A LOT of great wines aren’t available here. Every now and then I can’t resist the temptation to write about one or two of them, but it feels kind of mean.
This week I’m delighted to report on a super wine estate in France whose wines are not on any shelf in the region, but which can be ordered direct from the vineyard itself.
And while I wouldn’t want to undermine the growing number of excellent wine merchants in our region, I wish other wineries would follow suit and make this possible this way too – it’s legal, efficient and great value for money.
The estate is Château Corbiac, which for many years has produced some of the best Pécharmant, a red wine from a superb appellation just above the bustling town of Bergerac in the Valley of the Dordogne. Antoine de Corbiac represents the 17th generation of a family that has owned the estate since 1587. Back in the 17th century one of their cousins was no less than a certain Cyrano de Bergerac.
Antoine has a background in economics and e-commerce. One of his early jobs was as assistant manager of a London branch of Oddbins, then in much happier times. “I was really good at selling top-of-the-range Aussie wines,” he grins. When he took over the reins of the family estate in 2003 he was quick to apply some of the lessons he’d learned selling wine to British wine lovers. He argues, “I’d come to see wine from the consumer’s point of view.”
This means that he began to try to make wine that’s easy to appreciate as soon as it’s released – quite a challenge in Pécharmant, where big, age-worthy reds have been the custom. But it’s testament to his skills that he now manages to turn out, big, rich concentrated reds, made without additives or short-cuts, that don’t need to be cellared 10 years or more before they can be enjoyed.
Like all good French winemakers he begins by explaining why the soils and sites he’s inherited are special.
His vineyards are on top of a hill with enough breeze to keep the grapes dry and so far less susceptible to disease. The soil is a mix of clay, sand, gravel and in places, quite large pebbles. It’s perfect for Merlot, which Antoine calls “the king of grapes”.
He says: “It works much better up here than it does in the valley because there’s so little humidity.”
He also grows a little Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, just to give the wine a little more complexity. Malbec, for example, he says, “can be a little bit austere, but it’s fruity and adds a certain spiciness to the wine.”
“My wines are often quite low in acidity,” he continues, “because I’m looking for phenolic ripeness. And if I have to wait, I will. I normally harvest around the end of September or beginning of October, but in 2007 I didn’t bring some Cabernet Sauvignon in until November 17.”
Phenolic ripeness simply means that the grape skins are soft and the pips are brown and nutty. The wine should be ripe and fruity with supple tannins. The danger of low acid levels and very ripe grapes sometimes means that wine can be a bit too soft and jammy, but none of Antoine’s wines are remotely like that – they are, as he hopes, rich and satisfying, yet very approachable.
Once the grapes are safely in the winery and have been crushed, he allows them a prolonged “cold soak” for a week before fermentation begins. This gives colour to the wine, without making it too tannic and bitter. Fermentation then takes place in the traditional way, but then he allows the wine to rest on the fine lees, so that it may gain a little more creamy richness – a technique often used in making fine white wine. And he doesn’t overdo oak aging.
In addition to the classic red Pécharmant of Château de Corbiac he’s introduced a second, still even easier drinking, highly affordable, unoaked Cyrano range, which he hopes will appeal strongly to British tastes.
He buys some grapes but some of the juice from his own younger vines goes into the deliciously juicy Pécharmant. The Cyrano range includes a Bergerac Rosé but Antoine is against making such a wine from his prime Pécharmant grapes: “Rosé needs a higher yield than I’m prepared to accept here,” he argues.
“Exports mean anything sold outside Dordogne,” he quips, but though 80% of his wine is sold in France he is quietly satisfied by his internet sales: “They are not negligible,” he says.
Ordering online at www.corbiac.com (a minimum of a dozen bottles), you pay the same as if you’d turned up with your car at the cellar door, plus €25 delivery per case. At around £2 per bottle extra this is not exactly a king’s ransom.
I warmly recommend the vibrantly fruit Cyrano Pécharmant 2007 (€6), which has a deliciously ripe, spicy, brambly flavour, and the superb Château Corbiac, Pécharmant 2005, which is rich and powerful, perfumed with spicy, ripe black fruit, and a wonderfully silky texture (€11).
Helen SAVAGE, in The Journal Live, 16 sept. 2011