Just close your eyes…

…and you could be there. Andrew Polmear takes us to windswept, rugged Corbières for a fine glass of cool Castelmaure 

I don’t usually recommend specific bottles of wine, being more interested in writing about the principles behind why we enjoy drinking. And I’m especially interested in relating how a wine tastes to where it comes from, who makes it and what they do to it that makes it special. But there’s a bottle available as I write that illustrates those principles so well that I’m breaking my rule. It’s Les Hauts de Castelmaure 2018, from the Corbières in France and Majestic has it for £11.99. If they’ve sold out, the Scottish wine merchant Exel will post you a case for not much more.

I found out about it because Decanter magazine recently published the results of a tasting of 55 Corbières reds and the Castelmaure came equal top with 95 points out of 100. That’s the sort of score Bordeaux wines selling for over £30 a bottle would be pleased to have. The tasters found it rich and powerful with an aroma of black fruits, fine leather and soft spice. 

The Corbières is that windswept, rugged part of France between Narbonne and the Pyrenees bordering the Mediterranean coast. It’s dotted with ruined castles where the last of the Cathars held out against persecution in the 13th century and they’ve been making wine there since the Romans. The village of Embrès-et-Castelmaure is perched on a hilly plateau just 22 miles in from the sea. That’s the first clue as to why their wine is special. It’s so hot in the Corbières that it’s easy to make bland, blousy wine with grapes that have ripened too quickly. Castelmaure’s altitude in the foothills of the Serre mountain keeps them that bit cooler. 

The second clue is that the vineyards are steep and the soil arid – hopeless conditions for making lots of cheap wine, prefect for
wine of quality. The grapes have to be picked by hand and the
yield is inevitably low. And, to ensure that none of the wine growers aims for quantity rather than quality, the Co-op pays by the size of the vineyard, not by the weight of grapes grown. A low yield means that the flavours are concentrated.

Which brings us to the third clue: all wine made under the Castelmaure label (and there are cheaper Castelmaure wines than this one) comes from the village Co-operative: it’s what the village does. It helps that the actual winemaker, Bernard Pueyo, who has been there since 1983, is passionate about what he does. As he says on the label, the Co-op prefers to make wine with the flavours of the local “garrigue” rather than bother with the flim-flam (the word he uses in French is “falbalas”) of professional experts.

Then there’s the detail of how the wine is made. At least half of the grapes are fermented by carbonic maceration. This means the grapes are not crushed but allowed to break open as they ferment. It gives more flavour to the wine, especially with Carignan; and 20% of the grapes of this wine are Carignan, the rest being Syrah and Grenache. Then the wine is aged for 11 months in small oak barrels (“barriques”) as in Bordeaux. I don’t find that the wine tastes of oak (that’s an unmistakable vanilla flavour) but it’s the oak that permits the development of those flavours of leather and spice. 

Why have I gone into such detail? Because I find that understanding all those points adds hugely to my enjoyment of this gorgeous, rich and complex wine.

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