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A Carafe of Red
By Gerald Asher
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2012 Gerald Asher
All rights reserved.
A CARAFE OF RED
We had stopped for a quick lunch at a pastry shop near the Place de la Madeleine. My friend sniffed approvingly at her glass of red wine. "This is good," she said. "What is it?"
It was from the Corbières, the block of wind-riven mountains between Carcassonne, Narbonne, and Perpignan on the French Mediterranean coast. While the world has been looking elsewhere, the growers of the Corbières have been busy recapturing for their wines a reputation that had always distinguished them from those grown elsewhere in the Languedoc. My friend was right: The wine was good.
And what did she think of the Bonington watercolors we'd seen that morning at the Petit Palais? She knows far more about pictures than I do, but she brushed Bonington aside. "Is that all you're going to tell me about the wine?" she asked.
How much did she want to know? The Corbières is the oldest wine region of France. Its story is virtually the story of French wine.
"Why don't you start at the beginning," she suggested. So I did.
The Romans planted their first vineyards in the Corbières soon after they built a harbor at Narbonne. In passing a decree establishing the colony in 118 B.C., the Roman senate had intended to secure for Rome the passage from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic by way of the Aude and Garonne river valleys. It was the route by which wine, much prized by the Celts, was bartered for Cornish tin. Rome, ever belligerent, needed tin to produce bronze for weapons and preferred to see her enemies (and victims) deprived of it.
The Seventh Legion was sent to protect the traffic (hence the region's ancient name of Septimania), and veteran soldiers, usually married to Celtic women, were encouraged to settle there when they retired from active service. It was probably veterans who planted those first vineyards. But they chose to trade their wine not to Cornwall but back to Italy in exchange for the small luxuries only Rome could provide. There, their wine was so highly prized that Rome's speculators rushed to extend the vineyards. Wine from Septimania was soon competing successfully with that grown on the Italian estates of Rome's most powerful families. Cicero reported the furious debates in which senators demanded that the vineyards and olive groves of Gaul not be allowed to render their own valueless. The emperor Domitian was prevailed upon in A.D. 92 to order half of them ripped out.
"Why had the wine been so good?" my friend wanted to know. All the usual reasons, I assured her: soil, climate, and the care taken by men whose survival—let alone their prosperity—depended on what they could produce from a patch of vines. Then as now, the Corbières farmer had little choice beyond vines, sheep, and goats.
Most of all, though, it was and is a unique combination of Mediterranean and Atlantic influences. Like the northern Rhône valley, the other wine region that flourished in that first century of Roman Gaul, the Corbières sit at a climatic crossroads. The mistral, the fierce wind that blows down the Rhône valley, has its equivalent in the cers, a powerful wind that blows through the Carcassone gap from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Atlantic weather patterns reach far into the Corbières, and the climate, less predictable than that of Italy, can run to extremes. The Romans were surprised that vines and olive trees native to Italy would grow there at all. Saserna, the leading agronomist of the time, took it as proof that the world was getting warmer.
"Global warming in the first century?" my friend murmured, half mockingly, as she refilled her glass. "Is nothing new?"
* * *
Bordeaux, at the other end of the Aude-Garonne connection, had to wait another century or two until the Romans stumbled onto grape varieties able to withstand the spring frosts and summer rains of its unabated Atlantic climate. But no matter how strange it might have seemed to Saserna, vines that did well elsewhere in the Mediterranean usually did well in the Corbières too. Growers had to choose among varieties available, of course. Some that were successful on the maritime plain could not be relied on to ripen their fruit at higher altitudes exposed to the cers.
The rugby-playing, garlic-fancying winegrowers who now live in the high valleys of the Corbières are descended from those Gallo-Roman farmers, many of whom had taken refuge there at some time during the Languedoc's turbulent past. The region's great sweep of mountains, gorges, and maritime plain fell prey to Visigoths, Arabs (who seized it after their conquest of Spain), and Francs under Charles Martel. In the early fifth century the Visigoths, fresh from sacking Rome, just walked into Narbonne. The inhabitants, perhaps under some illusion of the permanence of Pax Romana, had left the city gates open and the walls unguarded while they went to the vineyards to pick their grapes. An ancient illuminated manuscript recording the event, displayed in a Narbonne museum, expresses tersely the economic importance of wine to the region. "War can wait," it reads. "The vintage cannot."
But neither vineyards nor trade prospered in the uncertainties of the dark age that followed. This troubled time ended for the Corbières in 800 when Charlemagne, Charles Martel's grandson, approved the foundation there of Lagrasse Abbey. Among the objectives listed on the document of grant was the planting of a vineyard. Over the next two centuries fifty such abbeys were established in the area, and every one of them had extensive vineyards. They became, for hundreds of years, the sole repositories of viticultural knowledge and winemaking skills.
It is usual to say that an abbey's vines provided wine for celebrating mass. But more than that, they were a principal source of wealth. As the abbeys' vineyards were expanded into formerly uncultivated woodland, the descendants of Rome's veterans were tied by contracts that obliged them and their children to work land they would never own. The arrangement brought order but provoked a resentment that still colors the fiery politics of the region. My friend would not have needed me to remind her of the great cruelty in the Corbières and in neighboring parts of the Languedoc in the thirteenth century. The Inquisition was born right there and was used, in the name of religious orthodoxy, to help consolidate the power of the Roman Catholic church and of the French crown. The vignerons of the Languedoc have been chopping trees, blocking roads, and raising hell for a long time since then.
* * *
The horrors can blind us, however, to two events that had enormous impact on the region's wines. The first was the introduction of distilling. In the late thirteenth century, Arnau de Villanova, a Montpellier physician, was the first in Europe to produce alcohol from wine heated in an alembic. Distilling had been known to the Arabs since the tenth century—both alcohol and alembic are Arabic words—and it is thought that de Villanova had learned the process from his friend Raymon Llull, a scholar of Arabic sciences at the University of Montpellier. The second was the completion, in 1680, of a canal linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's finance minister, improved on what the Romans had started by using the Aude-Garonne passage to cut what is now known as the Canal du Midi. He hoped it would give the manufacturers and farmers of southern France easier access to the markets of northern Europe. An extension of the canal continued to the Rhône. Sète, the town founded by Colbert as the canal's Mediterranean port, became a center of the international wine trade.
Just as Colbert had intended, the canal gave impetus to other economic activity, including distilling. The Dutch, in particular, bought huge quantities of Languedoc spirits. To keep the stills going, vineyards were soon spreading from the hills onto the plain, where Aramon and other common, high-yielding varieties (later to be the undoing of the Languedoc) were first introduced.
It needed only the winter of 1708–09 to divert these thin, coarse wines from the distilleries to the blending vats. From October 1708, until February 1709, temperatures in much of Europe rarely rose above freezing. To relieve the shortage of wine in Paris caused by the widespread destruction of vineyards normally supplying the capital, a royal decree of 1710 suppressed taxes on Languedoc wines shipped there. Languedoc vineyards had been barely affected by the winter's severity.
But once those cheap wines were used in this way, it became difficult to stop. Bordeaux's landowners were far from pleased and used every legislative trick to block the annual arrival and sale of Languedoc wines until their own crop had been sold. Disputes over shipment of Languedoc wines through the Canal du Midi continued until 1776 when Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, briefly Louis XVI's comptroller general of finance, abolished Bordeaux's privileges along with the special export taxes and myriad petty regulations imposed by the city to obstruct the free movement of Languedoc wines through its port. Turgot, some of whose ideas anticipated those of Adam Smith, was a similar curiosity: a modern economist at large in the eighteenth century. Had vested interests not succeeded in forcing him from office after only twenty months, it's possible—even likely—there would have been no French Revolution. One of his urgent projects had been an attempt to abolish the taxes that inhibited free trade of grain among the provinces—the principal cause of frequent, sometimes severe, local famines and therefore a major factor in the 1789 riots.
"Aren't we wandering from the point?" my friend said, drily.
* * *
Wine is a subject that leads everywhere, but it clearly wasn't the time to say so. Instead I explained how the effect of the Canal du Midi was as nothing once the railways arrived in the 1850s. Spawned by the Industrial Revolution—the first tracks in France were laid to move coal and ore, not people—the railways then fed it, literally, with calories garnered from Languedoc vineyards. French industrial workers of the nineteenth century, and much of the twentieth for that matter, relied on wine for the high-calorie diet their physical exertions demanded. Every liter provided seven or eight hundred additional bulk-free calories, and the cheapest of the wines arrived in the northern industrial cities by rail from the south. From the late 1850s until the mid-1870s money flowed into the Languedoc as fast as wine poured out. It was said at the time that a man could pay off the price of vineyard land there with the profits from his first two crops.
At the height of local euphoria, in 1867, a Languedoc grower reported to a meeting of the Central Agricultural Society in Paris a mysterious sickness affecting his vines. The problem was identified by the University of Montpellier as the insect Phylloxera vastatrix—the devastator—and the appropriateness of the name was soon made evident. In 1875 the wine harvest in France was larger than it had ever been or was ever to be again. One year later, in 1876, standing vines in the Languedoc's Gard département alone were reduced by more than one hundred thousand acres, to less than half of what had been thriving there before. Within thirty years, phylloxera had destroyed almost every vineyard in France.
The university was in favor of using resistant American rootstocks quite early in the course of the epidemic. Unfortunately, the American rootstocks available at that time could not tolerate the high chalk content of the best vineyards in the Languedoc hills; and on the plain (where the mass of cheap wine was grown) flooding the vineyards seemed to work just as well, cost a lot less, and was quicker. But flooding was the same thing as heavy irrigation. Yields rose fantastically and quality fell in just proportion. But no one cared: As the infested vineyards of other regions disappeared, demand for the wines of the Languedoc plain—whatever their quality—continued to grow. The wine sold in 1875 for sixteen francs a hectoliter had been of better quality than that sold for forty francs in 1880; but bouquet and finesse had become irrelevant. The industrial working masses simply needed the calories.
Once it became possible for the Corbières growers to replant, they found themselves unable to compete with the wines of the plain. There could be no question of flooding hillside vineyards, yet the merchants of Narbonne, Sète, and Béziers (now blending and shipping on a huge scale) refused to distinguish between the small production of quality wine of the Corbières and wine of the over-irrigated, high-yielding vines elsewhere.
In 1907 the Languedoc's uncontrolled production, aggravated by fraud, caused the French market in cheap bulk wines to collapse. Government troops fired on growers rioting in the streets of Narbonne, but in Béziers an artillery regiment mutinied rather than obey orders to do the same. The Corbières growers realized they had to protect their common interest by distinguishing their wines from those of the plain. It took them until 1923 to win a judicial decree by which they were defined as a region separate from the rest of the Languedoc. But even so, their wine was not officially recognized, even as a vin délimité de qualité supérieure (a very junior version of a controlled appellation), until 1951; and the Corbières was not raised to the distinct status of a full controlled appellation until 1985.
Until the 1960s Corbières wines sold at prices hardly different from those paid for the grossest of gros rouge of the Languedoc. To live, many growers found themselves obliged to adopt the high-yielding varieties of the plain—especially Carignan. Though never as productive in the hills, these varieties drew the growers into the same vicious circle of lowered quality and falling revenues from which the growers of the plain had been unable to extricate themselves.
* * *
But if this wine is anything to go by," my friend said, helping herself to the last of the carafe, "it looks as if they have somehow been able to do just that."
They had indeed. A turnabout began in 1967 when a small group of growers in the Val d'Orbieu between Narbonne and Lézignan came together and planned a coherent strategy to pull themselves up by their own vine-shoots. With seemingly quixotic pretension they defined what a Corbières wine should be, agreed on mutually binding standards of quality control, and invested together in equipment that each on his own might not have been able to afford.
As the growers' association grew, so it took shape. The original group drew into it some of the region's wine cooperatives along with the best of the independent growers. They kept standards high and objectives clear by admitting new members only after careful evaluation of vineyard, cellar, wine quality, and personal drive. A crucial step was to bring into the association a viticultural and enological research laboratory in Narbonne to which all members might turn for assistance at all stages of planting, caring for their vines, and winemaking.
With the support of the regional chamber of commerce the association established an experimental vineyard domain where they researched which varieties formerly planted in the Corbières should be brought back, which clones should be used, how vines should be trained, and how pruning should be done.
Aramon and a host of hybrid varieties have virtually disappeared from the Corbières. Those Carignan vines that remain are old: The variety offers worthwhile fruit only when the vines are over thirty and the yields are meager. New plantings are discouraged, and the regulations are periodically revised to reduce the permitted proportion of Carignan as old vines become uneconomic and must be replaced.
Increasingly the growers depend on Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and a little Cinsault—the grape varieties of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Syrah and Mourvèdre, in particular, are referred to as "aromatic varieties" because of the flavor and character they bring to Grenache or Carignan. Growers in the mild maritime zone of the Corbières closest to the Mediterranean use Mourvèdre rather than Syrah: It gives depth of color and backbone. But farther inland, moving west toward the Atlantic (the coast of Mediterranean France runs north-south at this point as it drops down toward Barcelona), growers use Syrah for the same reason that their colleagues in the northern Rhône valley do. It resists wind, and, even in mountainous conditions at the limit of its tolerance—perhaps I should say especially in mountainous conditions at the limit of its tolerance — it gives grapes of particularly fine flavor where Mourvèdre would hardly ripen. Some growers have planted Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon as a shortcut to market acceptance (the Val d'Orbieu's Réserve St. Martin Sélection Rouge, a blend of regional Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, is a very attractive bottle of wine selling at under five dollars), but sentiment in the Corbières is generally in favor of restoring a Mediterranean tradition and not borrowing from elsewhere.
Excerpted from A Carafe of Red by Gerald Asher. Copyright © 2012 Gerald Asher. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Maps Introduction A Carafe of Red Storm in a Champagne Flute Côte Rôtie and Condrieu: Drinking with Pliny and Columella Côtes de Castillon: A Bordeaux Wine Reborn Le Beaujolais Nouveau Est Arrivé! Armagnac: The Spirit of D’Artagnan Les Chevaliers du Tastevin Jerez de la Frontera: Sherry and Tapas Malmsey: A Greek Classic Barbaresco: A Glimpse of Paradise Priorato: A Heady Success Story School Days on the Rhine Franconia: Going for Baroque California Cabernet Sauvignon A Morning Tasting with Joe Heitz Beaulieu Vineyard’s Georges de Latour Private Reserve Santa Cruz Mountains: Ingenuity and Tenacity Zinfandel: California’s Own Wine and Food: The Myth of a Perfect Match Chardonnay: Buds, Twigs, and Clones Haut-Brion: A Most Particular Taste Judgment of Paris: California’s Triumph A Silent Revolution: Organic and Biodynamic Wines A Memorable Wine Missouri: Return of the Native Spreading the Word: Books on Wine Simple Pleasures: Warm Bread and Hot Chocolate Index
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