Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Wines of Southwest France - Part One

source: The Wine/Enology - Grape Chemistry Group (part of the Department of Food Science and Technology at Virginia Tech)

I never sought to be "that guy in Montreal who likes those wines from the South West of France". But my writing about Madiran and other South West wines seems to generated some interest. With a growing love for the treasures on offer here, I hope this mini-series will generate some interest in a relatively unknown French wine region, and perhaps you will pass on some great wine suggestions.

In some ways, it is not surprising that the region is overlooked. An agglomeration of unique appellations spread over a wide area of the south of France (excluding Bordeaux), there is no unifying river geography or grape like the Cab/Merlot of Bordeaux or the Pinot Noir/Chardonnay of Burgundy. Wines of the South West use a dizzying array of grapes, and in many cases the grapes are virtually unheard of outside this region. How often do you hear someone step up to the bar and ask for a Tannat, Mauzac, Negrette, Gros Manseng, or Courbu? Exactly.

On top of this unavoidable confusion for consumers, the wines can be powerful and rustic, somewhat distant from today's New World fruit bombs. Throw in the crappiest web site in France to represent this region, and you can see the problems.

My first experience with this region was probably an inexpensive Cahors, but my first "Holy Crap!" moment was a 1998 Chateau Montus Cuvee Prestige, which I tasted blind. At that time I had never heard of Madiran before, but to taste it blind in the presence of some of the world's greatest and be floored - that is probably one of my most memorable wine experiences.

In this series I hope to give you a taste for a region that often gets short shrift in the wine books (I even had trouble researching this!). Remember - confusion breeds opportunity!

Today I will begin with a quick review of the diverse set of appellations, with a focus on the major ones you are likely to see in the export market. Future posts will describe the grapes, the wines, provide some recommended producers and buying tips, links ot my peers who like these wines, and perhaps even a few tasting notes. Cheers!

South West France Wine Appellations

Those wines most likely to find their way out of France, and likely the best quality wines, come from Bergerac, Cahors, Fronton, Gaillac, Jurançon, and Madiran.

Bergerac / Côtes de Bergerac / Buzet / Monbazillac - I lumped these together as they are most Bordeaux-like. In fact, Bergerac and Buzet are both up river of Bordeaux, and before the AOC system wines from these areas were able to use Bordeaux on their labels. Reds are Cab/Merlot and dry whites are Sauvignon blanc and Semillon, while the sweet whites are mainly Semillon (i.e. Monbazillac and Cotes de Bergerac Moelleux).

Cahors - Further up river from Bordeaux, Cahors is (after Bergerac) the second largest winemaking region in South West France. While Malbec is celebrated as Argentina's grape, I consider Cahors its home. Originally an important grape in Bordeaux, plantings are in decline, while Malbec remains dominant in Cahors wines. Sometimes referred to as Auxerrois or Cot, appellation rules require at least 70% Auxerrois, with Tannat and Merlot typically the balance. Of note, Argentina has some 50,000 acres of Malbec planted - five times the total vineyard area of Cahors!

Fronton - A smallish region, and perhaps more difficult to find, this region is notable for reds dominated by the grape Negrette, which must be 50-70% of the blend. This is a grape unique to this appellation, and something Dok Weingolb is fond of (I have never tried these, yet...). A small amount of whites are produced here as well.

Gaillac - While not very famous today, this region is amongst the oldest winemaking regions in France, potentially pre-dating the arrival of the Romans. Situated southeast of Cahors, this region uses a unique set of traditional grapes. For the reds, Duras, Braucol (Fer Sauvadou), and Syrah are the principal grape varieties. For the whites, the Mauzac and Le Loin de l’oeil are the key grapes.

Jurançon / Jurançon sec - Just across the border from Spain, Jurançon was one of France's first appellations. The region has been famous for centuries for its ageworthy sweet and dry (sec) white wines, made from the local varietals petit manseng, gros manseng and petit courbu. Gros manseng is the main varietal and used for making the dry wines, while petit manseng is key for the sweet wines.

Madiran / Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh - The red wines of Madiran are made from the grape Tannat, with some Cab Franc, Cab Sauv and Fer rounding out the blend. Powerful and tannic, these are true 'vins de garde'. The whites, using the Pacherenc AOC, are also very intriguing.

Other, difficult to find, Southwest Appellations / VDQS:

Béarn (Madiran-like reds & whites), Côtes de Duras (similar to Bergerac), Côtes de Saint-Mont (Madiran), Côtes du Marmandais (similar to Bergerac), Haut-Motravel (stickies), Irouléguy (Madiran-like), Marcillac, Montravel (similar to Bergerac whites), Pécharmant (similar to Bergerac) and Saussignac (stickies). Also Côtes du Brulhois VDQS (Bordeaux and Tannat style), Tursan VDQS (Tannat), Vins d'Entraygues et du Fel VDQS, Vins d'Estaing VDQS.

Vin de Pays

We won't explore the dozen-odd Vin de Pays regions in the South West in great detail, but perhaps a special look at the whites of the Côtes de Gascogne is in order. Brooklynguy recently raved about one of these, and Robert Parker has referred to these as France's greatest white wine value - "These are wines to buy by the case...". 'Nuff said.

Stay tuned for more...


Marcus said...

This is some nice guidance. I'm impressed! And I'm still learning myself too... so job well done!

Anonymous said...

Hey Joe - This is very exciting. Looking forward to learning about this as you write. Good show, ol chap!

I have tasted a Marcillac, a few wines from Cahors (and I agree - they outclass Argentina's Malbec wines, to my tastes), and a VDP. Never tried a Madiran or a Jurancon, so I will check back for guidance. And thanks for the shoutout.

Joe said...

Hi Marcus. The job is not done until the tasting is complete. I might need some help!
Hi BKG, never had a Marcillac, but I have had a few of the others (Madiran, Bergerac, Gaillac, Cahors, Jurancon, and VdP). More to come!

Sonadora said...

Looking forward to seeing the rest of the series. My knowledge of French wine is sorely lacking!

Joe said...

well, this is certainly an off the beaten path part of France, but I will explain some easy ways to win here (as soon as I have time...)

2GrandCru said...

There's also Iroulgey.

Joe said...

Hey 2GCru, I buried the Irouléguy at the bottom of the post in the "hard to find" section. Quebec, a province of 7M people, zero bottles of Irouleguy. I will pick one up on my travels someday, as I would love to compare them to Madiran - one of my favourites. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Southwest France is really amazing French wine region!

Joe said...

Thanks, Cecile. Love SW France wine, and I like your blog as well. Cheers!