AN EVENTFUL HISTORY
Introduced by Greek merchants in the 2nd century BC, vineyards only really expanded under the Roman occupation. Conditions here were so propitious that Italian landowners took umbrage at wine growing in the Roman province of Narbonne and called on the Emperor to restrict production. Prosperity lasted until the end of the Pax Romana, after which a long series of invasions from the East, North and South left behind them devastation and wastelands. Peace returned with the arrival of the Benedictine and Cistercian monks whose abbeys served as bases for recolonisation of the region. Wine growing rose to prominence once more and the wines of Lagrasse and Fontfroide were even popular with Charlemagne’s sommelier.
Unfortunately, the Albigensian Crusade sent to wipe out the Cathars once again undermined this great momentum. Prosperity did not return until the 18th century when great strides in communication brought the Corbières out of isolation, primarily due to construction of the Canal du Midi.
Subsequently, the demise of olive groves due to harsh winters would once again promote the expansion of wine growing though towards the end of the 19th century, market conditions were jeopardised by fraud and overproduction. In 1908, the wine growers of Corbières set up a producers’ organisation. In 1923, the production area was demarcated and in 1951, their wine was awarded the VDQS quality standard – it was the first time their efforts had been rewarded.
In 1985, Corbières became a member of the controlled appellation family. Since then, the producers’ organisation has rolled out an ambitious development agenda involving the introduction of a quality hierarchy (see The Appellation).
In terms of area under vine, Corbières is now Languedoc’s leading appellation and France’s fourth largest.
…And grape varieties
Little is known about the origins of Syrah. Legend has it that a knight brought it back with him from the Crusades or that it was introduced to Gaul from Syracuse in the 3rd century by Roman Legions. It may also have come from the island of Syrah, in the Cyclades. Less poetically, some people claim its birthplace was the Rhone area, near Tain-l’Hermitage or the Dauphiné region.
Grenache noir forms the backbone of most southern appellations. Grenache is one of the great Mediterranean grape varieties. Of Iberian origin, it hails from Aragon whose kingdom used to stretch from Roussillon to Sardinia.
Mourvèdre has been grown in the vineyards of Provence since the end of the Middle Ages. Also of Spanish origin, it covers approximately 800 hectares in the Corbières appellation area.
Carignan, the ‘camel’ of the Corbières. Originating in Spain, it was introduced into France in the 12th century and nicknamed ‘hard wood’ due to its very woody shoots. Carignan has been planted on hillside sites for nearly two hundred years.