The Hautes Corbières: a different ‘South of France’

by Tom Fiorina on May 14, 2014

Sergio Leone would feel right at home here.

Sergio Leone would feel right at home here.

Say the “South of France” to someone, and the person most likely imagines a Peter-Mayle-“Year-in-Provence” image of lavender fields, picturesque hilltop villages that inspired Cézanne and Van Gogh, drinking a pastis at a charming bar, or enjoying a bouillabaisse with a bottle of chilled rosé.

There’s another “South of France” that is worlds away from that image. Its landscapes could have inspired Sergio Leone to create his film The good, the bad, and the ugly. Instead of fish stew and a fruity, delicate rosé, you’ll find hearty cassoulet and spicy red wine that contains close to 15% alcohol. This is the Corbières, a part of the Languedoc region that sits roughly between Narbonne, Perpignan and Carcassonne. It’s one of France’s most sparsely populated and wildest regions. And the wildest, most sparsely populated part of it is known as the Hautes Corbières, a higher elevation region called the Massif de Corbières, a wind-swept limestone block that is only good, agriculturally speaking, for two things: growing vines and raising sheep.

By volume, the Languedoc is France’s largest wine region. Over 90% of the wine made here is red, and the key grapes are Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. Traditionally, this region was dominated by wine cooperatives that produced rough, low-quality wine for thirsty factory workers throughout France. Today, it features increasing numbers of innovative winemakers, many from outside of the region, who are drawn to its rugged beauty and the immense variety of soil types found here, a result of continental France drifting down into the Pyrenees. The existence of old, low-yield vines that are left over from abandoned vineyards is also a draw.

Maxim Magnon

Maxim Magnon

Like John Muir, who was attracted to the Redwoods in Northern California, Corbières winemaker Maxim Magnon is a naturalist (and not in the sense that he has an aversion to clothing). He is a consummate viticulteur who cultivates his vines with respect for nature and the soil. And like his good friend, and mentor, Didier Barral in Faugères, he has a little menagerie of farm animals that he lets loose in the vineyards between November and April to enhance the natural environment and microflora in the soil. No pesticides or insecticides are used on the 11ha estate that consists of almost as many individual parcels of vines. All of them came from abandoned or neglected vineyards, and some of the vines are over 100 years old. Steep slopes ensure good drainage, and the terrain is almost pure schist and limestone, with virtually no topsoil.

Until recently, he rented his cellar, but he recently has put the finishing touches on a new wine cellar that will give him additional space. Before coming to the Corbières from his native Burgundy, Magnon studied with one of France’s leading organic winemakers, Jean Foillard in Beaujolais, and you can see Foillard’s influence in his wine. Delicious, velvety and juicy fresh, Magnon’s wines, like Foillard’s, are alive with an irresistible perfume. They are also complex and well-structured.

This old vine, on the edge of one of Magnon's vineyard parcels, is almost growing out of the limestone rock.

This old vine, on the edge of one of Magnon’s vineyard parcels, is almost growing out of the limestone rock.

The grapes are manually harvested, using small crates, and then taken to a cold room before being whole-bunch fermented by carbonic maceration using indigenous yeasts. Following fermentation, the wines are aged in cement tanks and old barrels before being bottled without fining or filtration. Magnon uses a minimum of sulfites on the wines.

La Bégou, which is made from Grenache gris (90%) and Grenache blanc (10%), is an outstanding white wine, with faint hints of pear and white flowers embraced by a saline minerality. Rozeta, a red wine made from Carignan (65%) and Grenache (35%), is velvety rich, with red fruit that comes through with a brilliant clarity and balance. His top red, Campagnès, is generous and profound, with a finesse and elegance that might have you thinking that Magnon’s Burgundian origins are at work here.

Those needing proof that the Languedoc can produce exceptional wines need look no further than this part of the Corbières.

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