The Democratic Wine Country of Southwest France
The wine region roughly located in the southwest corner of France is called just that: Southwest. A few years ago, a semi-official search for a more distinctive name was launched, but in the end it didn’t change — maybe because this rather simplistic designation is, in fact, very democratic. It reflects the fact that no single appellation, out of the 16 included in the area, should dominate the others, even if some are more familiar. But if the name lacks originality, the wines certainly don’t. How come, then, such unique wines are still relatively ignored by winelovers?
The Southwest has given birth to major grape varieties since the beginning of its viticulture days during Roman times. Malbec, Chenin, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc come to mind. DNA tests have actually proven the latter two were very happily married to give us the much-loved Cabernet Sauvignon. Obviously, we owe a lot to the Southwest. But a large number of indigenous grapes remain hidden, like lost treasures. Dedicated ampelographers such as Guy Lavignac (who published a comprehensive book on the subject) are helping to turn a light on them, and today, enthusiastic producers are using them to make original wines. Time to discover and enjoy.
malbec : where it all began
Our first example is sometimes referred to as “black wine.” Black wine is made from Cot, a grape that originated near the village of Cahors; today, Cot is the main ingredient in the wine of the same appellation. History tells us that a wine merchant by the name of Malbec helped spread the grape in other regions, and you know the rest. The wines are concentrated, velvety, but full-bodied. Rich with black fruit, plum and tobacco aromas, in a style quite different from Argentina and other New World countries. The best are age-worthy, easily 10 years or more, with exceptional cuvées lasting 30 years.
89 Château Lamartine Cuvée Particulière 1999, Cahors ($21)
Deep ruby, the rim is still purplish after more than 12 years. The nose has evolved and acquired tertiary aromas of cedar, leather and spice box, but the rich black fruit is still very present, plus earth, kirsch and hints of iodine. Allowed one hour to breathe, the wine was tannic at the core but smooth on the outside with a good concentration of fruit in a somewhat linear middle palate and a long finish. Maybe slightly over its peak.
92 Château Lagrezette Le Pigeonnier 1997, Cahors ($100)
This is the top cuvée of the domaine, with a very low yield of 18 hl/ha. Very dark colour. Rich and enticing nose of black fruits, thyme and other herbs, a flowery touch reminiscent of rose. There is such a tight core of black fruits, wrapped in concentrated, firm but tender tannins, and an exceptionally long finish. Will keep many more years and gain more complexity.
did you say “tannic?”
In a similarly generous and full-hearted style are the reds made from Tannat. The name literally means “tannic” in ancient French. In fact, Tannat is almost always blended with other grapes to soften its rough edges. You know what a tannic wine is if you’ve ever tasted a young, traditionally-made Madiran. But after a few years of bottle aging, the wines become thick and chewy, feel nourishing, and make an ideal companion for the local cassoulet, a hearty stew based on white beans and a variety of slowly cooked meats (pork, lamb, duck or goose, partridge, or even sausage, depending on the version).
90 Château Lafitte-Teston Vieilles Vignes 2008, Madiran ($22)
Purple. Black fruits, ripe, some oak and liquorice, but the nice fruit takes over. Compact and powerful, it weighs on the tongue. A notable acidity adds to the massive tannins. It may seem excessive at this stage, but time will overcome its fierceness.
88 Château Montus 2006, Madiran ($28)
Almost black with a dark ruby rim. Oak still dominates the nose at this stage, with toast and pastry notes over jammy fruit of great purity. On the firm side in the mouth with its low acidity, the middle palate is tight and narrow but the finish is very long. Still needs time to reach its full potential.
94 Château Montus Cuvée XL 2000, Madiran ($88)
Very dark. Complex nose of black fruits, red flower notes and hints of barnyard. Lots of fruit on the palate, massive but velvety mouthfeel. The tannic core is firm but wrapped in silk. Exquisite balance in the finish. Great wine and 100% Tannat.
87 Domaine Ilarria 2008, Irouléguy ($22)
Tannat is blended with Cabernet Franc (45%) in this red from an appellation next to the Spanish border. Ruby purple colour, the nose shows red fruits, vanilla, strawberry jam and hints of green pepper and earth. Balanced and fresh with a good fruity taste, it is medium to full bodied with slightly rustic tannins that are a bit dry in the finish.
One of my favourite red grapes is Fer. The word has the same Latin origin as “ferocious,” reflecting its wild nature and robustness. Interestingly, the wines are rather light, full of freshness and have an original bouquet. They go nicely with poultry and sandwiches, and are especially welcome served cool on a summer day if you are a “red only” type. The grape is often called Fer Servadou, but it has over 20 other names, the most common being Mansois and Braucol.
89 Château Lecusse Cuvée Spéciale 2009, Gaillac ($14)
Purple colour. Open and light nose of red fruits, with a little spice and green pepper for extra freshness. Medium bodied at most, supple with lots of delicious fruit in the middle palate. Delicate tannins for a very pleasant wine that is easy to drink.
89 Domaine du Cros Lo Sang del Païs 2010, Marcillac ($14.25)
Purplish. Red and black fruits, a light vegetal note and something that calls to mind fresh blood (is this why it’s called “blood of the land?”) In the mouth, it is fresh and fruity, with a consistent body of thick flavours and a velvety texture.
blend is best
There are just as many hidden treasures among the white grapes as there are among the red. A good dozen are still being grown today almost exclusively in the Southwest, sometimes because they are difficult to grow in other climates. Their wines come in both dry and sweet styles and are usually a blend of two or three varietals. Courbu, Len de l’El, Gros Manseng and its sibling Petit Manseng are found under many appellations. Colombard and Ugni Blanc are also clearly associated with the Southwest, even if they do not originate from there.
Len de l’El often raises the question of its name, as it means “away from the eye.” The eye in question is in fact the bud, where the cluster is attached to the vine-shoot by the peduncle.
87 Producteurs de Plaimont Colombelle L’Original 2010, Côtes de Gascogne ($12)
This blend of Colombard and Ugni Blanc has a light grassy nose with citrus notes. Acidity is delicate; it feels nicely fresh with good fruit and balance, albeit light in body. Its pleasant taste gains some fatness in the finish. Perfect with fish of the day.
89 Osmin Pyrène Cuvée Marine 2010, Côtes de Gascogne ($12)
A blend of Gros Manseng and Colombard with some Sauvignon Blanc. Pale yellow. Perfumed and fresh, it showcases a mix of citrus and ripe tropical fruits and a hint of orange blossom that is as irresistible as it is original. Very good presence, tame acidity and a round middle palate leading to a balanced finish of moderate length. Goes nicely with white meat or poultry.
85 Producteurs de Plaimont Les Vignes Retrouvées 2009, Côtes de Saint-Mont ($16)
Very pale, this blend of Gros Manseng, Arrufiac and Courbu has a shy nose of exotic fruits, wet wool and a mineral hint. In the mouth, there is a nice balance between the refreshing acidity and the fullness of the middle palate. Finish is equally well balanced. This wine will find its place at the table with grilled poultry, veal, and so on.
88 Uroulat Cuvée Marie 2010, Jurançon ($22)
This barely-a-blend of Gros Manseng and a tiny amount of Courbu has a bright yellow colour. The nose is elegant with tropical fruits, noticeable oak, some light tobacco and lanolin, plus gunpowder as a mineral touch. Ripe flavour yet vivid acidity, good richness and thick texture. Nice freshness in the vigorous finish. The wine spends 10 months in oak, of which 10% is new. Drink over the next 2 to 3 years, ideally with a richly textured dish of white meat or seafood.
90 Château Montus 2008, Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh ($23)
Straw yellow. Intense and fresh nose with obvious oak along with citrus notes. Penetrating flavour, sharp acidity and silky texture. Not very complex at this stage, but it holds the promise of a fine evolution over the next 4 to 5 years. Made from Courbu (80%) and Petit Manseng, this blend is usually associated to sweet wines, but this interpretation is perfectly dry.
92 A. Brumont Brumaire 2007, Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh ($25)
Petit Manseng is a grape particularly well suited to the making of sweet wines. This is a fine example with its bright amber colour, complex nose of dried exotic fruits, dark honey, brown sugar, toffee and dried nuts. Equally complex taste, delicate acid/sweet balance and a good deal of freshness. Long lasting finish.
94 Robert Plageoles & Fils Vin d’Autan 2000, Gaillac ($66)
Made with Ondenc, an extremely rare indigenous grape only found in Gaillac. The grape is susceptible to rot and has a very low yield, but its unique flavour profile reaches its utmost expression in this sweetie. Dark yellow with amber reflections, the nose explodes with dried figs, toffee, candied fruits, dark honey and dried herbs. Notes of smoke and light tobacco develop in the glass. Silky texture with precise and pure flavours. Quite sweet, but the lively acidity makes for a perfect balance and impressive freshness. Great length, too. Truly unique.