Portel-des-Corbières and Terra Vinea

Portel des Corbières
Portel des Corbières

Situated in the heart of Corbières region near the Mediterranean Sea in southwest France, the ancient, 1000 inhabitants village of Portel-des-Corbières is an interesting site in itself. The village founded as long ago as the 6th century BC has been surrounded by vineyards since Romans brought “vitis vinifera” – the grape vine – in these parts of the world in the 1st century BC.

Gypsum hills around Portel des Corbieres
Gypsum hills around Portel des Corbieres

Most recently, in the beginning of the 19th century a gypsum quarry opened in Portel by the order of Napoleon I. The quarry, first an open sky operation, moved underground in the 20th century and created a 40km long 80 meters below ground gallery .

In 1993 the mining for gypsum ceased and the mine was sold to the Rocbère winery who transformed it into a wine aging cellar as well as a wine making history museum called “Terra Vinea”.

Mineshaft
Mineshaft

A visit to “Terra Vinea” starts with a descent of the mildly sloped former mine shaft. The gallery’s halls are now the resting place of thousands of barrels of red wine that waits to age, kept at a constant temperature of 16°C (60°F), as well as spaces that recreate the life as it has been in the Corbières region starting from the Roman times.

Red wine ageing in oak barrels
Red wine ageing in oak barrels

Among many other things one learns when visiting Terra Vinea is that in antiquity and up the late middle ages everybody was drinking wine usually mixed with honey and spices (the ancient wine had less alcohol content – 5°, 6 °- than nowadays’ one – 12°, 13°), that the grapevine pruning, a process that increases the grape yield, was discovered, according to the legend, accidentally after the donkey of Saint Vincent grazed some young vine shoots; at the next harvest, the grazed vine was much more productive than the others (Saint Vincent is the patron saint of vineyard workers), or the fact that before phylloxera, the pest that destroyed the French vineyards in the 19th century, the only parasite of the grapevine was the snail; this is how French people came to eat snails while cleaning their vineyards!
Wine in antiquity
Wine in antiquity

Medieval dinner table
Medieval dinner table

Working the vineyard with the horse
Working the vineyard with the horse
Water heater
Water heater

As said above before the arrival in France of the phylloxera – an insect that eats the roots of the plant – in the second half of the 19th century -, the only threat to the vine were the snails. The snails were easily destroyed by … by pouring hot water on the grapevine (strangely enough the plant itself resists to being floaded by hot water!) Water heaters were being brought on the vineyard and it was usually the work of women and children to clean the plants of snails with hot water.
Barrels loaded on a horse carriage
Barrels loaded on a horse carriage
Sulphation carriage
Sulphation carriage

In 1878 another grape pest was discovered: the mildew. As opposed to phylloxera for which there is still no cure, the mildew, a fungus, is treated by sulphation, a process of spraying on the plants copper sulphate (the so called Bouillie Bordelaise).
Corbières
Corbières

And last but not least a visit to Terra Vinea always ends with Corbières wines tasting!
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