The third week of January finds many of us in a post-fiesta fog – and a cold one, at that. Holiday cheer has given way to mid-winter gloom, and we long for the warmth of a blazing fire and a dish of hearty fare to keep us company. What better time to imagine ourselves in the South of France?
Join the French Winophiles bloggers on Saturday, January 20th, as we head to the sunny wine regions of Corbières and Minervois. Tucked in between the Pyrénées Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, in the far southwest of France, these towns provide the perfect refuge from icy evenings here at home.
If winter’s got you down, we have the perfect remedy: a virtual voyage to this sun-kissed corner of the Languedoc, home to high-quality wines and heart-warming cuisine that will make you forget about those single-digit temperatures. We meet on Twitter at 11 am ET, following the hashtag #winophiles.
For a glimpse of what we’ll be talking about, scroll to the bottom of this post. You’ll see what each blogger will contribute to the conversation – recipes, wine recommendations, travel tips and more. Hope you can join us!
Languedoc: A History-Lover’s Dream Destination
While daydreaming about a trip to this idyllic pocket of southern France, it would be easy to overlook the region’s tumultuous history. Ruled at times by the Phocaeans, Romans, and the Aragon Empire, the Languedoc is perhaps most famous as the backdrop for the Cathar Wars that pitted religious heretics against the powerful forces of the Catholic Church. It remains one of the bloodiest eras in French history.
The Cathar movement, which originated in eastern Europe, disavowed the church’s role as intermediary between god and man. Although they believed man’s soul to be a deliberate divine creation, Cathars looked at all physical matter as the devil’s work. Committed to lives of simplicity and asceticism, they embraced vegetarianism and practiced celibacy. At their core, Cathar teachings rejected the Old Testament, religious sacraments, and – here’s the biggie – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That didn’t endear them to the functionaries in the Catholic Church.
However heretical their beliefs, the Cathars did find support among their neighbors, especially from local Catholics disenchanted with the corruption, vice, and quest for power emanating from Rome. But religious hard-liners decried their heresy and pleaded with church officials to intervene. With the pope (for whatever reason) reluctant to act, Simon de Montfort and his fellow crusaders swooped in, laying siege to Cathar outposts in Béziers, Carcassonne, and Toulouse.
Nowadays, devotees of medieval history flock to the Languedoc, visiting what remains of the castles and mountain caves that served as Cathar hiding places. Many of them are remarkably well-preserved, serving as touchstones to another era. Learn more about tourism in France’s Pays Cathare here.
Warming Up with the Wines of Corbières and Minervois
If you’re a wine lover, then you’re no stranger to the offerings of the Languedoc. For years, savvy buyers have known to look here first, for bargain-priced bottles that won’t disappoint. Winemakers have an abundance of grapes to choose from, including local varieties as well as international stars. But it’s also quite a large area, meaning the topography and climate vary greatly from one region to the next.
Geography and Climate
The Languedoc occupies a large rectangle in southwestern France, with mountains abutting its borders on three sides and the Mediterranean Sea on the fourth. It was the first French region to recover from the phylloxera epidemic, thanks to the early introduction of American rootstocks to its vineyards. Wine production takes place in three distinct subzones:
- Atlantic Corridor – comprising the western-most acreage in the region, this is where the forces of the Atlantic Ocean meet those of the Mediterranean Sea. Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot feature prominently in blends with local grapes, and sparkling wines are particularly acclaimed. It was here, in the town of Limoux, where the first bubbly wine was made in 1531, predating the esteemed wines from Champagne.
- Coastal Plains – decidedly Mediterranean in climate, these low-lying alluvial plains are composed of fertile soils that, in combination with consistently agreeable weather, encourage high yields. Much of the wine produced falls into the IGP category. (FYI: the Languedoc labels more wine under the IGP classification than any region in France.)
- Foothills and Mountains – This might be considered the sweet spot for high-quality production in the Languedoc. Vineyards are planted at altitude (average 1,300 feet) and enjoy dry sunny weather with significant diurnal shifts in temperature. Nearby mountains block the Atlantic rain storms, creating a sun trap that allows the grapes to ripen slowly. Some of the Languedoc’s most complex wines come from this zone.
Corbières and Minervois
Right in the center of Languedoc lie the regions of Corbières and Minervois. Both claim vineyards in the foothills of the Pyrénées Mountains, the range that separates France from Spain, and each boasts one of the Languedoc’s six crus: Minervois La Lavinière and Corbières Boutenac.
There are five distinct climatic zones within Minervois:
- Les Côtes Noires in the far northwest, with cooling Atlantic influences;
- La Clamoux, around the southwest city of Carcassonne, with its flat alluvial plains;
- La Zone Centrale, where vineyards lie at an average elevation of 400 meters;
- La Causse in the northeast hills, with its poor soils and low yields; and
- Les Serres, the warmest zone, bordering the Mediterranean.
Most Minervois production centers around Syrah, often blended with its usual cohorts, Grenache and Mourvèdre. The best grapes come from south-facing slopes, which give rise to rich, supple wines of complexity.
Directly south of Minervois, Corbières is the largest AOC in the Languedoc. It boasts four grape growing zones:
- South Central
Corbieres, the largest AOC in the Languedoc, has traditionally focused on Carignan, a grape whose origins are Spanish. While red wine takes pride of place here, plenty of rosé and white is made, too. As in Minervois, the best vineyard sites lie on the hillsides – in this case, jagged limestone hills that lend a distinct mineral component to the finished wines.
Comfort Food, Languedoc Style
As luck would have it, the Winophiles received sponsorship from the Benson Marketing Group for January’s excursion to the Languedoc. Each blogger received two bottles of wine: one from Corbières, the other from Minervois, along with the suggestion that they’d make inspired companions for cassoulet, one of France’s most iconic dishes.
In case you’re not familiar with cassoulet, picture a long-simmered stew of white beans, sausage, and duck confit, perfect for dinner on a long winter’s night. It requires some time and patience to put together, but the results are well worth the investment. Plus, you’ll really enjoy the tempting aromas wafting from the kitchen!
My husband and I spent the holidays in New York City, where the mercury dipped below 0 degrees Fahrenheit a couple of times. Cassoulet sounded like the perfect thing to warm our Florida bones as the snowflakes dusted our windows.
Rather than hew to tradition, I adapted the preparations to account for my tiny kitchen’s limitations. I purchased duck legs and roasted them according to David Lebovitz’s directions for Counterfeit Duck Confit, basting them every 30 minutes with the rendered fat. And on top of the stove, I slow-cooked a pot of white beans with herbs, adding sliced andouille sausage toward the end of the cooking time.
2015 Domaine des Deux Ânes Premier Pas Corbières (13% abv; $14 retail)
Dominique and Magali Terrier have worked the vines in some of France’s most intriguing spots including the Jura in the east, the Mâconnais in Burgundy, and Beaujolais to the south. But it was Peyriac de Mer, with its view of the étangs or salt lakes that border the Mediterranean, that charmed them most. It spoke to them, inspiring visions of organic wines made from local grapes, wines with a distinctive sense of place.
All told, the Terriers farm just 60 hectares of vines, most of which are between 20 and 35 years old. The bulk of their plantings are Carignan, the traditional grape of Corbières, with smaller plots of Grenache. This wine reflects the vineyard composition: it is predominantly Carignan, with a little Grenache blended in.
Premier Pas, the lightest-bodied of the domaine’s offerings, has pronounced aromas of black fruit, balanced by earthy-herby scents of garrigue. On the palate, the fruit is ripe but not overly so, with notes of cocoa and medium acidity. Tannins are grippy but in balance with the other elements, making this a great wine for grilled or braised meat. It worked perfectly with the duck legs over stewed white beans.
2015 Marielle et Frédérique Château Tour Boisée (13.5% abv; $10 retail)
Biodiversity is the name of the game at Château Tour Boisée. The 200 acres of organically farmed vineyards are nestled within a grove of 1,000 olive trees, all of which are encircled by dense pine forests. Aside from fostering helpful flora and fauna, the greenery also provides shelter from the wind and inhibits the spread of disease or pests. The tower (La Tour) on the property was constructed in the 12th century, when the village was first fortified against crusaders’ attacks.
Jean-Louis Poudou, winemaker at Château Tour Boisée, is a natural fit for this slice of land so in sync with its surroundings. He grows grapes and crafts his wines according to a simple, yet purposeful philosophy: “We take what nature gives us.”
In this case, nature has been generous: variations in elevation, soil composition, and aspect have created distinct microclimates that just happen to suit particular grape varieties. Poudou plants each one where it will thrive best: for Syrah that means the warm, sunny mid-slope plots; for Grenache it’s the south-facing parcels of clay and sand.
The 2016 Marielle et Frédérique, named for Poudou’s two daughters, is a blend of equal parts Syrah and Grenache, with a bit of Mourvèdre added. Vines average 30-40 years of age. It is a powerful yet balanced wine, redolent of black fruit, pepper, and forest floor. A sip reveals lovely cherry-plum flavors, with moderate acidity and tannins; this is another wine for meat – I’m thinking lamb chops grilled over rosemary. And it was no slouch with the Counterfeit Cassoulet!
Warm Up Your Winter Nights with Languedoc Wines!
As I mentioned at the top of this post, the French Winophiles can’t wait to share their latest culinary creations, all meant to highlight the wines of southwestern France. Cassoulet, Pot-au-Feu, and Coq au Vin come to mind, as do any number of braised dishes perfect for cold weather. Here’s a preview of what we’ll be talking about on Saturday morning:
Wendy from A Day in the Life on the Farm: A Classic Pairing; Revisiting Languedoc
Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla: Conquering Cassoulet Alongside the 2014 Minervois le Chateau d’Albas
Martin from ENOFYLZ Wine Blog: What Grows Together, Goes Together – Slow Cooker Cassoulet Paired With Affordable Occitanie Wines #Winophiles
Michelle from Rockin Red Blog: Spending January in Languedoc Drinking Wine and Eating Cassoulet
Jeff from FoodWineClick: Let’s Make Occitanie and Cassoulet Household Words
Nicole from Somm’s Table: Kicking Off 2018 with Corbieres and Minervois
Jane from Always Ravenous: Hearty Red Wines of Corbières and Minervois Paired with Cassoulet
Lynn from Savor the Harvest: Corbières and Minervois – Where Syrah and Carignan Shine
David from Cooking Chat: Chicken Cassoulet Paired with Languedoc Wine
Rupal from Journeys of a Syrah Queen: Staying Warm the French Way – Cassoulet and Wine
Liz from What’s in that Bottle: Let’s Learn About Wines from Languedoc #Winophiles
Amber from Napa Food and Vine: A Tale of Two Wines
Susannah from Avvinare: Mas Du Bousquet – An Unexpected Find From Minervois
Gwendolyn from Wine Predator: Cassoulet Domesticates the Wild Wines of Minervois and Corbières
Jill from L’Occasion: Eat, Drink, Travel the South of France: Minervois and Corbières
And here at The Swirling Dervish: Warming Up with the Wines of Corbières and Minervois