around the Languedoc, but tend to be surprisingly reliable in general. Although this appellation originally was thought of as a place for inexpensive, average-quality wine, growers are realizing the land's potential and this region is becoming increasingly exciting for modern, cutting-edge styles.
There are 87 villages from which Corbières wine is produced. The villages make up a total of 38,000 acres of vineyards; these acres yield over 70 million bottles in annual production, 95% red. From the two arrondissements (districts) of Carcassonne and Narbonne, and from various cantons (prefectures) within these, the villages clearly vary significantly. There are 11 terroirs which distinguish the wines.
As an appellation that is home to many of the Languedoc's most ambitious producers, Corbières is easily the most important appellation in the Languedoc. Quality varies; the best wines mix the wild red fruit of the typical GSM blend with the spicy, earthy flavors of the terrain where they are produced. Even the basic wines are capable of developing for several years, and the best can age for up to a decade.
Before 1985, most wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon that did not fit into a few select top communes, had to label themselves as Vin de pays d'Oc or the generic Coteaux du Languedoc. Ambitious producers not lucky enough to have land in a specifically selected commune were out of luck. As a result, the Languedoc became known for low-quality wine, and contributed to Europe's enormous "wine lake" supply glut in the 1970s. The infamous wine lake was shrunken during the 1980s as authorities tried to create better classification systems, and this reassessment led to the creation of Corbières in 1985.
It really served as a type of umbrella appellation for villages not distinct enough to have their own. As such, one would not have expected it to have a good reputation, but it almost immediately became the largest and most well-known appellation of the Languedoc-Roussillon. Since then, it has gradually overtaken the older, more established appellations, and despite many lagging offerings, has declared itself as one of the world's most ambitious appellations. Much of the appellation's potential still remains to be realized.
Climate and Viticulture
It is difficult to generalize about the Corbières climate; its size is its biggest disadvantage. But this is one of those appellations that also turns size to its advantage due to the great diversity of the climates. The best vineyards are often located on hills, where winds coming off the Mediterrean Sea cool the arid climate and cultivate flavor and body in the wines.
Corbières soil varies from terroir to terroir, but in general it is a microcosm of the Languedoc itself, with unremarkable chalky clay the most common but Rhône-like schist and fine limestone rocks in the best vineyard areas. These are generally located on limestone hills with a topsoil of schist, making a wine of exceptionally deep and rich earthy character.
Since white grapes make up only about 2% of what's grown in Corbières (still accounting for over a million bottles!) they are less important. Bourbolenc, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Vermentino, and Viura are the main grapes, with little-known grapes Clairette, Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains, Picpoul Blanc, and Terret Blanc allowed to together make up a maximum of 10% as "accessory grapes." Grenache Blanc is at its best here, making precise, vibrant wines.
Dozens of red grapes are allowed in the appellation in varying proportions. Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Carignan are the most common, as well as the hairy form of Grenache called Lledoner Pelut. In small amounts Cinsaut, Grenache Gris, Picpoul Noir and Terret Noir are used. The wines, which are required to be blends, must contain at least 50% GSM grapes. The percentages for Cinsaut and Grenache Gris are capped at 20% and 10%, respectively.
In this appellation, for wild, earthy character, most winemakers turn to Syrah, while Grenache gives the wine its herby, hilly essence. Mourvèdre can deepen the color and body of the wine, as can Carignan. Blended together along with some more minor grapes, these four create a remarkable wine.
A sample 10 producers are given that tend to rank highly for both quality and availability.
- Domaine Baillat: The rosés here are textured and intense, rather more substantive than others from the appellation. Heavier and more gamy than earthy, the reds are generally Rhône-style blends. The Cuvée Emilien is a blend composed mainly of Syrah, with darker, more cooked fruit and more tannic intensity. All the wines can age for 5-10 years.
- Château la Baronne: There are three types of wine made here: Rosé, Rouge, and Montaine d'Alaric (from the terroir). Silky-smooth, with gamy, dark flavors of red fruit, herbs, and earthy chocolate and coffee, the Montaine is quite a complex cuvée. These wines are surprisingly inexpensive.
- Domaine des Chandelles: Intense and fresh, the basic Rouge is inexpensive and can be surprisingly aromatic, but the two cuvées made here are better. Chais Suzanne is earthy, wild and full of woody herb hints, while the La Luquet is similarly woody but has more traditional fruit flavors and a softer texture.
- Château Etang des Colombes: This château makes two cuvées. Bois des Dames is smoky, with a combination of woody herbs and earthier, very dark chocolate notes. The old-vine "Bicentennieres" is more smoky, with a cooked tinge to it, but its clear red fruit flavors showcase more elegance than many of the other wines of the region.
- Domaine Faillenc: This is one of the few good domaines to make a high-quality Corbières white; although not very powerful, it has good thickness and acidity for a wine of the region. The basic red has surprisingly potent intensity of black and red fruit. Mainly fueled by Syrah, it is still less of a wild wine than the Sainte-Marie Conference de Presse, which is almost entirely Syrah and has even more layered, dark flavors. These tend to cost around $20.
- Domaine de Fontsainte: The simple smoky red fruit in the basic red wine has more depth than it seems, and the rosé is also a good value. The Gris de Gris is a top rosé cuvée, with fresh red fruit plus citrus and mineral nuances. Reserve La Demoiselle is the red cuvée, with rather exotic red fruit, smoke, and spices flavors.
- Château Mansenoble: This producer's idiosyncratic, unusually rich wines are among the best of the appellation. Even the basic Corbières is great at this high-quality château, its mildly sweet red fruit and herb flavors showing more richness than other wines of the appellation. More powerful and gamy, but still light in flavor and color, the Montagne d'Alaric can age for a few extra years. Spirit of Mansenoble might be just a tiny step up, with highly smoky, rich, and dark fruit occupying most of the character. The Montagne d'Alaric "Reserve du Château" promises higher quality; the best have great richness and darker, more substantive fruit. Cuvée Marie Annick is usually the best wine, with alcohol-infused flavors of black fruit and peppery herbs that are as complex as many Rhône cuvées'.
- St. Jean de la Gineste: The basic Corbières here is no more than $15, and its flavors are spicy and liqueurish. Carte Blanche and Carte Noire, the two cuvées, are much smoother, with black fruit and pepper the main flavors, and mineral aromas rounding out the wine.
- SCV Castelmaure: The main wine of this large producer is the Col des Vents, which is made in both a red and a white style. Both are good, but the white attracts more attention due to the rarity of white wines in the area. The slightly more expensive "Grand Cuvée" is very dark, with silky flavors of black fruit, dark herbs, and chocolate. The fancy, rarely seen "Cuvée des Pompadour" is said to be the richest and most complex of the offerings.
- Château la Voulte-Gasparets: These wines are not seen very often, but generally have a high pedigree of quality. Even the basic Corbières is quite good. The Reservé is cooked and gamy, with that smooth yet intense element noticeable in so many Rhône blends. The Romain Pauc cuvée is sweeter, with more chocolaty flavors.
Corbières is a large region, the kind of region which in Burgundy would have hundreds of different subappellations. But in fact there are only 11 specific terroirs, which divide up the region's land into distinct parcels.
- Montagne d'Alaric: The only commonly recognized, well-known Corbières terroir. Generally, the wines coming from this appellation are significantly better than regular Corbières. Château la Baronne and Château Mansenoble are two of the most popular producers here. The wines tend to be darker, earthier, and more complex than regular Corbières.