The characterful native grapes of this vast region are flying the flag for southwest France at home and abroad. Jane Anson introduces them
SOUTHWEST FRANCE IS a big rugby area – well-tended pitches hosting local teams in even the smallest villages attract a fervent following. As a game, it suits the local character: a strong sense of identity and brute strength matched with an obstinate mental strategy. Winemakers are quick to point out the similarity of their wines. Not for them the international flair of Premier League football; the abiding philosophy is about retaining local identity and getting on with the job at hand. The region covers 18 appellations over 12 departments – from Gascony and Cahors to Toulouse and the Spanish border – and the largest number of indigenous grapes in France. Some have earned an identity abroad, such as Malbec in Argentina, Tannat in Uruguay and Colombard in California and South Africa. Others are barely recognisable: Fer Servadou, Odenc, Négrette and Gros Manseng to name but a few. There is a refreshing pride in local varieties that is not always evident in other regions – no racing to plant international grapes, but making the most of their own. The producers and varieties highlighted over the next few pages are proving that many of these little-known native grapes have an exciting future. And something in their approach
must be working.
According to the latest figures, published in January 2008, this is the fastest-growing quality wine region in France (VQPRD: Wines of Quality Produced in Determined Regions, encompassing AC and vins de pays), with sales growth of 4.1% in volume and 4.3% in value over 2007. Exports remain low, but for the patient, there is an abundance of wines to discover.
PRODUCER: FREDERIC RIBES,
CHATEAU LE ROC, FRONTON
The closest wine region to the city of Toulouse has been striving to move out of the shadows. In 2005, it changed from Côtes de Frontonnais to the simple Fronton; a name more in keeping with the other appellations of the area (Madiran, Gaillac, Jurançon, Cahors) and befitting the idea of wines without pretension. The local grape is as little-known as the appellation – Négrette. It works well in the local subsoil with its topping of
rouget, a material rich in iron that lends the wine a particular flavour, but there are still only a few estates that have earned external recognition. Château le Roc is perhaps the most successful, led by Frédéric Ribes. Like his wines, Ribes is straight-talking but with a certain poetic flair. Rarely seen without a beret, in his cellar there are hams strung up alongside the cement tanks, themselves painted with floral motifs. Ribes is an oenologist and takes a meticulous approach to winemaking. He crops to 35hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare) when the average for the area is 50hl/ha, insisting yields must be strictly controlled to release the wonderful perfume of Négrette that mixes violets, spice and
liquorice. ‘Négrette has low acidity and can be prone to reduction but, if it’s well made, there’s a purity of fruit that makes it the Pinot Noir of the southwest.’ He has changed his trellising from to a form of Gobelet that naturally lowers the yield, and increased vine density in his 20ha of vines from 4,000 to 7,000 plants per hectare. ‘We are also lucky that Négrette can reach full maturity and still remain around 13% abv, keeping it fresh,’ he says. ‘There are plenty of winemakers in Fronton who use Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, but we are convinced that Négrette gives the AC its identity, and we need to concentrate on that.’
GRAPES: CABERNET FRANC,
PRODUCER: DOMAINE BRANA,
The tiny mountainous appellation of Irouléguy, which rises between 200m and 400m into the Pyrénées, is a perfect example of how each region of the southwest imbues its grapes with a unique personality. All of its varieties are known in other southwest appellations, from Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc to the white grapes of Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu. But here they have a freshness and racy acidity, with naturally lower alcohol levels that they don’t produce elsewhere. Jean Brana has perfected the art of
expressing the local character of these grapes. As a winemaker, he has a series of
firsts to his name. Back in 1988, having taken over the property with his sister after the sudden death of their father, he was first in the region to vinify his wines independent of the local co-operative (which today is still responsible for making the wine for 42 of the 50 winemakers in the region). He was also the first to reintroduce white wine (having studied at Château La Tour Blanche and then with Denis Dubourdieu in Bordeaux), a practice that had stopped decades earlier. Innovation seems to run in the family: his father was a négociant and the first to bottle Irouléguy wine, not sell it in bulk – a trade his son continues with a small négoce selling select quality wines from around the southwest.
Today, 30% of his production is white (the AC average is 10%), using lees-ageing and no oak, combining the natural richness of the grapes with a bracing freshness. For the reds, Brana’s first love is Cabernet Franc – a grape many believe has its roots in the Pyrénées, despite being more famous in Bordeaux and the Loire. ‘We use 11 clones, some over 100
years old, each bringing a new expression of this wonderful grape in its homeland.’
GRAPE: FER SERVADOU
Co-operatives are key in the southwest, vinifying more than half of all wines. Names like Producteurs Plaimont have become references for new-style co-ops, but Vinovalie is another new force, having been formed in 2007 from the merger of Cave de Fronton, Vignerons de Rabastens, Cave de Técou and Côtes d’Olt. What links many co-ops is their desire to make the indigenous grapes of the southwest as accessible as possible for the consumer. In that spirit, Vinovalie is launching a range of single-variety vins de pays wines called Terreo, which will use grapes from all four vineyards. The emphasis will be on the local reds Braucol, Négrette and Malbec, with Loin de L‘Oeil as the white. Director Jacques Tranier says the aim is to make ‘fruitforward, ultra consumer-friendly reds that achieve just what the Côtes de Gascogne has with its whites’.
Before harvest, an oenologist does a pre-selection in the vines and, once picked, the grapes are kept cold with dry ice. Growers are paid by hectolitre, alcohol degree, health of grapes, and work done during the year. Vinification is about ensuring fresh fruit flavours – temperature never goes above 24°C for the reds or 14°C for the whites, with modern techniques such as micro-oxygenation and cold settling. The modern approach ensures that the reds, which can be intense and bristling if vinified traditionally, are supple and structured.
PRODUCER: CHATEAU DE
Malbec, grown in Cahors for more than 2,000 years, is enjoying a global resurgence,
particularly in Argentina, and Bertrand Vigouroux is keen for this to reflect back on its native soil – and winemakers. ‘We aren’t selling AC Cahors, but Malbec from Cahors. It’s about working the name and grape as a brand, not about how they fit into a quality scale and labelling system that is meaningless to most drinkers.’ Like many of southwest France’s grapes, Malbec in Cahors is a story of ancient origins and a recent renaissance. Vineyards existed here in the Middle Ages (when the ‘dark wines’ of Cahors were famed), but were destroyed by phylloxera at the end of the 19th century and abandoned in favour of the fertile valley floor. Château de Haute-Serre is today the highest vineyard of the appellation,
replanted by Bertrand’s father Georges Vigouroux in 1971, a pioneer of the new generation of Cahors. The vines are reaching 30 years of age, and Malbec (locally known as Auxerrois) accounts for 80% of the vineyard, with the remainder split between Merlot and Tannat. Bertrand Vigouroux has recently launched Pigmentum (see p95), a soft, 100% Malbec wine aimed at modern, easy drinking, with the emphasis on the raspberry, blackcurrant and blackberry fruits that have made the variety such a success story for Argentina.
PRODUCER: DOMAINE DE
CASSAGNOLES, COTES DE GASCOGNE
The Côtes de Gascogne has plenty of the typical southwest features – green, rolling
landscape, some hearty red wines and a preponderance of duck products. But that’s pretty much where similarities end. Here, white rules, not red (the Gers département is France’s largest producer of white vin de pays) and 80% of the wines are exported, 40% of this to the UK. The main grape is Colombard, used to produce fruity, fresh wine, often with a small amount of residual sugar that is unpretentious and easy to enjoy. Domaine de Cassagnoles has been part of this revolution since the start. Janine and Gilles Baumann were the first,
in the early 1980s, to put Colombard on the label ‘because we knew the domaine and the new vins de pays title (that began in 1982) weren’t widely known’. The couple take their winemaking seriously but aren’t embarrassed at the desire to make their product consumer friendly. Since 2000 there have been studies on the aromas and aroma precursors of their grapes, particularly Colombard, and many winemaking techniques use these findings. For example, the domaine’s yields are limited to 1kg of grapes for every square metre of vines. Nothing is harvested above 80hl/ ha or below 50hl/ha (lower yields can keep a wine’s roundness but kill its perfume). In the cellar, it’s all about keeping the temperature low, and the oxygen out. Unlike others preaching terroir, the Baumanns ‘try to make grape typicity more important than soil typicity’.
Written by Jane Anson