Cruising the Wine Islands Of the Southwest of France
Think of the area’s 18 appellations as an archipelago of isolated vinous enclaves.
In many ways, France’s Southwest wine region makes little sense.
Few of its 18 individual appellations – 12 AOPs and 6 IGPs – barely touch each other. Instead, they are isolated by buffers of woodlands or vast fields of grains and grazing cattle. Although some grow the same grape varieties, each has its own unique, traditional blends in the wines. And they do not share a single, unifying river valley or similar geographic bond. Instead, the Southwest (sometimes written “South West”) could better be compared to the islands of the Caribbean – an archipelago of vineyard clusters, each exotic and different, which happen to occupy the same section of a global map.
Most of the Southwest wine regions are located south of Bordeaux, bordered by the Atlantic on the west, the Pyrenees to the south and Roussillon to the east. Cahors, a sometimes-reluctant part of the Southwest, is an outlier in the hill country along the Lot River, east of Bordeaux.
The Southwest’s 18 appellations collectively have around 124,000 acres of vines, owned half and half by co-ops and independent producers; together they produce about 450 million bottles of wine annually, about half white and the rest red and rosé. About a quarter of this wine is categorized as basic Vin de France.
Not long ago, I took a “land cruise” to some of these better-known isolated wine regions. Until very recently their wines were mainly consumed in nearby areas. Now, the savvier producers are beginning to look at export possibilities.
A gallery of images from the Southwest of France
Overview: The predominant grapes in this whites-only appellation are the manseng twins. Gros manseng predominates in the tangy, well-regarded Jurançon sec (about 60 % of production). Late-hanging petit manseng is the lead grape for Jurançon doux, along with some gros manseng and courbu.
Up-Close View: My train from the Midi, where I have spent the week ona canal barge hotel, lingers at Lourdes, but there isn’t a prayer of miraculous wines being made here. I press on to Pau, a lovely little city in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Jurançon is not formally on my wine itinerary, but the train glides through its hillside vineyards, which look mostly northeast across the rushing Pau River on its way to Bayonne and the Atlantic. I have a sandwich at the Pau station with a glass of Jurançon sec, then grab a cab north to the airport as the hills fade behind me. The group meeting me there has a delayed flight from Paris, so I linger at the bar with a glass of sweet Jurançon while watching Saturday rugby – this is not soccer country – on TV.
Saint Mont AOP
Overview: A fairly new appellation created in 1981, Saint Mont is pretty much a one-company AOP, as a small group of producers called Plaimont make and sell most of its wines. Reds, made of tannat, pinenc, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, account for 50% of production and rosés 30%. Arrufiac and the two mansengs are the primary whites.
Up-Close View: We drive north in our vin van to Château de Projan where we meet the Plaimont folk for a tasting and dinner. André DuBosc, who founded both the company and spearheaded the appellation, joins us wearing his Saint Mont black beret. Both DuBosc and the rest of the people at Plaimont believe strongly in the study and preservation of grape varieties, so the next morning we visit the company’s Conservatoire Ampélographique, which grows 116 grape varieties, several of them still without formal names. “Not all grapes have been around for the same amount of time,” says technical director Olivier Bourdet-Pees. “For example, tannat is only 200-300 years old, whereas petit manseng is more than 1,000. These older grapes also need a lot of water because the climate was wetter back then.”
Along the way, we also make an unscheduled stop to witness some local grape history in the backyard vineyard of Rene Pédebernade. Pédebernade is almost 90, but his field-blend vines, planted on sandy soil, are even older – some over 150 years and pre-dating phylloxera.
Overview: This red-wine-only AOP grows mostly tannat, both cabernets and fer servadou grapes. Whether made in traditional, rustic style or modern, Madirans are capable of long aging.
Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh AOP
Overview: Pacherenc occupies the same territory as Madiran, but produces only white wines – classic sweet and floral whites plus a dry wine from arrufiac, the mansengs and corbu.
Up-Close View:Located about 35 miles from the mountains and 50 from the ocean, there is little to make you pause in the town of Madiran on a lazy Sunday afternoon. We have dinner out in the rolling countryside at Alain Brumont’s well-regarded Château Montus, where winemaker Fabrice Dubosc takes us on a cellar tour. “Natural fermentation goes better in wood,” he tells us, adding, “Tannat is a difficult grape to ferment, so we also use pigeage”which is a traditional method of physically punching down the skins. But the winery also has many modern touches including optical sorting scanners for the grapes at harvest time.
During the cheese course, I hear Brumont say he has a friend in California who is thinking about make a varietal tannat. My mind leaps to Pierre Seillan, a good acquaintance and winemaker in three countries in partnership with Jackson Family Estates. Seillan comes from nearby Gascony, and – small world – he and Brumont are best buddies! Soon we have awakened Seillan in California to talk about his small-production tannat, not yet on the market.
That evening and much of the next day, we meet a dozen or so winemakers for group tastings of their wines offering a good cross-section of styles. They range from oaky and fruity to lean and crisp for the Madirans and from minerally with eau-de-vie notes to lush, white-peach flavors for the Pacherencs.
Côtes de Gascogne IGP
Overview: This is Armagnac country, but Gascony also exports a lot of dry white wine, often with piercing acidity — a plus for brandy grapes. The grapes are both local (colombard, ugni blanc, the mansengs) and international (sauvignon blanc and chardonnay). Lesser amounts of red and rosé wines are produced.
Up-Close View: We spend the night in the lovely hot-springs resort town of Barbotan-les-thermes. At dinner, Philippe Fezas of Domaine Chiroulet explains that many estates here make both argmanac and table wines. He then pours his elegant “Terres Blanches,” made mainly from gros manseng and sauvignon blanc grown in chalky soils (“freshness, flowers, elegance,” he says). “Gros manseng gives structure,” Fezas explains, noting he picks both grapes riper than he would for making argmanac and uses longer pressing periods. The wines rest on fine lees before blending.
Coming from the American East where many French-American hybrids are planted, I know hybrids ruled France for a while after the phylloxera epidemic. But only until they were banned as “inferior” when grafting onto American rootstock proved a superior solution. The sole exception is Gascony, where hybrid extinction was spared because one hybrid – baco blanc – is an excellent component in brandy. The next morning, at the ultra-modern Domaine Tariquet, export director Julien Duclos shows me a plot of the this locally-grown hybrid. Tariquet is in the middle of harvest, and the baco has been picked early, as is normal for brandy grapes. No grape clusters remain, but I do get to see the vines.
Tariquet also lays claims to the largest press room in Europe, the largest family-owned estate in France and the only estate in Gascony growing both semillon and chenin blanc. And its ultra-modern harvesters first de-stem the grapes then blanket them with SO2 while still in the field.
Overview: Although many red grapes can be planted in Fronton, the primary one is a grape grown nowhere else – negrette, producing an easy-drinking, fruity red (70% of production) and a lively rosé (30%).
Up-Close View: I find that I love Negrette wine – spicy yet rounded, lean and mature, but light in tannins. We sample several, first at a winemakers’ dinner in the little town of L’Isle-Jourdain and then the next morning in Fronton wineries.
I’m impressed with the versatility coming out of the vineyards and cellars of Fronton winemakers. At dinner, Diane Cauvin of Château la Colombière asks us to remember that white grapes can grow in Fronton and discusses an old local variety, bouysselet. Anne-Marie Selle of Château Bouissel produces a 100% negrette wine on gravelly soil that is round and spicy, but she also makes a “classic” blend of 50% negrette, 25% syrah, 10% malbec and 5% cabernet sauvignon that is dark chocolaty with black pepper.
The gregarious Frédéric Ribes of Domaine Le Roc, which we visit next day, makes a Cuvée Don Quichote with 60% negrette and 40% syrah, a varietal that seems to becoming more popular locally. This is echoed during our visit to Château Bellevue La Forêt, where 15 hectares of cabernet franc are being replaced with syrah.
My takeaway: negrette is worth searching out as a fascinating varietal, but Fronton’s blending flexibility and varied soils will allow it to make even greater red wines in the future using multiple varieties, even if that reduces it Fronton’s distinctive branding as a negrette-based appellation.
Overview: Gaillac does it all – red, rosé, dry white, sweet white and sparkling – and it does it with a wide variety of grapes. Nevertheless, loin de l’oeil is an important white grape here, while mauzac is the primary sparkling grape and duras and prunelard are local red stars.
Up-Close View: Our last night on the road is a fascinating one. First, we stay in a castle in the rolling hills of Gaillac. Second, an evening wine tasting displays great variety. “We have to use our difference as a force,” declares Sophie Guido as she pours her La Bastide Brut, made of 100% mauzac. The 2009 Astrolabe loin de l’oeil is a dark, orange-style wine made from the long-bunched white grape, whose name means “far from the bud.” Domaine Rotier’s “Les Gravels” is 30% duras, 45% braucol and 25% syrah. “Duras is a very, very old grape,” says winemaker Alain Rotier. “It’s from the same family as cabernet sauvignon, the only one from the Southwest.” Another wine we sample is a braucol varietal, the local manifestation of fer.
During our voyage, we have enjoyed the local cheeses, and the Southeast has many from the sheep of the Pyrenees and the cows of the plains. But tonight, our prix-fixe doesn’t include cheese course. Unaware of the arrangement, my colleague, whom I shall call “Mike” and who long ago retired from his day job, waves the cheese cart over as the meal is winding down, then turns to say something to the table. When he looks back to order, he is horrified to see the trolley disappearing into the kitchen. Mike jumps up and shouts his disbelief to tout le monde: “They took the fromage!” He breaks into a limping trot after the cart, gray head bobbing toward the kitchen. Fronton knows no fury like a wine geek deprived of his cheese.
What I Missed
Perhaps the best-known AOP in the South West is malbec-crazy Cahors, which I visited a couple of years earlier, known for its dense, traditional “black wines” – but also producing some less-tannic, more modern cuvées. Cahors irritated its Southwest fréres at the 2009 Vinexpo in Bordeaux when it chose not to locate its booth within that region’s showcase, instead exhibiting next to the Argentineans in a show of malbec-ian varietal unity.
The other two areas that are fairly well known are the Irouléguy AOP in the Pyrenees and Marcillac AOP, hidden in the far eastern part of the Southwest. The bulk of the Basque country AOP wines are tannic reds made from the two cabernets and tannat, while Marcillac, another red region, depends primarily on fer.
To complete the islands analogy, the Caribbean isles produce rums and are great places to visit. The islands of the Southwest produce distinctive wines, many of which are available in the U.S. and Canada. And the Southwest is also a great place to visit, whether you choose one place to land or – as I did – do a little wine island hopping.