For me one of the most beautiful areas close to Carcassonne is the Corbières. It’s a region of many differing landscapes from rolling hills in wide open countryside to deep river gorges and craggy cliffs. There are areas of forest and towards the Pyrenees some impressive mountains and close by the land stretches to touch the Mediterranean Sea. The Corbières is large and the terroirs it contain are so diverse that the wines are considerably different from one end of the region to the other.
Terroir is a beautifully evocative French word used to describe the place where wine is grown and the influence it has on the wines style. The two most important elements of terroir are soil and climate, they are the most influential factors however there are many others such as the shape of the land and if rainfall easy escapes or if the earth traps it and other aspects such as what else is growing naturally in the area. Across Languedoc and spread across the Corbières hills is a low scrubland called garrigue. It enjoys limestone soils and is made up of a dense thicket of aromatic, lime tolerant shrubs including holm oaks, juniper, broom, fennel and cistus intermingled with lavender, rosemary, thyme and sage. The wines grown in the region often have a herby character due to the close proximity of the vineyards and the garrigue.
Although there are a myriad of terroirs in the Corbières the overarching influence is the Mediterranean climate that produces sturdy full bodied wines and as white wine is better produced in a cooler climate, a good 95% of what they make here is red.
Not that long ago Corbières wines were thought rustic and actually a bit rough but over the last 15 to 20 years due to rigorous quality initiatives and with a determination to reduce bulk wine, this region has turned a corner. Whereas previously the area had been dominated by factory produced wines from village cooperatives these days there are many independent wine makers producing wines of high quality and superb character.
In 2005 a new Languedoc cru was born named AOP Corbières-Boutenac. The Boutenac terroir is comprised of broad fields of vines bounded by low, gently rising hills dotted with tall parasol pines. The red stony soils are exposed to the warm Mediterranean sun and cooled by the fierce Tramontane wind that frequently blows here. Rainfall is low, often none falls at all during the long summer months, but the ancient Carignan vines, some of them a century old have deep roots and can withstand the drought. The wines are dense with black fruit flavours including cherry and blackberry wrapped in herby garrigue flavours plus spice and notes of tobacco, mocha and leather. You can explore this wine region and taste the Boutenac wines on our Corbières Vineyard Tour.
The Corbières is a land of many castles that are strewn across this land, or at least the remains of them with some dating back 800 years. They hark back to a feudal society, for Languedoc-Roussillon was home to a great many lords and knights. Each had their castle with the village cottages clustered around it. Some of the villages would have been enclosed within stone walls but all that remains these days are mounds of earth where the castle stood and perhaps a few ruins. However Villerouge-Termenès is a village where the castle is still standing and is well worth a visit if you are interested in the Cathar history. For this is where the last Cathar Guilhem Belibas lost his life in 1321 over 100 years after the Cathar Crusade began.
Much of the Corbières is quite remote but full of many pretty villages and is an ideal place to take an ‘away from it all’ holiday and I think there is no better place to head than the beautiful village of Lagrasse deep in the heart of the region. The village has a long and interesting history revolving around the abbey of St Saint-Marie d’Orbieu which was founded by Charlemagne in 799. These days the abbey and the village are separated by the clear waters of the River Orbieu but in ancient times the village stood next to the abbey on the same side of the river. As it grew in population the shape of the land prevented the village from expanding and so the villagers moved their homes to the other bank. Here the village flourished and became a highly important trading town but what of its neighbour the abbey across the river, was it a kindly patron? I was surprised to learn that relationships between the townsfolk and the monks were not exactly harmonious.
If you would like to learn about the history of this village and uncover some of its secrets then you will enjoy the range of tours we offer. You can join a 90 minute Lagrasse Guided Village Walk around the village or if you are a foodie then why not join the Lagrasse Food & History Walking Tour that takes place on a Saturday morning. Those of you that join our Corbières Vineyard tour will also enjoy the Lagrasse history walking tour as part of the itinerary. For a sleepy village there is a lot of life in Lagrasse and during the summer there will be an antique market, a book festival, a weekly organic food market, the En Blanc et Noir Piano Festival which this year is taking place 2nd to 7th July where you can enjoy performances from talented musicians and towards the end of the summer there is a series of chamber music concerts.
Lagrasse and the Corbières holds a very special place in my heart and like all people who are in love I want you to love it too. So I hope one day you will acquaint yourself with one of my favourite villages.