Outstanding, 95-point Corbieres - April 2020

The April 2020 Decanter ( officially released on Friday 28th Feb - makes its usual, detailed, panel-based, blind-tasted analysis, this time of the Languedoc appellation of Corbières.

(For other wines in that Decanter, please see this page and this one for details of the top-scoring Global Bordeaux blends).

French wine fans, red wine fans, Languedoc fans, big-bodied wine fans ... this is your moment for some superb value.

We offer the top four wines from the review: a 94-pointer and three, Outstanding 95-pointersThose latter three are currently only obtainable from Exel Wines.

The pre-amble

We're big Languedoc fans. There's so many great, largely little-known and under-bought appellations out there offering staggering value. Great French Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre used to be the sole preserves of the Northern Rhône, Southern Rhône  and Bandol respectively. But no more: you want great wines from these grapes at half the price or better, you head for Languedoc. We made this point a fair bit with two superb DWWA19 toppers last year (you should not miss these, lest you have).

Corbières in particular - if you can find "the good stuff" - and with this review you can - offers some of the best value red wines in France. With Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone and Loire prices - and even those of the more reputed Languedoc zones/crus (eg Pic St-Loup, Terrasses du Larzac) climbing ever higher - here still - rather like in Rioja - lies some incredible value. 


That was our excitement pitch. Here's a quick reminder on Corbières:

  • It's France's fourth-largest appellation (behind Bordeaux, Bordeaux Supérieure and Cotes du Rhone for pub quizzers).
  • AOC Corbières vineyards cover almost 10,000 hectares (for comparison, Rioja entire is ~60,000 ha) in the Pyrenean foothills to the SW of Narbonne and the SE of Carcassonne. It sits just south of more-trendy (and pricier) Minervois.

map from Decanter, April 2020,, showing position of the 3 Outstandings (see below)

  • The terrain and soils are hugely varied. And we mean hugely. The variation in Corbières is unparalleled in French AOCs and few designations the world over possess such a range. Soil types include various sandstones, schist, limestone and marl. Altitudes vary from sea level to over 500m (and with them, the local climates). The landform and shape of the region are nothing short of dramatic owing to a great deal of (what one might term) geological violence.
  • To reflect this variation, the appellation was subdivide/subcategorised in 1991 ito 11 different zones - terroirs, to use the official terms applied to these.
  • Of these, one has gone on (in 2005) to become a cru, super-cru or grand cru (depending on who you read). That's Corbières Boutenac (sometimes hyphenated), see here for more detail (and here for similar detail on wider Corbières). One can argue that the wines from here (see next bullets) typically have greater structure and ageability; beyond argument is that they tend to attract higher prices.
  • Whilst white Corbières exists (and is now more often seen) and rosé accounts for almost 10% of all Corbières, this is very much red wine country (88% of all production).
  • For 'standard'/wider (red) Corbières, the more prized varieties of SyrahMourvèdreGrenache (Noir) and (the unusual) Lladoner Pelut must (between them) must, under AOC rules, comprise 50% of the wine.
  • Carignan is particularly widespread in Corbières and was much its mainstay grape for many years. It is often judged a subordinate grape; although it can add many structural elements to the wine, it seldom adds much elegance or finesse, hence, in Corbières, a limitation of its use to no more than half of any given red blend. Less Carignan is grown each year in Corbières, with 'classier' Syrah and Mourvèdre largely replacing it. (Again, see our excellent top DWWA19 winners from the Languedoc).
  • Boutenac provides an exception to the limitation of Carignan: there, a minimum of 30% Carignan must be used. Why so? Boutenac sees a markedly higher incidence of old Carignan vines, and the greater concentration of their fruit is prized for adding the aforementioned structure and ageability. The result is that Boutenac wines also have a greater AOC ageing requirement (and, typically, they need a little more bottle age before optimum drinking).

photos from Château St-Estève

  • As you might expect in so large an appellation, there is quite some variation in style from the low-lying vineyards near the Med to those up in the hills. The lower/coastal wines tend to be bigger and rounder, with - typically - less structure and elegance; these latter characteristics are more to be found as you go inland and uphill.
  • It may not be great marketing to say so, but Corbières has not always enjoyed the best of reputations for its wines. It's a zone formerly noted for an urgency (one might say) of fruit and a rather rustic - even agricultural - style. Elegance and finesse were not the main watchwords of Corbières (it's that Carignan again). However, like much of Languedoc, Corbières has seen a great renaissance in its wines with ever-better expertise, technology and care - combined with said reduction in the use of Carignan - coming to the fore.

This panel review very much reveals that revolution in quality, no more so than in the three Outstanding wines. In an appellation that can still offer some very ordinary wines, the review highlights a few extraordinary ones. 

The review itself

55 wines went under the Decanter microscope. Three (as we may have mentioned) were rated Outstanding (95 points+), with another 18 rated as Highly Recommended.

There was much praise in general (and more than expected). Reviewers were "surprised and impressed at the overall quality", found the wines "well balanced and well managed, with real energy and bite" and concluded that "compared to Australian Shiraz or Argentinian Malbec, or any other big, individual style of red, ... you can get a lot more wine for your money".

As to the three top wines, here's what we see them having in common:

  • The top wines carry the hallmark of Corbières but in its modern guise. These are rich, full-bodied, full-fruit wines that are the antithesis of some of France's more restrained and austere reds.
  • That said, they use/comprise smaller proportions of Carignan than do many Corbières, and that's reflected in the heightened classiness of these wines.
  • I'll repeat that first point: they are, in every sense "generous" wines (I have seen Corbières described as both "buxom" and "voluptuous" in past reviews, but would never, myself, use such terms); they are arguably as close as France ever gets to New World red taste sensations.
  • They rely on the classic characterics of the component grapes - that is, the rich fruit ripeness of Grenache, the fruit spice of Syrah, the earthiness and 'bite' of Mourvedre and the colour, tannin and acidity of Carignan - rather than on work in the cellar or the extensive use of oak.
  • It's tempting to think of them, perhaps, as "simple" and "straightforward", largely because of their pricing and sheer fruity richness. This is, at best, to undervalue them; at worst, it's plain wrong. There's no shortage of tannic and acidic structure among the poll-toppers (and one in particular); just because they're big and fruity doesn't mean they come with minimal complexity.
  • The three Outstandings all price up at under £15, with two of them at £12.20.

That much, they all have in common. There are key differences in the wines too which emerge as we run through them. Interestingly, one is from a château, one from a cooperative and one from a small family domaineAll can be bought - and/or their product pages seen - by clicking their links  or reviews below or using the icons at the foot of the page.

The Outstanding wines

Cave de Embres-et-Castelmaure’s (aka Castemaure’s) Hauts de Castelmaure 2018

This is one of the first Corbières I ever tried, at least a decade ago (from a well-known high-street retailer who seem no longer to list it). I liked it then and I like it even more now. This is classic Corbières, but with all the harsh edges filed off - partly through carbonic maceration of the Carignan (to enhance its fruitiness and and tame its tannins) and with all its dials – especially moreishness - set to 11. This is very full in the mouth and a real fusion of black fruits. It may not offer endless structure, complexity and ageability, but then it isn’t premium Cahors and it is only £12.20. What it also is … is delicious. As the panel said, “Refined and compelling aromas of black fruits, fine leather, soft spice and herbal freshness. Concentrated and deep, with a real Languedoc nobility. The tannins are not prolific but well-managed, supple and supportive. Classy, drinkable, very much of its place” and “Yummy! Rich and powerful with a great finish”. (Please note a slightly longer delivery time than the other wines, as this vintage is only now on its first release from Castelmaure (the sample released to Decanter for the tasting being an early release); see below and on product page).

Second up is, in our view, the classier of the options tasted, Château St-Esteve's H de M 2017 (if you're into all the producer information, including why this wine is so named, you'll find it on the individual product pages). It's the priciest of our Outstanding trio (still only £14.95), but that extra finesse is fully built in to the price. There’s a rich mix of blue and black fruits (esp brambles and blackberries), and there’s great acidity and structure here, with the lightest of hints of oak  (NB: to be clear, there’s not a sniff of what one Decanter panellist viewed as “quite a lot of oak”. We struggle to see how there could be: only 50% of the blend is barrel-aged, and then only for 6-8 months in old oak!). This is a 60% Syrah wine and it shows. As Decanter said, “Impressively complex aromas: wild dark plums, forest scrub, thyme and cade. Very beguiling yet classic. Deep, sumptuous and mouthfilling, broad and ripe, though without excessive ripeness. Soft and accessible tannins. Masterful, rich, Corbières: excellent” and “Sweet fruit, rich and spicy, really delicious and pleasant drinking with a complex mix of layers and fruits”.

The final Outstanding has just undergone its Exel Taste Test. It, too, is a terrific wine (and would be, even at double the price). It's arguably the Goldilocks' Porridge of the three (which is to say, Just Right, not rather-too-full-bodied...). It traces a path between the full-on attack of the Castelmaure and the structure of the St-Estève, having plenty of both, but neither to the same extent. It's Domaine Serres Mazard's Cuvée de Henri Serres 2017 at £12.20. Decanter said all of "Aha! Magnificent black-olive nose – very Syrah, but laden with dark oozing fruit, dates, ripe plums and tincture of violets. Big palate. Showy and impressive. The pick of the wines so far, and very ‘Corbières’", "Dark, dense black red. Attractive sweet floral notes, honeysuckle and peach. Very much as the aromas suggested on the palate, too: easy-drinking but plenty of richness and velvet, and in a pleasingly ripe style", and "My personal favourite so far, showing great aromatics and great vibrancy on the nose and palate".

Our view: any carbonic maceration is definitely not overt; there's just definitely a delicious softness, suppleness, smoothness here (one you'd normally exopect with age) that is remarkable for a Corbières... but kirsch-and-bubble-gummy, this is not. It's certainly - and by some way - the most aromatic of the three: bold damson/plum/blackberry, and yes - and rather surprisngly - that floral fragrancy (the descriptor of 'honeysuckle' is quite right). We've not seen many 'honeysuckle reds' before.

Decanter made it the pick of the bunch; it's a hard call for us beweeen this and the St-Estève.

And also 

Beyond the 95-point trio, we also offer two wines from the Boutenac cru/sub-appellation discussed above.

One - the 94-pointer - narrowly misses out on Outstanding status by a whisker: it's Chateau Ollieux Romanis' Atal Sia 2016 (note the extra year of age here in a Boutenac). It's a more structured wine, as we'd expect, and to quote Decanter: "Hugely impressive aromas of black fruits, bergamot, honey and lavender; beautifully pure and perfumed with a fresh, elegant core".

And for those at all tempted (and we're seeing them appear today!) to try a £51, 92-point Corbieres from the royalty of Languedoc producers, we also offer Gérard Bertrand's La Forge 2017, featuring a hefty welter (72%) of very-old-vine Carignan. "A veritable beast! Layer upon layer of blackberry, charred oak, chocolate and savoury olive. Very powerful and concentrated", said the panel.