Tucked away in a triangle between Narbonne, Perpignan and Carcassonne, the Corbières region is one of the wildest, most unspoilt parts of the Languedoc. From Narbonne, the Mediterranean is only 10 minutes' drive away, but banish clichéd images of the south of France: the landscape here is dominated by dramatic wetlands as a series of lakes filled with flamingos and herons run parallel to sandy beaches and resorts such as Bages and Peyriac – long favoured by painters and poets.
Start driving inland and the landscape quickly changes to the bare, arid foothills of the Pyrenées, called Les Causses. This is the historic pays Cathare, where high mountain ridges are topped off by spectacular castles, dating back to religious disputes in the Middle Ages.
But the big reason to visit the Corbières today is for the wine and food. Village bistros specialise in hearty cuisine, from the traditional cassoulet to seafood such as squid and cod. Winemakers offer cosy chambres d'hôtes or reasonably priced gîtes. And there has been a winemaking revolution here, with a dynamic new generation of young vignerons, who are now working smaller vineyards – often organic – and creating high-quality wines that, for the moment, offer outstandingly good value.
Abbaye Sainte Eugénie
All photographs: John Brunton
A few miles from the sea but surrounded by rugged limestone hills, Sainte Eugénie is the perfect place to get an initial feel for the history, wild landscapes and winemaking heritage of the Corbières. The first thing the Benedictine monks did after establishing their abbey was to plant vines to provide wine for Mass. In the 17th century, the monks departed and present owners Thibaut and Christine Cazalet cultivate 20 hectares, including a wonderful parcel of 100-year-old carignan grapes on gobelets, or bush vines, encircling what is left of the old abbey. Thibault is a typical modern Corbières vigneron, making no-nonsense wines, with little barrel-ageing, at prices that are far below what you will find elsewhere in the Languedoc. His Corbières Rouge Tradition, a blend of mourvèdre and carignan grapes, is great value at €6.50 or the basic but very drinkable vin de pays, sold in a five-litre box for €11. • Sainte Eugénie, Peyriac-de-Mer, +33 468 424893, abbaye-sainte-eugenie.fr
Domaine Les Cascades
In a region where many vineyards stretch over 100 hectares, Les Cascades is a refreshing contrast, with young vignerons Laurent and Sylvie Bachevillier just starting out with a mere six. What is exciting is that they are experimenting all the time; the vineyard has just been officially declared organic; instead of using chemical fertilisers, Laurent takes out their two donkeys and three fearsome-looking Hungarian sheep to graze among the vines. They have transformed part of their rustic farmhouse into modern B&B rooms (doubles €60) and Laurent even brews his own beer alongside the wine in his cellar. Wine prices are a little higher than the norm, from €8-€14, but these are genuine, original vintages and buying their wine means buying into the whole work-intensive project. • 4 Avenue des Corbières, Ribaute, +33 688 218499,domainelescascades.fr
Hidden away in the heart of Cathar country, a wild region of magnificent medieval castles perched on the Corbières mountains, English winemakers Jon and Elizabeth Bowen have found their version of paradise, cultivating ancient bush vines and producing stunning wines. They have been dubbed terroiristes, because what brought them to the Hautes Corbières was the numerous different terroirs, or soils – limestone, clay, schist – giving the opportunity to vinify diverse parcels of grapes before creating a final blend. The wines have a strong personality, be it surprisingly full-bodied, minerally white La Serre, an "assemblage" of Grenache Blanc with the lesser known Grenache Gris, or the robust Magneric red, made from a blend of little-known local grapes – morrastel and alicante – with old-vine carignan and grenache. The 2006 Magneric is a bargain at €12, as is the similarly priced Pourboire Nature: fresh, fruity and made without sulphites. • 7 Avenue des Corbières, Fraissé-des-Corbières, +33 685 676388,saintecroixvins.com
This is an under-the-radar address but once you try the wines of Ghislain and Pascale Calvel, you realise they are both special – and affordable. The Calvels are authentic garage winemakers: there's no sign; you call for an appointment and directions. The chaotic winery is dominated by vast cement vats, which they, like many Corbières producers, prefer to modern steel ones. The vineyard was started in 1996 with eight hectares, and Pascale sold her grapes direct to the local co-operative. Today, with their son, the couple make their own wines from 22 hectares. Prices start at €5 a bottle. • 16 Rue de la Rivière, Saint André de Roquelongue, +33 688 768810,domaine-calvel.com
Cécile Bonnafous is typical of the feisty artisan winemakers of the Corbières, branching out on their own from the Cave Coopérative. She inherited an eight-hectare vineyard that has been in the family for five generations and produced her first vintage in 2007: an elegant but full-bodied red blend of carignan grapes with grenache and syrah. Her secret weapon is a 100-year-old vertical press, turned by hand, which you can view on a cellar visit. Cécile is just one of a new generation of dynamic young vigneronnes in the Corbières – just nearby, it is also worth visiting Fanny Tisseyre (graindefanny.com) and Amandine Fabre (chateaufabrecordon.fr), working with organic vineyards, harvesting by hand, and trying to eliminate sulphites in their winemaking to produce more of a "vin nature". • 20 Route de Ferrals, Boutenac, +33 468 402805, domaine-esperou.fr
The wine co-operatives in Corbières have historically given financial security to winemakers, but the wines never gained a reputation for quality. Now vignerons are branching out independently, producing high-quality wines. The exception is the coopérative in this village of just 150 inhabitants, lost in the Hautes Corbières, which makes an outstanding range of wines. Prices begin at €4.10 for the uncomplicated La Buvette, and the potent Carignan-based, oak-aged Pompadour costs €8.95. The 14 vignerons on the council of the co-operative, which was founded in 1921, grow about 80% of the grapes. They are all characters, but none more than president Patrick de Marien and winemaker Bernard Puyo – known as Fidel and Che. • 4 Route des Canelles, Embres-et-Castelmaure, +33 468 459183,castelmaure.com
O Vieux Tonneaux
Peyriac is one of the most idyllic spots in Corbières, and the perfect place to try local wines and feast on typical regional dishes is O Vieux Tonneaux. You walk into a long wooden bar with ancient leather armchairs, and diners sit around cheery red-checked tablecloths awaiting generous dishes prepared by chef-owner Christelle Sarraud, ranging from bourride d'anguilles, using eels fished from the lake, to a gargantuan cassoulet, with duck confit, sausage and white beans, and thick chunks of cuttlefish and spicy chorizo. Wash it all down with one of 40 local vintages, starting at €10 a bottle, or by the glass if you prefer. • 3 Place de la Mairie, Peyriac-de-Mer, +33 468 483954
Bistro Place des Marchés
The classic village bistro has all but disappeared in rural Hautes Corbières, but the enterprising mayor of Villesèque has transformed a municipal building into a cool but affordable restaurant, bringing in chef Eric Delalande, who used to cook in a Michelin-starred kitchen in Arles. Open since August, the Bistro has instantly brought Villesèque back to life, with villagers and winemakers crowding the bar for the traditionalapero at lunch and dinner. Eric uses local, seasonal produce and changes the menu daily, with dishes such as bulots (sea snails with a garlicky aioli), and tender pigs' cheeks braised in red wine with a parsnip purée. Lunch is the best deal, with a starter and main dish, plus a glass of wine, for €13.50. Most of the village vignerons are on the wine list – be sure to try the organic wine of Rémi Jaillet, one of the rising stars of Corbières. • 8 Avenue de la Mairie, Villesèque-des-Corbières, +33 468 700913,bistroplacedesmarches.com
Château de l'Horte
This country mansion must rank as the best place to experience what they call in Corbières tourisme vigneron. Jean-Pierre Biard's family has been making wine in the village for 600 years, and the four modern guestrooms look out over his cavernous, barrel-ageing cellar. They are excellent value for money, as each room has a fully-equipped kitchenette and guests get use of a big pool, a boulodrome for pétanque, and a barbecue, perfect for an alfresco dinner under the shady pergola. Jean-Pierre and his Dutch wife, Johanna, could not be more welcoming, beginning with an early-evening aperitif of their fruity, fresh rosé, followed by a full wine tasting and a tour of the cellar. • Route d'Escales, Montbrun-des-Corbières, +33 468 439170,chateaudelhorte.fr. Doubles €85 B&B
Domaine de Saint-Jean
Martine and Didier Delbourg are pioneers here in wine tourism, opening this B&B 15 years ago. Their grand 1880s house is surrounded by vineyards and Didier has converted the ground floor of the old wine cellar into a cosy lounge and dining room, while upstairs are four spacious, elegantly furnished guestrooms. One bedroom, Victorine, comes with its own private terrace and spectacular views – well worth the €20 extra. Martine is famous for her dozen different jams at breakfast while, in the evening, Didier sits down with guests to taste not only his own wine (a steal at €5 a bottle), but those of the nearby Abbaye de Fontfroide, where he looks after the vineyard. Fontfroide is the one cultural "must see" in the Corbières: a magnificent, perfectly preserved, 11th-century Cistercian abbey, where wine has been made for 900 years. • Bizanet, +33 675 386924, domaine-de-saint-jean.com. Doubles €68 B&B
Wine from the Sancerre region of France is beloved by many – especially sauvignon blanc – but local wineries also offer the chance to try pinot noir, rosé and organic wines. We pick the best winemakers, bistrots and B&Bs in the area