by Martin Walker
Many of us will have seen dotted around the Périgord the posters advertising Château Corbiac and proclaiming it to be ‘le meilleur Pécharmant’, which is to say the best of the special appellation that has traditionally been seen as the finest wine of the Bergerac region.
This is quite a dramatic claim and it is based on an assessment of the number of coups de coeur awarded by the ‘Guide Hachette des vins’ to the various producers of Pécharmant over the past two decades. Corbiac has won five of these coveted awards, followed by three for Château de Rooy, two for Château Terre Vieille and for Domaine du Grande Jaure, one for Château de Tiregand and so on.
These are respected awards but they are not the only ones and other Pécharmant châteaux have won their own distinctions from the various concours, or blind-tasting contests, at Paris, Bordeaux and so on. In my view, Corbiac deserves its place in the top rank of Pécharmant wines alongside the others named above, and including a few more like Les Farcies du Pech, La Renaudie and Les Costes. They are all excellent and well-made wines and above a certain level ranking them becomes a matter of individual taste.
What is surprising is to find the law becoming involved. Three years ago, the Paris Concours had to withdraw two of its awards after Château Corbiac’s owners went to court, claiming that they had been unfairly excluded from the competition because an oenologue who had worked for the two successful Pécharmant wines had been on the jury. This, they argued, was not fair play and they won their case.
The red wines of Pécharmant, the long ridge that runs north and east from the town of Bergerac, have long been the pride of the local wines. Their history goes back a thousand years and more when the monks of the priory of St Martin began making wines on this very special terroir, defined by the layer of iron-bearing clay known as Tran which runs beneath the vines and endows the wine with a subtly mineral flavour.
Some say the name comes from Pech-Charmant or charming hill; others claim it is named for an early medieval owner called Armand. Its quality has long been respected. The first classification of French wines, in 1816, ranked the wines of Pécharmant along with the great wines of the Médoc like Margaux and Latour.
There is no doubt that Château Corbiac can claim a long and illustrious history, going back to those early monks and the current Corbiac family traces its heritage back to 1587 when their ancestor, Guillaume de Gascq, obtained the vineyard from the Albret family. A lawyer for the future King Henri IV, Guillaume was a canny businessman and wine lover who somehow also got hold of châteaux in Margaux and Pessac-Léognan.
Another ancestor in 1571 married the sister of the grandfather of the real Cyrano de Bergerac, as explained in the grand family tree that occupies pride of place in the château tasting room. Château Corbiac now has established its trademark over a new line of wines named Cyrano de Bergerac, to the discomfiture of wine merchant Julien de Savignac, who had to drop its own long-standing line of ‘Les Jardins de Cyrano’ wines as a result.
The current custodians of the old Huguenot château of Corbiac are Antoine and his very elegant mother Thérèse. On a recent visit they offered a charming welcome and Antoine treated us to a long chat about wine, climate change (Antoine is a sceptic) and mothers’ milk. The key tastes in this maternal elixir are sugar and vanilla, he explains, which is why wines that suggest this age-old flavour do well, even when “as so often these days the vanilla is artificial”.
Antoine is a man of forthright views, who questions much conventional wisdom. He sniffs at ageing in the barrel, saying the barrel was just a means of transport. “If you take your wine to market in a truck, would you want it flavoured with diesel? Would you want the flavour of the newspaper in your fish ‘n chips?”
Nor does he think the current fashion for increasing the number of vines per hectare will improve the wine, and he proudly insists that he pays more attention to the yeasts in the fermentation than to the levels of sugar. And he sniffs at much of the fashionable talk of the various phases of fermentation – “the one they really care about is the media fermentation – who is first to get their harvest on TV”.
“I like the wisdom of our ancestors in making wine. They had centuries to get it right, in much tougher conditions. It took my great-grandfather a whole month to pick his grapes, so a lot of them had to be over-ripe. I can do it in 48 hours.”
One of the pleasures of visiting vineyards is to recall the personality behind the wine and Antoine is not the sort of chap one forgets. Above all, he makes excellent wines of remarkable value. He is currently selling his very fine 2016 at the vineyard for 10 euros a bottle, which is a real bargain, and the magnificent 2010 vintage for 18 euros. He also makes a very decent Bergerac red at 6 euros.
Martin Walker, author of the best-selling ‘Bruno, chief of police’ novels, is a Grand Consul de la Vinée de Bergerac. Formerly a journalist, he spent 25 years as foreign correspondent for The Guardian and then became editor-in-chief of United Press International. He and his wife Julia have had a home in the Périgord since 1999 and one of his great hobbies is visiting the vineyards of Bergerac.