The region is familiar to many holidaymakers, but its wines are often all but forgotten, thanks a host of confusing names and sub-zones, not to mention its proximity to Bordeaux. But persevere, says Stephen Brook, and you’ll find some of the best value wine in France.
Bergerac at a glance:
Bergerac AC: Area under vine: 12,800ha, of which 59% is red
Grapes: Merlot (60%), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec
Maximum yield 55hl/ha (50hl/ha for Côtes de Bergerac)
Montravel AC (from 2001 )Area under vine: 1,747ha
Maximum yield: 50hl/ha
Pécharmant AC Area under vine: 460ha Maximum yields: 45hl/ha
Laurent de Bosredon, owner of Château Bélingard in Bergerac, tells the story, possibly apocryphal though quite plausible, of the American tourist in Bordeaux who asked the Bordeaux wine tourism offices if they could recommend any estateshe could visit in the Dordogne. ‘Monsieur,’ came the reply, ‘there are no vineyards in the Dordogne.
’Brits know better, as they have become an occupation force in Bergerac, and have a detailed knowledge of the region, its restaurants and its wines. But to many wine lovers, Bergerac rings the least sonorous of bells. Yes, it produces wines of many types, but it’s hard to name more than a few of them.The nomenclature can be confusing. The regionis known as the Périgord, but is often referred to as the Dordogne after its main river. Bergerac and its vineyards occupy the southwestern corner of the Périgord. As a wine appellation, Bergerac is an umbrella name for a host of wines, often rather basic, that can be white, red, off-dry or sweet. Within the Bergerac zone are more specific sub-zones, such as Montravel (red, dry, and sweet), Monbazillac (sweet wines from vineyards that also produce Bergerac), Pécharmant (red only), Saussignac (sweet) and others.
It’s all very confusing, and the 13 different appellations no doubt account for the bafflement with which many wine enthusiasts regard the region. But there’s a more deep-seated reason for the neglect of Bergerac’s wines. It borders Bordeaux–literally, in the case of Montravel – and its grape varieties are essentially the same. Yet it can’t avoid being overshadowed by its grander and more illustrious neighbour to the west. ‘Bordeaux and the Dordogne have always been at war,’ says Luc deConti, one of Bergerac’s most celebrated producers.So there is a political move for Bergerac to ally itself with what is broadly known as the southwest, a sprawl of regions with little in common such as Buzet, Madiran and Irouléguy in the Basque country. I’m no marketeer, but to me this make seven less sense, although Conti, among others, finds it useful to team up with selected southwest producers for promotional purposes, as they are not in competition with each other.
The murkiness of these issues – and don’t even ask about the difference between the Bergerac AC and Côtes de Bergerac AC – is regrettable, as the wines can be very good, and the prices tend to be more than reasonable. It’s rusticity that can damage the reputation of red Bergerac. Lying inland from Bordeaux, its red grapes tend to ripen about 10 days later. So often the grapes are picked at less than optimal ripeness and the wines can be astringent. Tannin management is the key here, and this also explains why the earlier-ripening Merlot is more widely planted than the Cabernet grapes
Other factors conspire against consistently high quality. Half the grapes are sold to cooperatives, which are not always focused on quality. Planting density is still fairly low, though efforts are being made to enforce higher densities that would result in more concentrated wines. And while the growing number of prestige cuvées demonstrates that Bergerac is capable of producing red wines of richness, power, and complexity, most markets still see the region as a source of cheap and cheerful wines. François-Xavier de St-Exupéry, co-owner of Château Tiregand, remarks that while there are many producers who still make rustic wines, there is a strong domestic market for that style and thus little incentive to produce wines of more elegance.
David Fourtout of Clos des Verdots is one producer who is not afraid to be ambitious. As well as his nicely crafted basic ranges, he releases the rather pretentiously named Le Vin Selon David Fourtout (the wine according to…). I find these top cuvées somewhat garagiste; that is, over-rich, extracted and alcoholic. They strive to impress, and I suspect Bergerac succeeds better within a more modest frame. Franck Pascal of Château Jonc-Blanc also relishes special cuvées, but unfortunately not all of them work out well, though his best red wine, Sens de Fruit, is balanced and long.
Pursuing a middle path, Yann Vergniaud at Le Clos du Breil makes a red wine called Expression that is certainly oaky, but also has lift and stylishness. Wines such as Hugh Ryman’s Mirabelle from Château de la Jaubertie are in a similar style. In contrast, Château Le Tap’s oddly named Cuvée Julie Jolie abjures finesse in favour of giving Merlot dramatic texture and force.
If many producers rely on new oak to give their wines lushness, spice and complexity, Luc de Conti of Château Tour des Gendres is taking a different tack, replacing his barrels with large casks from Austria, a move followed by another fine property, L’Ancienne Cure. Conti has never been a fan of tannin extraction, and cites Jean-Claude Berrouet of Bordeaux’s Moueix group as his mentor.
Yann Jestin, a broker from Bordeaux, has restored the Château Vari property he acquired 20 years ago and converted to organic farming. His goal is to make uncomplicated but balanced wine at a modest price. His Merlot-dominated red, aged both in barriques and with staves, over-delivers interms of value. It’s a perfectly convincing expression of Bergerac, that succeeds alongside the more structured cuvées of its more ambitious growers.
Montravel, which abuts Castillon in Bordeaux, only won the AC for its red wines in 2001, and fairly strict rules about vine density have led to overall production standards being surprisingly high. There are good examples from châteaux Masbureland Le Raz, in the form of generous, vibrant reds of great intensity. Within the Saussignac AC, still a source of first-rate, inexpensive sweet wines, some growers also release fine red wines: châteaux Les Miaudoux and Le Payral are worth looking out for.
But if there’s a first appellation among equals, it’s surely Pécharmant, just east of the town of Bergerac. Here the soils are red clay, flint and gravel, rather than the clay-limestone of Bergerac itself, and the wines tend to be quite structured. Domaine Haut-Pécharmant and Château Tiregand are the best known, but there are other excellent wines from Domaine des Costes, Château Les Marnières, and Les Chemins d’Orient. The latter specialises in a range of micro-cuvées of intensity and richness, though they can be marred by high alcohol.
Quality amid the confusion
Bergerac as a whole certainly has its problems: no clear identity, being perceived (if on the radar at all) as another wannabe Bordeaux or as one of a hodgepodge of southwestern appellations; too many bog-standard wines to appease consumers seeking the cheap and simple, whereas the best winemakers know they can do far better; a lack of locomotive estates that can stand as regional flagships; and astylistic versatility that contributes to the lack of identity. A huge tourism industry mops up enough wine, much of it drably semi-sweet, to keep estates afloat, and this in turn can disguise the real qualityof the region’s top wines. These, it has to be stated, offer some of the best value in France.
Written by Stephen Brook
Bergerac: Six of the best estates
Domaine de l’Ancienne Curep>For 25 years, Christian Roche has been producing a full range of Bergerac wines, and his estate has become a byword for reliability. His velvety yet spicy Pécharmant is outstanding but his superior cuvées of red Bergerac – the Côtes de Bergerac and L’Extase – can match it in quality. Roche has always been keen to evolve: since 2012 the estate has been farmed organically and large casks are gradually ousting smaller barriques.
Château de la Jaubertie
This striking property in Colombier was acquired by British businessman Henry Ryman in the 1970s, and went through troubled times in the 1980s. In 1992 it was bought by his daughter-in-law, and is now run by Henry’s son Hugh, who had a previous career as a flying winemaker. The vineyard area has been reduced (though higherdensity plantings mean the number of vines remains much the same) and the farming is organic. The best reds are the Vieilles Vignes Merlot and the more complex Mirabelle blend, but even the inexpensive Tradition is well crafted and enjoyable.
It’s a long way from Norway to Bergerac, but Katharina Mowinckel seems to have made the transition effortlessly. She established this 6ha organic property in 2002 on a ridge of clay and limestone, and her wines, white, red and sweet, have been consistently good. The red Bergerac is about 80% Merlot and aged for 18 months in barriques and larger casks. It’s a ripe, fleshy style, but is never jammy and shows bright acidity. A rising star.
Château le Payral
Thierry and Isabelle Daulhiac are among the best producers of the sweet wine Saussignac, but the red Bergeracs from their organic estate of 15ha are also exemplary. Their wines are pure Merlot, which generally works better in Bergerac than the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, and a particular interesting cuvée is Terres Rouges, which is unoaked yet in no way simple or rustic. Indeed it has density and texture and lush fruit. Héritage is a Côtes de Bergerac aged in partly new 300-litre barrels, and the wine, while weighty, is not extracted.
Château Le Raz
Patrick Barde has been running the family domaine in Montravel with great panache. His 60ha under vine allows him to make careful parcel selections for the various cuvées. The top wine, Les Filles, is released as Montravel Rouge; mostly Merlot, and aged in 70% new oak. Almost as fine, and arguably more elegant is Grand Chêne, which carries the Bergerac AC. These are suave, modern wines of considerable sophistication.
Château Tour des Gendres
If any estate can claim to be Bergerac’s star, it’s Tour des Gendres, which the self-taught Luc de Conti and his cousin took over in 1986. Located in the southern part of Bergerac, it’s an ideal terroir for white wines, although the reds are first-rate too. Conti has introduced changes recently, expressing his love with Austrian casks and a shrinking reliance on new barriques. As well as the pure Gloire de Mon Père, there are two special cuvées: the all-Merlot Les Gendres and the more austere all-Cabernet Le Petit Bois. The reds always combine freshness with fruit depth.
Stephen Brook’s best Bergerac reds
Les Chemins d’Orient, Cuvée Bouzkashi 2008
Generously fruity nose of cherries and blueberries. Supple, juicy and concentrated, but also bright and fresh, balanced and sleek. Good length.
Price N/A UK +33 (0)6 75 86 47 54
Château Tour des Gendres, Gloire de Mon Père 2009
Lively cherry nose with great purity.
With Cabernet and Malbec to bolster the Merlot, this is nonetheless a supple, elegant, fresh wine that avoids excessive extraction. Good length.
Price £13.81 Exel
Clos du Breil, Expression, Côtes de Bergerac 2010
Elegant, toasty nose, with cassis and mint aromas. Quite powerful, rich and suave, with fine acidity. Lifted stylish finish, with good length.
Price N/A UK leclosdubreil.free.fr
Château Tiregand 2009
Opulent cherry and blackberry aromas. Lush yet decidedly tannic, robust and spicy, but with enough acidity to give lift and persistence. Chewy finish.
Price £12.30 (2007) Tanners
Clos des Verdots 2011
Succulent, sour cherry nose. Mostly Merlot, so juicy, rounded and broad, its rich fruit balanced by good acidity. Quite long.
Price £10.95 (2010) H2Vin
Château Jonc-Blanc, Class IK 2010
Ripe, smoky, black cherry nose, with a touch of mint. Rich and concentrated if a touch overripe, with moderate acidity and length.
Price £11.99 (2009) Adnams, Dordogne Wines
Château Vari 2009
Lush, black fruit nose. Dense and spicy, with some weight and grip, and a fairly long, fresh finish.
Price £9.48 Christopher Piper
Château Monestier La Tour, Terres Vieilles 2009
Discreet, oaky, cherry and blackberry nose. Robust and concentrated but also suave and plump – though perhaps a touch heavy. Long finish.
Price £11.11 Exel