Shining a spotlight on notable producers in southwest France
I just checked another spot off my bucket list — and this one was long overdue. My first encounter with this region was in my very first wine class, back in Montreal, some 20 years ago (yes, I am dating myself). Because of the French population, it only makes sense that the wines be omni-present in the Quebec market. As for Ontario, we don’t see many renditions, as the LCBO’s thinking and purchasing has long been trained elsewhere — a very sad state of affairs if you ask me. Even more frustrating is the fact that there has been a trio of great red vintages (2009 to 2011) which we haven’t even seen a smidge of! Coupled with insanely low pricing, especially when compared to its more famous neighbour to the north, Bordeaux. I can only be referencing the still silent area of South-West France — the bastion of bargains.
The Undiscovered Country
As your plane descends upon the region, the first thing you will notice, other than the massive Airbus plant, is the surrounding terrain, which can essentially be described as a Lays potato chip — undulating. The rolling hills start south of Bordeaux and finish at the Pyrenees Mountains/Spanish border. The second thing you notice is this region isn’t only about vines — as opposed to some of the more famous French wine regions. On this massive swath of land, only 16,000 ha are dedicated to the vinous craft. Other agricultural pursuits include orchard fruit, corn, wheat, duck/foie gras farms, black truffles (Périgord) and Roquefort cheese … to name a few.
When looking at the SW wine map, you can roughly divide the styles of wines by location. The areas closest to Bordeaux produce doppelgangers and, for the purpose of this story, are uninteresting. The real jewels in the crown are those to the south, which rely on their indigenous and historic grapes.
One of the earliest histories of viticulture of ancient Gaul was based in Gaillac. Since the first century AD, Roman traders shipped the wines to the north and east. Archaeological digs confirm this. Post-Romans, viticulture dried up as the region fell under Barbarian rule and wouldn’t return until the arrival of the Benedictine monks in the 10th century. It was the monastic orders, with time on their hands, who documented and developed viticulture and vinification during the Middle Ages, since wine was needed for the sacrament. The strong wines of Gaillac also found favour in jolly old England, much to the chagrin of Bordeaux.
Today, all colours of wines and styles are made. Red wines account for 60 percent of production and are made from any combination of Braucol (Fer Savadou), Duras, Prunelard (father of Malbec) and Syrah. It is well documented that they can age upwards of a decade. Rosés are made from the same grape tandem. There are also some Primeur (Nouveau) wines made from Gamay.
As whites go, there are dry, sparkling and dessert versions. Mauzac (seven different clones), Len d L’El, Ondenc, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle are the options. It is worth mentioning that the Len de L’El, historically, was used for dry wines, but is now relegated strictly for dessert wine production. Twenty years ago the vignerons realized that the grape benefited from the “vent d’autan,” a dry, warm wind in the autumn. This helps to raisin (passerillage) the grapes, in turn producing concentrated dessert wines. These singular stickies must be tasted to be believed.
Producers of note: Domaine Rotier, Domaine des Terrisses, Château Lecusse, Domaine de Perches
Cahors is where you find terroir Malbec, known locally as Côt or Auxerrois. Even though the grape might be synonymous with Argentina, it is in Cahors where its passport was issued, and for my taste, the best renditions. Furthermore, the French versions are dry, not sweet, like many of their South American cousins.
Before phylloxera ravaged the vineyards in 1884, there were over 40,000 ha planted, making it one of the biggest vineyards in the world at that time. By the time it received AOC/P status in 1971 only 300 ha remained. Today, the number of plantings has reached 4,300 ha, as investment has returned to the promised land. Ironically, some of the main investors are the Argentineans (see page ??). Why? Limestone and price! The symbiotic relationship between the varietal and soil is undeniable and the cost of one hectare in Cahors is only $20,000 where in Argentina it is $30,000.
In recent years, the region has refined their wines into three distinctive styles as they relate to the location of the plantings and the Lot River. The vineyards closest to the river, with the least amount of slope, tend to be soft and fruity, with prices hovering around the $15 price point. At mid-slope, things start to become interesting. With better exposure, the wines become richer and more powerful, and prices range between $20 and $30. The top of the slopes and plateaus is where you find the most intense and complex wines. Prices easily surpass the $30 mark and the juice is long lived. These latter two categories are, without a doubt, the best.
Law has always mandated 70 percent minimum Malbec for basic Cahors AOP wines, with the remainder being Merlot and/or Tannat. Recently, a new designation, Cahors Malbec AOC was created to recognize wines which are at least 85 percent of the grape, but in practice they usually are 100 percent. This designation applies to the previously mentioned mid and high slope wines.
If you are passing through Cahors and don’t have time to visit some wineries, don’t fret. In the heart of the town, you can visit the purple neon tinged Cahors Malbec lounge, which could easily double for a night club after midnight. For a nominal fee, you can enjoy a selection of wines in a relaxed atmosphere.
Producers of note: Château Lamartine, Château Lagrézette, Château du Cèdre, Clos Troteligotte, Château Eugénie
Côtes de Gascogne IGP and Brulhois AOP
Côtes de Gascogne, the largest region in South West France, shares the same borders as Armagnac, known for its famed brandy. When spirits sales started to dry up in the 1980s, producers turned their sights to dry table wine production, notably white, which were the majority of plantings. Today, these dry aromatic whites include Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Petit Manseng and Sauvignon Blanc. To preserve the freshness, the law mandates night harvesting, when the acid levels are at their peak. These bargain priced, crisp whites are ideal with shellfish, ceviche, fresh water fish, milder cheeses and chicken dishes. There is also some red and rosé, which do the job.
Brulhois is a small appellation of 200 ha which abuts Côtes de Gascogne. There are 35 producers and one rather large co-op which has seen its greatest success in the Quebec market. AOP production is only red and rosé. When white is made, it falls under the CDG IGP designation — got to love idiosyncratic French wine laws.
Here you find the Abouriou grape, which is high in tannin and low in acid, as well as Tannat, Malbec, Fer Savadou and the three main Bordeaux varietals.
Producers of note: Château de Cassaigne, Domaine de Joÿ, Domaine de Pellehaut, Domaine de Millet
I am usually sceptical when I find out that a co-op produces an appellation’s entire production. More often than not, the quality is lacklustre. Happily, after tasting the portfolio of Plaimont, I can say that quality is their ethos. Furthermore, they are attuned to their vinous history. They are the caretakers of 150-year-old pre-phylloxera vines and manage a vineyard museum, with 29 old-school varieties, many of which have no name and which are being studied for future propagation.
Whites are made from Petit Courbu, Arrufiac, Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng. The first two, which disappeared after phylloxera, found new life in the 1970s under André Dubosc, the legendary South-West producer, who set about resurrecting the wines of Saint-Mont and other neighbouring appellations.
Reds are made from a minimum of 80 percent Tannat and Pinenc (Fer Savadou) combined. You may have noticed that there are many different synonyms for Fer Savadou, which is known for its richness and fruitiness. The reason for this is a holy one. During the Middle Ages, there were two main pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostole and the shrine of St James the Great. Both ran through different parts of South West France, which was the final jumping off point to Spain. During this journey many pilgrims discovered Fer Savadou, but with multiple stops, languages and dialects, it was inevitable that many synonyms would arise.
Madiran AOP and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh AOP
For the uninitiated, Madiran may cause maxillofacial damage. The local grape, Tannat, is renowned for its elevated levels of tannin. Historically, the rule of thumb was that a great Madiran shouldn’t be touched for at least a decade — unless you had masochistic tendencies.
Then, in the 1980s, the vignerons realized the importance of working with the vine so as to obtain better ripeness. Part of this awakening included leaving the grapes on the vine as long as possible, taking full advantage of the Foehn, a warm southerly wind which provides warm autumns and a late harvest. These viticultural changes really took hold in the 1990s and today, the wine shows more depth, complexity and rounder tannins, allowing for younger drinkability, if so desired. Possible blending fodder, for softness, includes both Cabs.
It is also interesting to note that the majority of the world’s Tannat is divided between Madiran and Uruguay.
White wine does also exist, but once again, a singular French wine law comes into play. These wines are labelled as Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh. The two main grapes are Gros Manseng, which is used for dry white production and Petit Manseng, for dessert, due to smaller berries with higher sugar capabilities. Combined with the Foehn, the grapes shrivel up to make some delicious liquid gold.
Producers of note: Château de Viella, Château Montus, Château Bouscassé, Domaine Berthoumieu, Château du Cèdre, Domaine Laougué