People who know me and my taste in wine know that I am not a big fan of co-operative wineries, although I respect their reasons for existing and accept they are currently part of the Languedoc wine scene. My preference is for small to medium sized producers who deeply respect the terroir they farm and make wines with great care and passion. OK you have to pay more for this type of wine but that’s just part of accepting a quality product. Wine consumption has changed enormously over the last 25 years and for many consumers, wine has entered their lives as a beverage and for others it has remained or has become a deeply interesting subject as well as a liquid to taste, discuss, compare and in some cases fall in love with..! I fall into the latter category and so it was a great surprise to my friends when I suggested a trip into the Corbières to visit a co-operative winery.
The co-operatives began in the 1920’s when quantity rather than quality was the aim, for at that time annual French wine consumption had reached 136 litres per person. Water treatment had not begun and alcohol was added to water to kill bugs. Manual working meant that more calories were needed by the working class people and wine was the source for much of that.
Those days are long gone and people are now demanding clean, well made wines and they are now available from many parts of the world. Competition is rife and many co-operatives have gone out of business, unable to move with the times. When I was researching my book ‘The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon’ I met a wine grower who explained that market forces and quality conscious consumers have forced many co-operative out of business. Those co-operatives that have survived thus far have done so by implementing strict quality control methods and penalties if grapes don’t come up to standard. This has meant that some growers have given up and others struggle on with the help of a second job.
It was a pretty gloomy picture he painted so why was I so keen to go and visit a co-operative one day in early September? Well I had heard some great things about Castelmaure and so we headed for the village of d’Embres-et-Castelmaure deep in the heart of Les Corbières.
The Corbières is a wild and rugged land that holds a thousand terroirs. Vines have been growing here for centuries side by side with ancient olive trees surrounded by craggy mountains and hillsides smothered in garrigue. Nothing else can grow here, the soil is not farming land, no corn could cling to this rock, no orchards could yield juicy fruit in this dry and arid landscape. This area is in the crumple zone of the Pyrenees where a myriad of soil types were thrust into light millions of years ago and as we got nearer to the village we passed ancient vines growing on glistening mineral rich schist and limestone soils.
The co-operative was easy to find in the centre of the village and we were welcomed by the director Monsieur Pueyo. I giant bear of a man with a gentle and calm air about him and he generously gave his time to tell us a little about Castelmaure. Although it began in 1926 in the last 35 years things have changed quite a lot. He talked firstly about the terroir, pointing out of the window at the craggy hillsides that surround the tiny village. The rocky landscape is planted with small patches of vines hugging the contours of the land, much of it very steep making it impossible to machine harvest. He spoke quite poetically about the land describing the schist and Calcaire (limestone) as delicate and robust and just like their church of St Felix that nestles amongst the vines, it is modest yet rigorous.
He then spoke about the human side of things, for people too are an important part of terroir. The people who farm this land do not come from the other side of the world, they are from here. They are like a Rugby team wearing the same jersey. They were born here, they live their lives here, bring their children into the world here and eventually die here, happy.
35 years ago when the new thinking began to take place here the goal from the start was to produce quality, fine wine. There are currently 64 vignerons and they are the owners of the affectionately called Coopé. Seventeen of them are professional and their children are following in their footsteps. To begin with many of them had to find work outside of the village in cities and towns, normal work such as at a desk or with SNCF. Now that the Coopé is successful they are coming back to live in the village. ‘Why would you not want to?’ he asked bringing a tear to my eye.
The tasting room also demonstrates how this co-op is moving with the times. The wines are kept in a wine conserver system that uses inert gas to stop oxygen harming them once they are open. The range is fairly large and includes a delicious white made from Grenache Blanc, Maccabeo and Vermentino, a well-chosen combination of grapes that produces a zesty refreshing wine ideal as an aperitif or with fish. The rosé was also good, fruity but not a fruit bomb and bone dry just how I like them. Then I went on to taste all 9 red cuvées which just got better and better with each one. Prices are good too ranging from about €4 up to a little over €20 with all prices in between.
The atmosphere at this little out-of-the-way and hidden corner of the Corbières is surprisingly modern and upbeat. The use of colour, the Languedoc stripes, both inside and out and on some of the bottles along with other surprisingly modern labelling, brings a realisation that this place is alive and kicking in the 21st century. This land might be ancient, the vineyards old and set in a landscape from the times-past but the beating heart of Castelmaure sends a message loud and clear – we are no ordinary co-operative.