Our last scheduled appointment in Languedoc was in the afternoon on a cold and cloudy Dec 27 in Chateau-de-Luc in Corbières. That day we got up at 8am to make it to a 10am visit to Borie de Maurel in Minervois, another appellation about an hour away. It was now 3pm. We were tired of driving and tired of tasting. The weather and the deadness of the surrounding area this time of year weighed heavily on our moods. But being the wine "professional" that I am, I pressed on, eventually ending up in front of the wall of Chateau de Luc in a little town called Luc-sur-Orbieu. Everything looked locked down, only an occasional car disturbing the quiet of the streets. We tried several different entrances – nothing. "We’ve seen enough – haven’t we?" – Rona asked. "Time to call it a day, perhaps? Do we really need more tasting?" Well, I came this far! Pessimistically I gave it one last try by driving around the block and eventually noticing a private back entrance to what I thought might be the inner courtyard of the chateau. Despite my wife’s protests for fear of being put in jail for trespassing, I drove right through the gate, parked by the porch, and peeked through the window, seeing a bunch of teenagers sitting around a table. I proceeded to ring the bell, my wife already bracing herself for police sirens. To our relief, a very friendly 17-year-old girl jumped out and confirmed that this was indeed Chateau-de-Luc, and upon discovering that we had an appointment, asked us to wait while she called her father – the winemaker Louis Fabre, who was still out at lunch, apparently having lost track of time (the French eat their meals late and long). When we suggested that we might just go and it wasn’t a big deal, the girl insisted that we came all the way from California, so showing us around and getting her dad to return from lunch “early” was the least they could do. While Louis Fabre was driving home, his daughter and her friends showed us the underground cellars of their magnificent chateau (originally built in the 13th century) filled with vintages going back many years. Right away, we could tell that this was a warm and welcoming family, and while the weather got colder, our spirits warmed up considerably.
Louis Fabre hurried to greet us. He was pleased to learn that we were interested in as much as he was willing to share – his vineyard management techniques, winemaking philosophy, the history of his chateau, and of course ALL of his wines. Too often – he noted – he gets unscrupulous visitors who ask him to just let them taste his “best” wine. This sort of request turns him off – as he thinks of all of his wines as interesting and worthy of discussion.
Louis explained that he divides his vineyards into those organically farmed and those where he still uses chemicals to treat the vines. The organic ones allow the wines to be certified as AB (Agriculture Biologique, i.e. “organically grown”). Louis was well positioned to compare the organic vs the inorganic methods. Importantly, he noted, it didn’t really affect the taste of the final wine. Organic is more about the long-term sustainability of the soil, and is driven by deep philosophical and environmental considerations. Growing grapes organically is more expensive because many grape conditions require more intense and repetitive handling if one cannot use the potent pesticides. One is also more likely to lose grapes since it’s harder to fight the disease in the vine without the powerful chemical treatments. But losing grapes could be a good thing for the quality of wine, because lower yields result in more concentrated fruit. So all things being equal, organic wines should cost more than inorganic. Certain areas of the world are more suitable for organic growing simply because their climate and soil conditions provide for inherently healthier grapes – for instance, in the areas that are drier, there are fewer mold-related illnesses. In other areas, growing organically may simply be next to impossible, since otherwise the harvest would be decimated by disease. Proponents of organic viticulture believe that over time organically managed vineyards are healthier than chemically treated ones.
Most of the winemakers we met, one way or another are striving toward minimizing the use of chemicals in their vineyards, and toward treating the soils more naturally and more gently, even if they cannot (or wouldn’t bother to) qualify for a full-blown AB organic certification. Rather than fight either camp, Louis has it both ways – producing both organic and non-organic lines of wines. This makes perfect sense when you get to tasting the multitude of his wines – he is clearly an experimenter, working restlessly to discover and perfect all that his terroirs have to offer. Unlike Bordeaux and Burgundy crus, where famous chateaux have figured out the recipes for world-renowned wines generations ago, Languedoc is still a “wild wild west” of France. Where past generations made low-quality bulk wine, today's winemaker armed with technology and viticultural knowledge is re-discovering what all this land can produce and planting a spectrum of different grape varieties. A dozen or so grape varieties are officially allowed on the Corbières AOC bottlings – i.e. those that can carry the official designation of the Corbières appellation. Louis Fabre makes at least a dozen wines from blends of those. But in addition, he also makes single-varietal wines from grapes that are not common in this region – Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. These wines range from light (as in his Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay and intro-level Viognier) to very big (like his higher-end Viognier Chimere, and his Cab Sauv and Merlot). Both the whites and the reds manifest the characteristic South-of-France spice (see my previous post explaining the “garrigue”). These wines are really solid – from simple enjoyable easy summer drinks like Louis Fabre Vin de Pays D'oc 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (€4) and the 2007 Chardonnay (€4.5) to amazingly concentrated, rich, flavorful, teeth-staining, steak-evoking, alcoholic beasts like his Chateau Pechlatt 2007 Merlot (€8) and the Rhone blend (Carignan, Grenache, Syrah) Chateau Veredus Corbières 2007 (€6.8). The prices are incredible! Indeed, in Languedoc, you can still pay this little for a wine that tastes 10x the price – if only consumers knew, rather than focusing solely on brand-name blockbusters like Chateauneuf-du-Pape all the time.
Louis Fabre's array of whites we tasted
Louis Fabre's array of reds we tasted
We ended up spending over 4 hours with Louis Fabre, bouncing in his nimble Jeep around the hilly vineyards of Corbières and the recently-classified adjacent appellation of Boutenac, sampling over a dozen of his wines, and feeling like this classy man living in a huge 13th century chateaux and running practically a wine empire consisting of several estates and multiple labels that together make up over a million bottles of wine each year was as warm and understated as if I’d been visiting my grandparents’ home. This to me embodied the South of France, and is reason alone to add Corbières and the wines of Louis Fabre into your wine drinking repertoire. He was genuinely interested in our feedback too. Needless to say, I thought these wines offered great value and would find many fans in the US.
It was now past 7pm, and we reluctantly said our good-byes and were on our way back to Carcassonne. I could see the look of approval on Rona’s face – I guess my brash trespassing paid off after all!