Recently I have led some tastings of wines from France’s south west,the south west of France, or le Sud-Ouest.
I have written about this region of France before, but a another mention will not go amiss as it is a very misunderstood place.
For starters, many people get confused by the term and imagine it includes the Languedoc – it doesn’t. The south west is a wide area mainly to the south of Bordeaux and never straying further east than the delightful town of Millau in the Aveyron department of the Midi-Pyrénées region near the Auvergne. The most northerly wine areas are way over in the north east around the town of Rodez, also in the Aveyron department. Here the rarely encountered wine regions of Entraygues – Le Fel and Estaing with just 20 hectares of vineyards each are attempting to bring themselves back to life after decades of decline. The nearby region of Marcillac is already doing well with some 200 hectares that produce delightful red and rosé wines that are well worth a try. The landscape here is quite beautiful with steep south facing slopes:
2012 Domaine du Cros Lo Sang del Païs
This is a delightful, if earthy and rustic wine made from 100 % Fer Servadou, or Manses to the locals and here known as the blood of the country or Lo Sang del Païs.
It is a dry, lean red, quite light bodied, but with a freshness of raspberry and cherry fruit in a rustic Pinot Noir kind of way that makes it an excellent wine with lighter foods.
This will not be for everyone, but it is a fascinating glimpse of classic French wine that many people no longer see, perfect with steak frîtes – 87/100 points.
The next thing to realise about the south west is that grape growing is so spread out it barely counts as a single wine region. As so few of the wine producing areas touch each other or have much in common it is more a region of convenience, or a wine region in name only. Grape growing and wine production in these places has struggled since a nineteenth century heyday, so many of them produce tiny amounts of wine with viticulture dwarfed by other forms of agriculture. In many ways it is better to regard each wine producing area as a region in its own right. The climate varies across the whole place too with most of it enjoying a relatively dry maritime continental climate although a little Mediterranean influence does creep in further east. This shows itself in the choices of grape variety, with Bordeaux grapes holding sway in the west and a gradual progression through to Syrah in the east, it seemingly never gets warm or dry enough for Grenache here.
This delightfully sleepy part of France, near Albi, has much to offer in the way of wine. The slightly fizzy Gaillac Perlé was quite popular in the 1960s and I think deserves to be rediscovered as all the examples I have tried are lovely white wines. My favourite so far is:
2012 Château Clement Termes
Gaillac Blanc Perlé, A.C. Gaillac
A blend of the local Loin de l’Oeil / Len de l’el and Muscadelle aged on the lees over winter. At only 12% this is delightfully light and fresh with high but not tart acidity, scented and herbal with green tinged fruit and a nettle-like, stony character. If you enjoy Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet or Picpoul, then I cannot imagine you not falling for this wines delicate, linear charms, certainly I think it is an excellent classic French dry white. That tiny hint of spritz keeps it fresh and emphasises the savoury side too, which makes it a lovely aperitif or perfect with classy fish and chips – the back label proclaims it to be ‘indispensable with fruits de mers’ and I would love to try it with goats cheese some time too – 87/100 points.
2009 Domaine Rotier Renaissance Rouge
This is a sumptuous, supple blend of 40% Duras – a local grape grown nowhere else, with 25% Braucol – the local name for Fer Servadou – & 35% Syrah aged 12 months in barrel. I loved the inky intensity, the delicate smoke notes and the touch of savoury, fresh compost on the nose. The palate was supple and dense with rich black fruit and compact, chewy tannins that were very smooth and pleasurable. A terrific wine that pleased everyone who tried it and would be superb with all manner of meat dishes – 90/100 points.
I can no longer find a stockist for this wine, but the same producer’s very similar Les Gravels Rouge is available in the UK from The Wine Society at £9.50 per bottle.
Previously known as Côtes de Saint Mont, this exciting region is an enclave carved out of the Côtes de Gascogne and using many of the same grapes as Madiran and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh. All the wines I have ever tasted from here are made by the excellent Plaimont Producteurs cooperative. If there are other producers then I have yet to find them, but these guys do a superb job.
I have a particular liking for the tasty white wines of the area and Plaimont have gone to great lengths to bring the traditional grape varieties and blends of Arrufiac, Petit Courbu, Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng back to life in recent years:
2011 Saint Mont Les Vignes Retrouvées
Made from a blend of 60% Gros Manseng, 20 % Petit Courbu and 20% Arrufiac, this is an exciting wine, dry, medium-bodied and tangy with a rich citrus acidity and a richer stone fruit and pithy citric palate with texture and a juicy succulence – 88/100 points.
2011 Saint Mont Le Passé Authentique
Another deliciously tangy blend of Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu and Arrufiac. Gros Manseng always reminds me of tangly pithy grapefruit, so if you enjoy Sauvignon Blanc this could be a good style for you. It is aromatic, dry, citric and vibrant with a rich texture, lots of freshness, all in all a lovely wine – 88/100 points.
Available in the UK from Waitrose at £9.99 per bottle – £7.49 until 20/04/14.
The red wines of Saint Mont are made from blends of Tannat, Pinenc – yet another local name for Fer Servadou, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and are rather good too, especially this one:
2010 Saint Mont L’Empreinte de Saint Mont
Plaimont Terroirs & Châteaux
This blend of Tannat and Pinenc – yet another local name for Fer Servadou – is concentrated, weighty, but soft, supple and richly fruity. In fact the key word is soft, it is also very smooth with no obvious tannin feel and very drinkable, as there is also a freshness running through it that stops it being jammy – 87/100 points.
2008 vintage available in the UK at £14.99 per bottle from Vinopic. The white Saint Mont L’Empreinte de Saint Mont is delicately oaky and quite superb too and is stocked by The Wine Society & Adnams Celler & Kitchen.
Irouléguy is a beautiful mountainous region in the basque lands with a wine making history that goes back to Roman times and steeply sloped vineyards at heights that range between 100-400m above sea-level. They cling to the French side of the Pyrenees at a place where they wiggle a bit, so run north to south rather than the expected west to east. This means the vineyards face south and south east giving them much more sun than seems logical – if like me you foolishly assumed that the Pyrenees went in a straight line from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean that is. For those cheese fiends amongst you, Ossau-Iraty comes from around here too.
In truth although the region has a long history, like many of the other bits of the south west it almost stopped producing wine after phylloxera and the industry had to be rebuilt to make the good quality modern wines that we now experience. The grapes are classic from this part of the world, but often given their Basque names: Bordelesa Beltza / Tannat, Axeria / Cabernet Franc, Axeria Handia / Cabernet Sauvignon, while the whites are somewhat more exotic: Izkiriota / Gros Manseng, Izkiriota Ttipia / Petit Manseng and Xuri Zerratia / Petit Courbu.
The local coperative, La Cave Irouléguy, is the producer that I have encountered the most, but my favourite wines so far come from Domaine Brana.
Jean and Martine Brana farm 22 hectares of steep slopes in a non interventionist, partly biodynamic way – but not totally biodynamic since 2003 – and the care they take really shows in the finished product. They do not seek to make blockbuster wines, but more elegant wines with medium weight and plenty of elegance.
2011 Irouléguy Domaine Brana Blanc
This is a classy, elegant and refined blend of 50% Gros Manseng, 30% Petit Courbu and 20% Petit Manseng. It has lovely complexity and richness, tangy mouth-watering acidity and a creamy texture together with a dash of savoury minerality. All in all a very fine wine indeed – 91/100 points.
Sadly I can no longer find a stockist for this wine, but The Wine Society used to stock it, so keep an eye out if they get some more.
2009 Irouléguy Domaine Brana Rouge
An elegant blend of 60% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Tannat. A developed and beautifully integrated wine showing dried fruit, caramel and mocha oak and hints of leather. The palate has medium weight with intense flavour concentration with lovely intensity of fruit and balancing freshness. There is still a touch of fine grain tannins too giving lovely balance and an elegant restrained feel – 91/100 points.
Available in the UK from The Wine Society at £19.00 per bottle.
This part of France has a great tradition of producing desert wines of course Sauternes and Barsac are not far away, while Monbazillac and Saussignac produce very similar wines from the same grape varieties in nearby Bergerac.
The speciality regions for sweet wines in the Sud-Ouest proper though are Jurançon, which uses the wonderful Petit-Manseng to great effect, and the nearby region of Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh. This PDO / AOC covers the same territory as Madiran, but is only for white wines made from Arrufiac, Courbu, Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu and Petit Manseng. Wines labelled Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec are dry. The areas odd name apparently means ‘vines supported on stakes in the old country’ in the local dialect, which is how the vines are grown, which was historically quite rare in France, but is of course very common today.
2011 Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Saint-Albert
A late harvest wine made from a blend Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu left to ripen on the vine until 15 November – Saint Albert’s day. It really is delicious as it seems very fresh and lively with the sweetness keeping in the background, there are some orange marmalade notes, apricot and something more exotic about it too and the acidity keeps the luscious sweetness from dominating your palate. A lovely, beautifully balanced dessert wine, not massively complex, but very attractive. Everybody loved this precisely because it has so much freshness and is not as intense as some other dessert wines – 90/100 points.
Available in the UK at £13.95 per 50 cl bottle from Corney & Barrow.
All the tasters have been very impressed by the wines that I have shown them from south west France, so if you want to try something a little more unusual and interesting, it might be an excellent place to try for some delicious wines. Think of it as less of a wine region and more of a voyage of discovery.