Corbières: Field of Dreams
Just west of Provence, the land is rugged, the wines are robust, and visitors are few and far between. Alan Brown visits the Corbières, the last unexplored region of France
Get the Facts.
"In the old days, when people went to the Corbières, they said they were going to the garrigue,"; my French friend Florent Morellet says, referring to the dusky green scrub that blankets the Corbières' rocky hills. "Because the garrigue is nothing, and the Corbières was nowhere."
At this very moment, we are heading "nowhere": west on the autoroute from Montpellier into a chunk of southwestern France tucked between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees. The gregarious Florent, who owns a popular New York restaurant of the same name, insists the Corbières is "the next Provence."
Back in the Middle Ages, its rugged remoteness lured both heretical sects and monastic orders. In recent decades, nonconformists and disenchanted urbanites have been drawn here by the region's almost narcotic beauty and its still-affordable land. And though the Corbières is an easy drive from airports in Montpellier, Toulouse, and Carcassonne (even Barcelona is only a few hours away), most guidebooks contain a scant page or two on the region.
Better known as a wine appellation than as a clearly defined region, the Corbières is a craggy square of southernmost Languedoc, bordered by the curve of the Aude River to the north and west. The small city of Narbonne at its northeast corner—technically outside the Corbières—serves as a gateway to the area; otherwise, it is sparsely populated. In a week of crisscrossing the dramatic river valleys and jutting peaks, we hardly pass another car.
A quarter century ago, Florent's brother Christophe and his wife-to-be, Dominique, bought a ramshackle old bergerie—sheepfold—here to live out their back-to-the-land fantasies. They had no electricity or plumbing, they bathed in a stream, and for income they raised goats and made cheese. "The first time I visited, they were so 'ecological' they wouldn't even let me use toothpaste," says Florent with a laugh. While we talk, we leave the autoroute at Narbonne and plunge into a pastoral landscape of vineyards and, yes, garrigue.
His ebullience barely dimmed by jet lag, Florent can't stop exclaiming over the fields of red poppies, the bright yellow genêt, or flowering broom, along the roadside, the cypress trees—"almost black in this light"—and, everywhere, vines green with spring promise. Grapes have always been grown here, but until the 1980's the Corbières produced only cheap bulk wines. Then the wine makers got serious. Today, vines of Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, and other varietals blanket the countryside, and the Corbières is gaining recognition for its robust reds ("better than Côtes du Rhône," Florent declares). It is now the Languedoc's largest appellation. Ambitious young vintners continue to arrive, raising the quality bar.
On the heels of the wine makers have come the restaurateurs and innkeepers, joined by Florent's brother and sister-in-law, who sold their goats and recently opened an inn just outside Lagrasse, the Corbières' prettiest town. Tourists have been trickling in to taste the region's wines and to explore its medieval abbeys and hilltop castles, but this is still largely uncharted territory. It seems something of a miracle to have a region of such charm nearly to ourselves.
It is dusk when we arrive at Christophe and Dominique's inn, La Fargo. In 1996 they bought a ruined centuries-old forge on a gentle slope in the Orbieu River valley. Four years ago they opened a restaurant, and by 1999 the six guest rooms were ready. A sturdy sandstone structure, La Fargo sits surrounded by well-tended gardens. My high-ceilinged room adjoins a small orchard of fig, cherry, apple, and grapefruit trees; plump kumquats grow just outside the door. I throw open the windows, which frame a romantic view of the hills. The evening air is fragrant with rosemary and thyme, and the frogs are making a racket. Christophe and Dominique bought the inn's furnishings in Bali; my firm, comfortable teakwood bed is covered with a lovely ikat spread. The last thing I remember is Dominique calling from the hallway: "Breakfast at nine." Still in my travel clothes, I sink back and fall into a deep sleep.
When I wake, the sun is shining and a white apron flaps on a clothesline in the cool wind. I pluck a handful of cherries on my way to breakfast. Seagulls sail by, reminding me that we're close to the Mediterranean. Christophe, a tall man with a mop of graying hair and an open face, is mowing the border of a grove of young oak trees. A previous owner planted them a few years back with truffle spores on their roots. Turning off the mower, Christophe shows me how to spot the trees where the spores are growing: the ground near their trunks is almost free of vegetation. "But it will be years before we can harvest the truffles," he says.
Dominique, reserved and slender, with long, dark hair, is setting a table on the terrace, putting out honey from their own hives. Bowls of her homemade jams—fig, lemon, apricot, strawberry—keep the napkins from blowing away. Christophe fetches toast and coffee, Florent appears with an armful of maps, and we all sit down to breakfast and to plan our day.
In New York, Florent described the Corbières to me as "a pioneer area." most of the people we meet here have left more conventional lives and jobs behind and started anew. There is something of the romantic about them all, especially the wine-making couple down the road from La Fargo.
"In the eight years we've been here, we've had one earthquake, one fire, two floods, and a bad frost," says Alain Quenehen with a laugh, his blue eyes sparkling in his tanned face. "When you're a wine maker, your wealth is outside, so anything can happen. You have to be Zen, be cool." Alain is the essence of cool, as is his partner, Natacha Devillers. The walls of the dining room in their château, which dates as far back as the ninth century, are covered with photographs of jazz legends and of themselves sitting in clubs, always cheek-to-cheek. Natacha herself designed the eccentric lampshades.
Twenty-two years ago, in Paris, Natacha dialed a wrong number and got Alain. They talked until four in the morning and then every day for a week. They've been together ever since. And for 22 years now, on the anniversary of that fateful misdial, Alain has proposed marriage. Natacha always turns him down. "If I marry him," she says, "he'll stop proposing." In 1993, they gave up their city jobs and moved to the Corbières to open a winery. Two years later, Château Prieuré Borde-Rouge produced 9,000 bottles. This year brought 90,000. The reds, which are luscious and lusty (no surprise, considering the makers) are made from Carignan, Grenache, and Shiraz grapes.
"Come see our babies." Alain, who is disabled, zips out the door in his wheelchair. We follow. Close to the house, young Shiraz vines are just peeking out of a field of dark soil. "Aren't they beautiful?" Natacha says proudly. "They're only three months old."
Alain and Natacha have two guest rooms, and I briefly toy with the idea of booking one in the fall and pitching in on the grape harvest. Who wouldn't want to be part of this household, even if only temporarily?
There may be a shortage of high culture and modern conveniences in the Corbières, but the people here more than make up for that lack. Whether in the markets or in their own shops, everyone seems to have time to talk, and our visits to vintners and cheese makers all have the relaxed feel of dropping in on friendly neighbors.
When Florent and I drive over to visit Chantal Donnet, we find her elbow-deep in a stainless steel vat of sheep's milk, stirring with bare hands. Pretty and trim, her blond hair tucked back into a net, she wipes off her hands to welcome us (beauty experts, take note: the skin is soft and smooth).
Twenty-six years ago, Chantal and her husband left Montpellier to move down to this lush valley outside the village of Villetritouls. She studied cheese making while he took a sheepherding course. (Only in France!) Now they're the first—and only—makers of sheep's-milk cheese in the Corbières. "Contrary to what people think, sheep are temperamental, much more difficult than goats," Chantal says. Opening a door in the floor, she invites us into her cellar.
"Our cheese is organic, but we don't call it that because my husband doesn't want to belong to the 'organic church,'" she says with a smile. The air is cool and moist and the smell is heady. Rows of round cheeses sit aging on shelves. "See how the wooden shelves breathe," she says. "When it's humid, they absorb water from the air. When it's dry, they release it. It's magic."
Chantal is clearly a woman happy in her work. But clouds are gathering on the horizon. "The EU is making things difficult. They don't understand that unpasteurized cheese is actually safer. It's alive. It reacts, changing constantly," she says. "The day the EU tells me that I have to use plastic shelves instead of wood, I'll quit making cheese." Before leaving, we enter her shop to sample her cheeses. "And you must try our yogurt; it's real, not like American yogurt," she says, dribbling a neighbor's honey on top. "Food for the gods." Florent and I taste it and sigh in unison.
Everywhere we go people offer us Corbières honey, extolling its virtues, calling it the best in France. It is even whispered that the honey one buys in Provence actually comes from the Corbières. And no one produces better honey, everyone agrees, than Geneviève and Henri Jean Poudou, elderly siblings who are, Florent tells me as we drive to their house outside Lagrasse, "like characters in a fairy tale, those people who live in a shoe."
Monsieur and Mademoiselle Miel, as they're called, do not in fact reside in a shoe. But for more than 60 years they have lived and made honey in the same cottage where they were born, which is hidden in a dark, overgrown hollow. A stream runs right under the house, turning the ancient water mill that provides them with electricity—all very Brothers Grimm.
"I started working with bees when I was six months old," says Geneviève, a stout, white-haired woman. Sitting us down, she feeds us samples of their 10 kinds of honey. Each has a strong, seductive, sometimes smoky taste. The garrigue variety is like a viscous stew of herbal flavors. "Our honey is a living product, good for your health, not like America's pasteurized honey," she assures me, repeating a refrain that runs through all our encounters here. A dapper customer comes in and bows to Geneviève, addressing her as "Mademoiselle." She grins like a girl, showing off a mouthful of straight white teeth. "Dentures," Florent whispers, but I'm not so sure. Rumor has it that she and her brother live only on honey and milk. Rumor also has it that she was once engaged but jilted her fiancé because she couldn't bring herself to leave her hives.
"In France, you know, women were traditionally not allowed to work with bees," she tells us, as if she's read my mind and wants to set the record straight. "Bees were thought to be angels, and women were impure. Only in the Corbières, where women were considered descendants of the Virgin Mary, were we allowed." Her smile is beatific as she hands me a spoonful of rosemary honey. I smile back at Saint Geneviève. It's no wonder she didn't marry. What man could possibly compete with such a heavenly calling?
Wine, honey, and cheese are not the Corbières' only notable culinary offerings. The region offers simple but good, fresh food. During our visit we have two extraordinary meals. The first is at La Fargo, whose elegant yet informal restaurant takes its cue from the surrounding landscape. In warm weather, tables are put out under a vast arbor of kiwi vines, and Christophe cooks local lamb with rosemary on the wood grill. One evening, he serves it with fava beans and sautéed onions and a dish of asparagus and prosciutto topped with shaved Parmesan. Dominique and Christophe's 22-year-old son, Duncan, home for the summer from school in Montpellier, makes what must be the best (and richest) gratiné potatoes I've ever tasted. And for dessert, Dominique bakes an orange cake that, on its own, would explain why the restaurant attracts customers from all over the Corbières and beyond.
While La Fargo exudes a comfortable rusticity in both its food and décor, L'Auberge du Vieux Puits, the 10-year-old restaurant in Fontjoncouse that was awarded a second Michelin star in 2001, goes in for more pomp and formality—but Corbières-style. The night we dine there the service is genuinely warm and friendly. Chef Gilles Goujon earned his toque in three-star restaurants in Cannes and Marseilles before coming to the Corbières. His cold fava bean soup and smoked trout—filled galette topped with sparkling salmon eggs and surrounded by a moat of frothy green grape juice are sublime. And both are included in the bargain prix fixe menu that the maître d' practically insists we choose over the pricey à la carte. The young wine steward not only picks superb local wines for us but brings me a wine map of the Corbières and marks it with his favorite vineyards. Later, when I ask which is the best, he opens a bottle and pours me a generous glass, on the house. Florent and I end up closing the place, and even then we leave reluctantly.
Most of the travelers who make it to the Corbières wander down here from the walled city of Carcassonne, just outside the Corbières' northwestern border. Once a stronghold of the Cathars, a heretical sect of the 12th and 13th centuries, it has been restored into something of a medieval confection, but is jammed with souvenir shops and busloads of tourists.
Hunted down and persecuted by the Church, the Cathars took refuge in the Corbières' dramatic hilltop fortresses, known now as "Cathar castles" (erroneously, for they were built before the time of the Cathars). The region's roads are dotted with signs reading le pays cathare, and there seem to be castle ruins around every bend. Those at Termes, Quéribus, and Peyrepertuse are three of the best known. Florent and I spend an afternoon hiking up to the last, which has spectacular views stretching from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean. How anyone managed to build anything on these towering and perilous peaks is beyond me.
In fact, it may be the wedges of cold, forbidding rock that gave the Corbières its name—from cor, a pre-Celtic word for stone, explains Jean-Pierre Mazard, a blue-eyed, genial vineyard owner with a wine-barrel chest, whom Florent and Christophe call Monsieur Corbières. In the village of Talairan, where his family has lived for 12 generations, Jean-Pierre has done up Domaine Serres-Mazard's tasting room as an eccentric history museum. "He channels the Corbières," as Florent wryly puts it. When we enter, he actually picks up a waiting pointer and taps the snout of a mounted boar's head. "There are more wild boars in the Corbières than people," he begins.
The lecture is intriguing, as is his collection of memorabilia and photographs. But when he sits us down to watch his slide show on wild orchids, Florent invents a fib about a pressing appointment (hard to imagine in the Corbières), and suggests we move on to the wine tasting. "But behind the wines, there are people and nature," Monsieur Corbières protests. "It is important to know these things to really appreciate the wines." He moves on amicably, and opens one of his reds. Holding a glass up to his nose, he inhales deeply. "Smell this one, it has the aroma of the garrigue."
Wine, not blood, apparently runs through his veins. Even on the subject of his beloved daughter, Marie-Pierre, he expresses himself with grapes. "A painter has his brushes; I painted a portrait of my daughter in wine," he says, handing us glasses of the honey-hued dessert wine he created in honor of her upcoming wedding. "Marie-Pierre often wears more than one perfume"—Florent winces here—"so I mixed six different grapes. Like her, the wine is warm and convivial and has character." On the way back to La Fargo, the car trunk filled with bottles of wine, I cast an appraising eye on every roadside house. Though Americans have yet to discover the Corbières, the British and Dutch have started to snatch up old houses at bargain prices. Now I, too, am tempted. On our last day, when Dominique and Christophe invite us to their own house for a farewell lunch, I know the kind of house I'm looking for.
As Florent and I drive up the unpaved road, high jazz notes gurgle in the hot dry air. Duncan is playing the saxophone in his open-air bedroom. And I think that their house, the once-crumbling bergerie ("It had only one room with a roof, and we all slept there," Florent recalls) is like a jazz improvisation, with whimsical nooks and crannies spinning off a main theme. Though it's only a short drive from La Fargo, the rambling stone house and the isolated valley it overlooks seem a more primitive world, one of weird, Jurassic-sized succulents and gnarly trees, its air heavy with herbs. A windmill towering over the property (which, along with the solar panels on the roof, is the family's only power supply) creaks like a giant cicada.
Christophe and Dominique's 26-year-old daughter, Rachel, an art restorer who lives in Tuscany, is setting a table in the garden. We sit down to a long, lazy lunch, with a huge salad, cheeses and meats, cherries from their trees, and endless glasses of chilled Corbières rosé. Languidly we discuss the different meanings of words in French and English. For dessert, Dominique has baked a chocolate cake, and Jérôme, a friend from Paris, has brought an oreillette, a Corbières specialty: an airy crêpe deep-fried in sunflower oil and sprinkled with sugar.
I move to a hammock under the trees. Florent, a dedicated sun worshiper, takes off his shirt and stretches out on a stone wall. Duncan asks his sister to give him a haircut, which, we all agree, he desperately needs. He drags a chair into the sun and ties a towel around his neck, and she starts snipping away.
I close my eyes and drift off. When I open them, I'm alone. I hear distant splashing and laughter. Following a narrow goat path down the hill, I come to a place where the stream tumbles over rocks into a wide swimming hole. Jérôme sits in the shade, smoking and reading. Rachel is building a miniature raft, lashing twigs together with grass. Constructing a sail of rosemary branches, she launches the craft over the waterfall, only to have it catch in some rocks. She hikes her summer dress up to her sun-browned thighs, wades in, and huffs and puffs at the rosemary sail until the raft breaks free and is carried away by the current. I lie back on a flat, sun-warmed rock and nap again. And I dream of the garrigue.
the facts The Corbières
The weather in the Corbières is Mediterranean, similar to that of Provence. Summers are hot and dry. The tourist season doesn't start until late May; most inns and restaurants are closed for the winter (typically November through April).
Flying into Toulouse (two hours away by car) or Montpellier (1 1/2 hours) is the most convenient route to the Corbières; Barcelona (3 hours) and Carcassonne (30 minutes) are also options.
- La Fargo St.-Pierre-des-Champs; 33-4/68-43-12-78, fax 33-4/68-43-29-20; www.chez.com/lafargo; doubles from $48; dinner for two $40. Christophe and Dominique Morellet's old Catalan forge, south of Lagrasse, has six rooms with Balinese furnishings, an orchard, and a popular, elegant restaurant with a terrace.
- Domaine Grand Guilhem Chemin du Col de la Serre, Cascastel; 33-4/68-45-86-67, fax 33-4/68-45-29-58; www.thelin.net/gguilhem; doubles from $57. Four charming rooms in a 19th-century château (plus a cottage). The musician owners, both former Parisians, hold regular music and wine nights.
- Lou Castelet 33 Place de la République, Fabrezan; 33-4/68-43-56-98; http://lou.castelet.free.fr; doubles from $61. A beautiful château with gardens on the edge of a lovely village northeast of Lagrasse. Rooms are spacious and elegantly furnished.
- Domaine du Haut-Gléon Villesèque-des-Corbières; 33-4/68-48-85-95, fax 33-4/68-48-46-20; www.hautgleon.com; doubles from $59. A sprawling winery near Fontjoncouse whose former shepherds' and grape harvesters' quarters have been turned into chic guest rooms and vacation houses.
L'Auberge du Vieux Puits Fontjoncouse; 33-4/ 68-44-07-37; dinner for two $90. Chef Gilles Goujon's restaurant, possibly the finest in the Corbières, earned two Michelin stars last year, but he hasn't let it go to his head. The service is warm, the food sublime.
La Bergerie de Fontfroide Fontfroide; 33-4/68-41-86-06; lunch for two $26. A lovely courtyard bistro with outdoor tables, on the grounds of the Abbaye de Fontfroide, near Narbonne. Fresh, local ingredients are highlighted. Lunch only.
- Most wineries and other producers of regional specialties welcome visitors but do not have regular hours, so call ahead. Wine maps are available in English from the Syndicat de l'A.O.C. Corbières (Maison des Terroirs en Corbières, Boutenac; 33-4/68-27-73-00; www.aoc-corbieres.com).
- Château Prieuré Borde-Rouge Lagrasse; 33-4/68-43-12-55; www.borderouge.com. Alain Quenehen and Natacha Devillers coax luscious reds and whites out of the Corbières terroir.
- Fromage de Brébis, Fermiers des Corbières 13 Ave. de la Matte, Villetritouls; 33-4/68-24-04-95. Chantal Donnet's fromagerie has a shop where you can buy her cheese and yogurt.
- Moulin de Boysède Lagrasse; 33-4/68-43-10-10. Geneviève and Henri Jean Poudou welcome visitors and shoppers to their honey- cultivating operation. Call ahead.
- Domaine Serres-Mazard Talairan; 33-4/68-44-02-22; firstname.lastname@example.org. Jean-Pierre Mazard pours oak-aged red, rosé, and white wines in his tasting room—cum— history museum near Lagrasse.
- Château Les Palais St.-Laurent-de-la-Cabrerisse; 33-4/68-44-01-63; email@example.com. Seven generations of the de Volontat family have been making wine in this 12th-century former convent attached to the abbey at LaGrasse (the tasting room has served as both a chapel and a stable).