Influenced by both Atlantic and Mediterranean climates, the Cabardès vineyards, in western Languedoc, can prove a challenge even for wine connoisseurs
Dominic Rippon shines a light on a little-known appellation in Languedoc.
You could be forgiven for not having heard of the Cabardès wine appellation before. To the west of the much larger Minervois zone, the Cabardès vineyards hide in the foothills of the windswept Montagne Noire around the hilltop Pays Cathare village of Aragon.
Influenced by both warm, humid breezes from the Mediterranean and the cool, dry westerly Cers wind, Cabardès is the only appellation in the Languedoc wine-making region where grapes of Atlantico-pyrenean origin – merlot and cabernets franc and sauvignon – must be blended with the Mediterranean varieties grenache and syrah. The fruits of this marriage are deeply coloured, sappy rosés and reds that combine the structured freshness of merlot and the cabernets grown in cooler sites with spicy syrah and herb-scented grenache.
At this point, I should confess my own bias. Just a few kilometres to the north of my home in Carcassonne, rising sleepily from the banks of the Canal du Midi, Cabardès is my local wine appellation. Created in 1999 and with only 540 hectares of vines, it struggles for recognition among nearby Corbières and Minervois. Its red wines also suffer from a curious prejudice against merlot and cabernet grown in Languedoc-roussillon: for many in the wine trade, the south of France is for southern grapes; Atlantic varieties make great Bordeaux blends, but elsewhere their role is the production of simple, varietally labelled IGP wines ( vins de pays).
To find out what makes the wines of Cabardès unique, I made my way north from Carcassonne towards the Montagne Noire. Just outside the village of Villegailhenc, I found the narrow dirt track that leads to Domaine de Cazaban, the only estate in Cabardès that follows the rigorous super-organic principles of biodynamic viticulture. Set up by Clément Mengus and his wife Claire in 2007, Domaine de Cazaban now has ten hectares of vines and four holiday cottages, set among peaceful garrigue and woodland
“What I love about Cabardès is the greenery,” Clément told me, as we strolled through a parcel of syrah vines. “I find Corbières and Minervois too arid for the style of wine that I want to make.” Originally from Alsace, Clément studied viticulture in Burgundy’s wine capital Beaune, before moving to Languedoc-roussillon. Unable to find employment
as an oenologist, he bought four hectares of vineyard from a retired cooperative grower and began to make his own wines.
Inside the modern cellars, wines were ageing in enormous old foudre casks from Alsace and large barrels from the Rhône Valley: a way of oxygenating the wine without imparting too much wood character, Clément explained. Most of the estate’s wines are red, made from syrah, grenache, carignan, cabernet franc and merlot, and Clément’s affection for the first of these grapes became clear as we tasted the wines: “The climate allows us to make the kind of refined, cool syrahs that you find in the northern Rhône.”
If there’s one thing vignerons from lesser-known vineyards do well, it is hospitality. So, a group of Cabardès winemakers had organised a dinner and wine tasting at Hôtel-restaurant La Bergerie in Aragon. There I met Anne Maurel, from Château Salitis, a family property near Conques-sur-orbiel with a long history. Anne’s wines are distinguished by their unhurried elegance; rarely sold until they have aged in bottle for a few years, they ferment slowly after the harvest as the cold of winter creeps into the cellars, slowing the yeasts.
I have long been a fan of Anne’s red wines, in which the two families of grape varieties vie for dominance throughout the wines’ lives; so a wine that is redolent of cassis leaf (cabernet and merlot) in youth might suddenly show fig and spice aromas (grenache and syrah) after a few years in bottle.
Cabardès is an appellation for red and rosé wines, but Anne had brought a bottle of white sauvignon blanc, an IGP wine from the Pays d’oc. I admitted to not usually being keen on southern sauvignons, which I often find heavy and rustic. Anne smiled and poured me half a glass, explaining that the wine came from a cool vineyard site in the Cabardès hills. I was surprised by its freshness, with a minerality reminiscent of the finest whites from Gascony or even the eastern Loire. I then realised that I had been guilty of my own prejudice – a reminder that the only way to really understand a vineyard and its wines is to visit, talk and taste.
The vineyards of Domaine de Cazaban in the Cabardès appellation of Languedoc
Dominic Rippon has many years’ experience in the wine trade, both in the UK and France, and now runs the wine merchant business Strictly Wine.
ABOVE: Clément Mengus of Domaine de Cazaban