In­flu­enced by both Atlantic and Mediter­ranean cli­mates, the Cabardès vine­yards, in western Langue­doc, can prove a chal­lenge even for wine con­nois­seurs

France - - Contents -

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.”

Slow fer­men­ta­tion

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

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