Producing over 7 billion bottles of wine each year French wine making is big business. Along with neighbours Spain and Italy, their wines account for 50% of the world’s total wine exports.
With viniculture in France dating to the 6th century BC there’s a lot of history and heritage in every bottle. But, look beyond the well-known wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy and explore the wine map of France a little more, you could be uncovering some local gems.
What is Terroir?
Wines in France are produced by 12 main regions which are subdivided into around 300 A0Cs (Appellation d’Origine Controlee). They have strict rules and regulations on how wines can be produced. Such rules dictate, amongst others, whether the vines can be watered and the harvesting methods. They also include the blend of grapes used. The ‘terroir’ – a mixture of environmental factors from soil type, altitude, topography & temperature give each wine region, down to each individual parcel of vines, its own distinct growing conditions. This in turn impacts on the grapes themselves and how, ultimately, the wine will taste.
In recent years, the French wine industry has come through a period of change and reflection after facing stiff global competition from new world wines. There has been a focus of quality over quantity. In the last decade there has been a 10% decrease in the land used to cultivate vines. Concurrently, the wine-drinking public are showing an increased interest beyond the wine label. People want to know more about its origin, the winemaker and the terroir, before the first sip.
The joy of small vineyard wines
As with the exponential rise in small distilleries for gin and whisky and microbreweries for craft beers, small vineyards in family ownership, carefully cultivated grapes using organic fertilisers and harvesting by hand are the order of the day. People want something unique, not produced by huge cooperatives. They want to pull the cork (or unscrew the cap) and feel a connection with what they are drinking.
In our corner of France, we have something unique. One of the Country’s smallest AOCs with just 30 vineyards covering just 500 hectares. Sitting to the north of Carcassonne, in the Department of the Aude, these small vineyards make up the “Cabardes” AOC. They are the most westerly vineyards of the Languedoc and the most easterly of the southwest France wine region.
The Cabardès wines
These vineyards sit on the edge of the medieval villages that dot the landscape of the Montagne Noire mountain range in the Aude. Few people have heard of the vineyards and the wonderful wine they are producing. And not only that, the AOC label was only granted in 1999, making it one of the most recently certified in France.
With a chalky soil, limestone and rocky mountains, the terroir is also impacted by being the meeting point of the east and west winds. Cabardès wine is predominately red, featuring grapes grown from Mediterranean grape varieties Syrah & Grenache and the Atlantic varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
A great example of Cabardès wine can be tried at the Domaine Cabrol. The vineyards area at 300m altitude and occupy just 20 hectares. The wine produced here has been lauded by the prestigious Hachette Guide as “complex and dense” as well as a “caressing wine and perfectly balanced”.
Long hot summers, those important winds from the east and the west and cooler nights helped by the mountains make for a unique terroir.
Tasting the wine where it’s made in this largely undiscovered but oh so gorgeous corner of France is a magical experience. One that all wine lovers will cherish.
Writer Peter Friend operates the award-winning B&B La Villa de Mazamet in Mazamet, southwest France, the perfect base for wine lovers visiting the area.