Bergerac – enjoying the road less travelled

Some wines cling to their fame and clearly belong to the Premier League of wine regions. They remain sought after and a byword for style. Bordeaux and Burgundy would both fall into that category.

However France is stuffed full of delights from other places that most of us would enjoy very much if we could just stop focussing on the great wine regions for a bit. Bergerac’s fame mainly rests with its popularity as a tourist destination, many British people visit the area, have houses there or drive through on their way to the south and a great many of them must enjoy the local wines while they are there, but seemingly few of them remember the wines with anything other than a passing affection.

Which is a great shame as there are very good wines to be had from this part of the world. I suppose one problem might be that this is overwhelmingly inexpensive wine country. When you stay there you can get bottles of wine for around €1 or €2, which while unexciting are perfectly serviceable – I know many people who go there buy wine from the local co-ops in bulk bag-in-box containers. However enjoyable or adequate as these might be, they might not get lodged in your memory as a wines worth seeking out. Whereas day trips to nearby St Emilion might well reinforce your mental picture of Bordeaux as a fine and expensive wine region, so the bottles to be remembered and taken home might well be from Bordeaux even though your holiday was in Bergerac or the wider Dordogne region.

Bergerac is in the Dordogne, which is part of Aquitane and is really part of the south west or Sud-Ouest, but from a political point of view the wines of Bergerac are no longer considered wine of the Sud-Ouest, but a region alone.

Map of Southwest France including the A.C.s of Bergerac – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Southwest France including the A.C.s of Bergerac – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

This whole area is achingly beautiful and full of gorgeously scenic little towns and villages full of lovely local restaurants serving the most marvellous food – the region is famous for the black Périgord truffles and foie gras. Bergerac is an agricultural area whose population has been in decline since 1850, so the landscape feels empty and rural and the towns small and quiet – a world away from the bustle of Bordeaux.

Bergerac neighbours the Bordeaux region with the eastern boundary of Bordeaux’s  Libournais district – St Emilion, Pomerol, Côtes de Castillon etc. –  giving way to the Côte de Bergerac vineyards. As you might expect the climate is similar to Bordeaux, as are the clay and gravel soils and they even use the same grape varieties to produce wines that are not dissimilar to a wide spread of Bordeaux styles.

The reds are overwhelmingly made from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, although Malbec and Cabernet Franc are used, while Fer/ Fer Servadou and the local Mérille also get a look in at the lower end of the price spectrum. The white wines are also made from the Bordeaux classics with the better examples being Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon blends, although again Muscadelle, Ondenc, Chenin Blanc and Ugni Blanc are also permitted and find their way into much of the lower priced wines.

Where Bergerac differs from Bordeaux is that the production is much more mixed with red, rosé, dry white, slightly sweet and full on dessert wines produced across the region, however there are sub-divisions to emphasise the local specialities and this has resulted in many different appellations.

These Appellations of Bergerac
Bergerac – Bergerac Sec, Bergerac Rosé, Bergerac Rouge – this is the basic catch all appellation that covers the whole region.
Côtes de Bergerac – Côtes de Bergerac Rouge, there are no slopes here, so this A.C. covers the same area as Bergerac, but the wines have a degree more alcohol, which makes this the appellation used for the finer reds of Bergerac. Côtes de Bereac Blanc can be either Sec, Demi-Sec or Moelleux / semi-sweet.
Monbazillac – a great dessert wine appellation for wines made from botrytis affected Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle grapes. These wines are perfect with the local foie-gras, blue cheese or fruit based puddings.
Montravel – this westernmost outpost of Bergerac surrounds the commune of Lamothe-Montravel and makes both reds and dry whites of high quality, sadly not often seen in the UK. The reds must include at least 50% Merlot and are very similar to the nearby Côtes de Castilon wines.
Côtes de Montravel – white wines in a rich semi-sweet style, at between 8 and 54 grams per litre of residual sugar they are not really dessert wines and would normally be labelled as Moelleux.
Haut- Montravel – just like Côtes de Montravel
Pécharmant – a red only appellation widely considered to be the finest in Bergerac.
Rosette – another Moelleux style wine
Saussignac – another dessert wine appellation, from  Sémillon, Sauvignon, Muscadelle, Ondec and Chenin Blanc this time. The wines must have at least 18 grams of residual sugar, the best examples are much sweeter and very like the best Monbazillacs.

I have recently been fortunate enough to taste a few Bergerac wines that are available in the UK.

The Whites & Rosé

1237782012 Grande Reserve Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon
A.C. Bergerac
A very nice dry white wine,  with a slightly fat style from the Sémillon, but underscored by crispish acidity. The aromas are bright with a touch of herbs and a honeysuckle floral quality. Green fruit and a little zing make this very attractive, if undemanding. The nose is gently aromatic with herbs, grassy and goosebery with a soft acidity. Very enjoyable and attractive stuff – 86/100 points.

£8.99 a bottle from Sainsburys – sometimes 2 for £12.

chateau-des-eyssards-bergerac-blanc-sauvignon-blanc-semillon-2012-12012 Château des Eyssards Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon
A.C. Bergerac
I have known this estate for many years and it consistently makes excellent quality wines with more finesse than you would expect. This is aged on the lees which adds a touch of richness that balances all that freshness and zing and that subtle touch of riper, almost tropical fruit. An outstanding example – 89/100 points.

Around £9.50 a bottle from The Wine Reserve & The Oxford Wine Company.

LN_066114_BP_a_42012  Les Parcelles Foncaussade Rosé
A.C. Bergerac

This 50/50 Cabernet and Merlot blend has an enticingly bright medium deep strawberry colour with an elegantly restrained nose of strawberry and rose hip.
Soft, rounded mouthfeel with ripe fruit and soft acidity keeping it fresh enough.
Attractive and pleasant without being great or bracing, but great fun and very enjoyable.
Nice straightforward wine, perfect with anything light and simple, I had it with a lovely piece of Catfish and a salad – 86/100 points.

£7.99 a bottle from Waitrose.

The Reds

640492010 Mon Plaisir Edition Limitée
Château Montplaisir, Bergerac
Pure Merlot blended from 2 different sites on the estate and aged for 12 months in oak at Laithwaite’s beautiful Le Chai au Quai.
An impressively concentrated wine with a deep garnet tinged ruby colour.
The nose gives rich plums, spice, espresso and cocoa notes.
The palate is fleshy with a lovely balancing freshness. Red fruit and leafy herbaceousness melds into the savoury spicy, earthy and coffee characters of oak and age. The tannins are fine, ripe and smoky. The finish is long. A very good, savoury, subtle Merlot with a real touch of finessse especially from the lovely freshness that runs all the way through the wine. A full flavoured, medium-bodied wine with a long finish, this is very good, very drinkable and great value too – 89/100 points.

£9.99 a bottle from Laithewaites.

1150912011 Château des Eyssards Rouge
A.C. Bergerac
This estate never fails me and this is a lovely, serious yet supple red wine. The medium bodied and full flavoured red is a blend is 50/50 Cabernet and Merlot, yet good use of oak keeps the tannins smooth. The touch of spicy oak just adds another dimension and is well integrated with the rich dark plum fruit. Excellent with all types of meals, yet fine enough to grace the dinner party table too – 88/100 points.

Around £8 a bottle from Waitrose.

And finally something sweet

0849362010 Château les Sablines
A.C. Monbazillac
In another life I used to sell this wine and it always pleased me as it offers superb quality and great value for money. Although very similar, I believe that Monbazillac wines are usually richer and more intense than Sauternes at a similar sort of price, so deliver lots more character. The humid conditions here seem to be perfect for botrytis or noble rot to develop which results in richly honeyed, luscious wines like this. The nose and palate are dominated by a rich orange marmalade character and barley sugar flavour while a seam of fresh acidity and a slightly bitter finish stops it from being cloying. Just delicious with all manner of things, roquefort cheese, foie-gras and especially irresistible with Panettone bread & butter pudding – 89/100 points.

£9.99 a bottle from Waitrose.

Personally I think that consumers are missing a trick by not drinking more Bergerac wines and by not demanding more either. The wines from this region are classic French wines and seem to be made to a high general standard, an offer some very good  drinking and deliver great value for money too – what’s not to like?

Southwest France – like a box of chocolates

Variety is the spice of life. We have all heard that old saying and most of us know that there is some truth in it.

Certainly I like variety in wine. I am never more excited by a wine than when I am tasting it for the first time, or experiencing a grape variety or region that is new to me.

I suppose that is why I find Spanish, Greek and Italian wines so interesting, there is such great variety in all those places. Of course France does offer variety – but the whole focus on established classic wine styles means that there are normally fewer big surprises.

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Vineyards at Château Clément Termes – photo courtesy of Château Clément Termes.

One ‘classic’ region of France though seems to be capable of delivering enough surprises for everyone. That region is the Southwest or Sud-Ouest and with the wines from here you never know what you’re going to get.

Actually that isn’t entirely true, but there is enormous variety here. That is because it isn’t really one region at all, but a mosaic made up of lots of small wine regions or sub-zones, many very traditional and some quite famous, but all believing they have more clout and potential together than they do divided.

As you can see from my map the region covers great swathes of France:

QS South West France watermark

Map of Southwest France – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Dordogne and Bergerac – wines here are very Bordeaux-like and include Bergerac, Côtes de Duras and Monbazillac.

The Garonne – wines here are more varied in style and include Buzet, Côtes du Marmandais, Cahors and Gaillac.

Gascony – for me this is very much the heart of the Southwest and wines include Madiran, Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh and Saint-Mont, as well as the excellent Côte de Gascogne IGP / Vin de Pays wines from the Armagnac region.

The Basque Country and Béarn – nestling in the Pyrenees  these sub-zones produce Jurançon, Béarn and Irouléguy.

I find myself very drawn to the wines from this part of the world, because of the variety, that feel of the unexpected and the fact that they are honest country wines made by farmers in remote sounding backwaters. These are wines that with some exceptions are slightly out of the mainstream, beloved by the locals and the people who make them, but a difficult thing to sell on more international markets. All of which makes them fascinating and worth trying when you get the chance – oh and lest I forget, on this showing they taste really good too!

This part of the world is also home to some interesting Vins de Pays or IGP – Indication Géographique Protégée –  as we now call them. As well as Côte de Gascogne, the other IGPs are; Côtes du Tarn, Côtes du Lot, AriègeLandes, Condomois and Gers, while the whole region is covered by IGP du Comté Tolosan.

Recently I was able to try a really interesting range of wines from this part of the world and I thought they showed extremely well and convinced me that they were deserving of a wider audience and more of a following than they seem to enjoy at the moment – what’s more they offer really good value for money.

White Wines
I found these an exciting bunch of wines, really well made and giving lots of pleasure. The first 2 came from the Côte de Gascogne and were superb examples from star producers, both of whom I have known for a long time – and indeed used to sell once upon a time.

domainedegrachiesblanc2012 Domaine de Grachies Côte de Gascogne Sec
Vignobles Fontan
Aline et Jean-Claude Fontan own 2 estates Domaine de Maubet and Domaine de Grachies and both make lovely wines, Floc de Gascogne and Armagnac. For many years I used to sell their delightful Domaine de Maubet (sometimes Domaine de Grachies) Gros Manseng Cuvée Coup de Coeur, which was a little sweet and simply stunning with melon and ham.
This is a simple and utterly delicious zesty dry aromatic white made from a blend of 45 % Colombard, 30 % Ugni blanc, 15 % Gros Manseng, 10 % Sauvignon Blanc. It is light-bodied, zesty and very fruity in a richly citrus way and will go with almost anything from being nice on its own to fish and chips and spicy foods – every fridge needs some of this in the summer! Not a complex wine, but gives great pleasure – 86/100 points.

Available in the UK at £6.75 per bottle from Nethergate Wines.
Domaine de Grachies Gros Manseng Cuvée Coup de Coeur is also available from Nethergate Wines.
The estate also has a gîte.

cuvee-bois2011 Domaine du Tariquet Les 4 Réserve Côte de Gascogne Sec
Château du Tariquet,Yves Grassa
Altogether more ambitious, this took me a little while to get the hang of, but once I did I loved it – although I think Tariquet’s Classic dry white and their stunningly good Côté Tariquet Sauvignon-Chardonnay blend might prove bigger crowd pleasers – this is a blend of 45% Gros Manseng, 35% Chardonnay, 15% Sauvignon, 5% Sémillon all aged for 12 months in oak barrels. The oak does not dominate though, just adds texture and complexity. This is dry, but with big fruit and a touch of weight and softness to the palate – 86/100 points.

Available in the UK at £11.50 per bottle from Next Wine – I had no idea Next did wine!
Tariquet wines are available in the US through Robert Kacher Selections.

Different, but equally good, Fontan wines and Tariquet wines are also available in the UK from The Oxford Wine Company.

Gaillac
I have heard about Gaillac all my working life – the very lightly sparkling Gaillac Perlé was widely listed in the 1970s and ’80s – but have never in the past been especially excited about them. I cannot imagine why, I thought the 2 I tasted the other day were lovely wines and entirely different from the Gascogne contingent, these were dry and stony with taut green fruit. What’s more they are absolute bargains:

chateau-clement-termes-rouge2012 Château Clement Termes
Gaillac Blanc Perlé
A blend of Muscadelle with Loin de l’Oeil / Len de l’el 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 I cannot imagine you not falling for this wines’s delicate, linear charms, certainly I intend to drink much more of this stuff in the future. That tiny hint of spritz keeps it fresh and emphasises the savoury side too, which makes it a lovely aperitif or serve with anything light – the back label proclaims it to be ‘indispensable with fruits de mers’ and I would love to try it with goats cheese some time – 86/100 points.

Available in the UK at £7.50 per bottle from Underwood Wine Warehouse & The Smiling Grape Company.

Vineyards at Château Clément Termes - photo courtesy of Château Clément Termes.

Vineyards at Château Clément Termes – photo courtesy of Château Clément Termes.

St Michel2012 Saint Michel
Gaillac Blanc Perlé
Les Vignerons de Rabastens
A blend of Loin de l’Oeil / Len de l’elMuscadelle and Mauzac this time and although the 2 wines are not massively different this does have a little more weight, feeling fuller in the mouth – but it is still light and fresh with that stony, flinty minerality and high acidity without being tart. A lovely versatile dry white wine that again only has 12% alcohol – 86/100 points.

Available in the UK at £7.99 per bottle from Majestic Wine Warehouses.

Reading about the grapes used in Gaillac I can see why the world might have ignored them in the past. Some of them, it appears, are prone to oxidation and so before modern wine making techniques came they would not have made wines anything like the modern examples. The same is true for a lot of the white wines of Spain, Portugal and Italy – they had to wait for modern know-how and equipment for their local grapes to produce world-class white wines.

Saint Mont
Originally known as Côte de Saint Mont when it was created as a V.D.Q.S. – a sort of junior A.C. or aspirant appellation –   in 1981, but changed its name to just Saint Mont when it was promoted to full A.C. status in 2007. The area is home to some of the oldest working vines in France – up to 150 years old – some of which are grape varieties that are unknown anywhere else in the world.

retrouv2011 Saint Mont Les Vignes Retrouvées
Plaimont Producteurs
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.

Available in the UK at £10.00 per bottle from Les Caves de Pyrène & The Smiling Grape Company.

Red Wines
So, the whites were terrific, but the reds were good too and again there was a lot of variety with very different textures and structures to the different wines.

croix petite main2010 Domaine d’Escausses La Croix Petite
Gaillac
La Croix Petite – named after a small stone cross in the vineyard – is a blend of 45% Fer Servadou, 45% Syrah, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1/3 of which is aged in new Allier oak barrels. I don’t drink much Fer, but when I do I always like it and wonder why it isn’t more popular and widely grown. It always has supple fruit and beautifully soft and drinkable tannins that are very agreeable even in everyday wines.The fruit here is beautifully ripe, almost creamy in fact with blackberry, vanilla and sweet spices and black pepper, the tannins give a gentle chalky feel and there is a touch of iron too. A savoury wine that demands food, but is really delicious – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK from Les Caves de Pyrène

empreinte_de_saint_mont_rouge_2008_hd_300dpi2010 Saint Mont L’Empreinte de Saint Mont
Saint Mont
Plaimont Terroirs & Châteaux
The Plaimont cooperative are rightly well known for making very good quality wines and this is no exception. This Tannat and Pinenc – the local name for Fer Servadou is concentrated, weight, 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.

FSW307_300_dpi_High_Res2010 Domaine de Berthoumieu Cuvée Charles de Batz
Madiran
Didier Barré makes some of the finest of all Madiran at Domaine de Berthoumieu, which his family have owned since 1850. Charles de Batz is his top cuvée, a blend of 90% Tannat and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon made from very old vines hand harvested and aged for 12 months in new oak barrels. Charles de Batz by the way was the inspiration for my favourite hero in literature, D’Artagnan. This is a great wine, dark concentrated and brooding with aromatic black fruit, smoke and spice on the nose. The palate is rich and dry with deep black fruit, round spice, sweet oak spice, espresso, mocha, surprisingly smooth tannins and a touch of bitter chocolate. I liked the firmness that it shows now, but it will soften and become more complex for quite a few years yet. A lovely classic food wine that will appeal to lovers of claret and Syrah – 91/100 points.

2009 vintage available in the UK at £17.99 per bottle from The Smiling Grape Company other UK stockist information available from Boutinot.

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Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh & Madiran vineyards – photo courtesy of winesofsouthwestfrance.com.

Sweet Wine
This part of France is home to many excellent dessert 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 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.

1790-vin-pacherenc-du-vic-billa-saint-albert-75cl2011 Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Saint-Albert
Plaimont Producteurs
A late harvest wine made from a blend Gros MansengPetit 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 – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK at £13.99 per 50 cl bottle from Corney & Barrow.

I know this selection is small, but I have tried many other wines from this varied region, and my conclusion would be that these are wines well worth trying. There are lovely wines here, interesting styles, interesting grape varieties and a whole range of wines that feel classic, but with a twist.

If you want to drink classic European wines – dry, elegant and restrained, then do try more of the wines of Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece, but for sheer variety, difference and value for money you can add  Southwest France to that list too.