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The Courbu Grape

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About Courbu

(Synonyms: Cougnet, Courbi, Courbis Blanc, Courbu, Courbu Petit, Courbut Blanc, Hondarribi Zuri, Petit Courbu, Vieux Pacherenc, Xuri Zerratia)


Courbu grapes Map showing the Madiran region of France

Courbu is a white-wine grape originating in the Gascony region of France, more particularly in the Madiran area. It is also often called "Petit Courbu", though here we will use the shorter name; do not, however, confuse this grape with "Courbu blanc" or "Courbu rouge", which are quite unrelated types (though Courbu Blanc wines are said to be rather similar to those from Petit Courbu).

Courbu contributes in some part, usually small, to white blends in several appellations: Jurançon, Béarn, and Irouléguy; but it is most prominent in the wines of the "Pacherenc Du Vic Bilh" appellation. There, it is one of a small set of grape types typically blended in the region to yield wines made in styles mostly ranging from off-dry to outright sweet, but including some dry, table-wine types as well. It is apparently impossible to locate a monovarietal bottling of Courbu (such a bottling might not even be legal under France's, um distinctive wine laws).

A wine labelled simply "Pacherenc Du Vic Bilh" will always be an off-dry or sweet wine; the table-wine versions are labelled "Pacherenc Du Vic Bilh Sec", which is a distinct label appellation (AOC, Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée). For the Sec wines, the legal requirements are now (they changed in 2005): Courbu and Petit Manseng together must make up at least 60%, but neither may exceed 80%; certain other grape varieties are allowed up to up to 40%, they being Arrufiac, Gros Manseng, and Sauvignon Blanc, with Sauvignon Blanc being limited to a maximum of 10%. (There will be a quiz tomorrow.)

In the Madiran, a single winemaker, Alain Brumont, has been the driving force in bringing the region's wines to quality and at least some celebrity; Brumont makes wine under several labels: Chateau Montus (the flagship domaine), Chateau Bouscassé, Torus, and a few others. Most or all of the mainly Courbu bottlings come from one or another of his domaines.

Courbu wines are said to exhibit a citrus-y quality with overtones of honey and some minerality. The nose is said to be quite aromatic. It is a full-bodied wine, but of modest acidity and alcohol levels, well and strongly flavored.

Factoid: Courbu is said by some sources to be the same as the Basque grape Hondarrabi Zurri (aka Ondarrabi Zuri and Xuri Zerratia), one of the grapes used to make the Basque Txakolina wines.

Some Descriptions of Courbu Wines

  • Wikipedia

    "Petit Courbu is a white wine grape from Gascony with a long history in the region. It adds body and contributes aromas of citrus and honey to the wines. It is found in Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh AOC and other appellations of the region."

  • Wine Searcher

    "Petit Courbu, whose name means 'little curved one', is also known simply as Corbu. Because it is a white (blanc) grape, it is sometimes confused with Corbu Blanc, a variety which is only very subtly different. French ampelographer (grapevine scientist) Pierre Galet recognizes the two varieties as distinct due to the difference between their leaves (Courbu Blanc's are slightly darker in the spring). Both varieties seem to have originated in Gascony (a vaguely defined south-western province of pre-revolutionary France) and both contribute a subtle honeyed, citrus aroma to the area's white wines. Both Petit Courbu and Courbu Blanc are used in the sweet and dry wines of Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh and Jurancon and the dry whites of Irouleguy. Petit Courbu can additionally be used in the whites of Saint-Mont (formerly Cotes de Saint-Mont), where Courbu Blanc is not permitted."

  • Wine Making Talk

    "Petit Courbu grapes possess lightly colored skin and have a medium body and aromas of citrus and honey. The Petit Courbu grape is also known by several other names including Courbu and Courbu Petit."

  • Fringe Wine

    "It is typically used as a blending grape in SW France along with Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Arrufiac, where it is prized for the body, perfume and richness that it can contribute to a blend."

  • Mercier Grapevines

    "On its own, Petit Courbu produces fine, pale golden-yellow wines with an exuberant bouquet, powerful body and good aging potential."

  • Lionel Osmin & Cie.

    "It is a vine which complements Mansengs as it tends to be less acidic and less alcoholic than the latter. Courbu is rarely vinified on its own but can give very nice wines if it is. Blended, it brings refinement and mineral notes to Mansengs and especially to Petit Manseng."

Some Courbus to Try

(About this list.)

We have nothing against blended wines, which are often the best and highest use of certain varietals; but in these lists we are trying to present representative specimens of the grape in question, so our focus is on monovarietal bottlings, or at least those dominated by the grape. With Courbu (and several other of the blend ingredients from Gascony), it is often hard to find monovarietal samples; indeed, it is often hard to even identify the actual makeup of many of the bottlings. In the end, we could not find a monovarietal Courbu; but we came close on the one listed below—and even that one is now very scarce in the U.S. Frankly, that is a ridiculous situation, but it is what it is.

The quotations below are excerpts; we strenuously urge you to click on the green diamond symbol by each quoted review to see the full article.
  • Brumont "Les Jardins de Bouscassé" Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, $10.
    (Described on the maker's web site as "almost—presque—100% Petit Courbu"; it is actually the legal maximum 80%.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    In the glass it’s clear and bright, medium lemon green colour with quick legs. On the nose it’s clean, with medium plus intensity, a developing character, and lime, lemon curd, yoghurt, capsicum, and sunflower notes. On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium plus body, full flavour intensity, medium plus length, and medium alcohol. It has an interesting texture – something fuller than oily, but not sure what that is. Flavour notes were lime, a hint of salt, green apple, white pepper, and creamy yoghurt. It had a fair whack of oak, but it’s not that shavings flavour you get from new oak. This is a very good wine. It has loads of character, with great intensity and a curious texture. It’s a very robust white, and I’m sure could handle a few more years in the cellar without any trouble at all.

    The 2009 Château Bouscassé Jardins is a blend of 80% Petit Manseng and 20% Petit Courbu that was aged sur lies fines. It has an aromatic nose with hints of liquorice. It is dry with medium acidity and medium body and flavours of citrus and spice with some complexity on the palate. This would be a great food wine.

    [Google-translated from French:] 2009: vintage Gardens Bouscassé aromas of exotic fruits and wild flowers. It is a dashing, fresh and aromatic wine, with roundness and mouthfeel typical of Petit Courbu. Unlike the traditional practices of the region, Alain Brumont this "tamer varieties" has bet varietal Petit Courbu, demonstrating the potential of this little-known grape wine making natural acidity, mouthfeel, floral aromas and minerality.

    [Google-translated from French:] Clear bright golden color. Fine nose, elegant, floral, almond notes. The palate is rich, fresh, more oriented fruit. Included are jammy tones, tangy, almost exotic, where wealth and freshness blend harmoniously.

    Nose showed moderate+ expressiveness, and featured interesting notes of salad greens and anise seed. Medium-light bodied. Lots of mineral on the palate, with hints of grass and anise seed; 14% alc. not noticeable. My favorite of the three whites in this tasting. Very good, and excellent value at $22. Day 2: Nose is still expressive: kiwi and mineral. Lots of smoky/oak/mineral/orange blossom on the palate; long finish of medium-strong intensity; nice acidity; medium-light bodied. Still like this a lot.

    Petit Courbu, [a wine] which Brumont has single-handed demonstrated (to me, anyway) is one of the world's great unheralded whites.

    It's always a challenge to pick a single wine with an elaborate tasting menu but the Jardins de Bouscassé 2008 Pacherenc du Vic Bilh sec from Alain Brumont we ordered with our meal at La Renaissance in Argentan last week hit the spot with almost every dish.

    Jardins de Bouscassé is a fresh, exotically flavored dry example of Petite Courbu.

For a Splurge

Sad to say, there doesn't seem to be any real choice. Sooner or later, Brumont or some new maverick is going to thumb his nose at the French wine laws and bottle a really fine Courbu as plain "table wine", which will illustrate the folly of bureaucrats telling winemakers what they can and can't do. Till then, why not just buy several bottles of the Chateau Boucassé?

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