Tucked away in southwest France, with no major cities, airports or motorways, Gascony is the perfect place to get away from it all – once you’ve got there yourself. By GILES FALLOWFIELD
The southwest corner of France, the land between Toulouse and the Atlantic coastline, boasts the fourth largest generic wine AC in the country in terms of production and sales. It’s a region that encompasses 18 separate appellations, yet in terms of exports, its wine credentials have been re-established over the past decade or so not by ACs like Madiran, but by the quality of its vins de pays.
There are some 22 vins de pays in the wider southwest zone that stretches from the Pyrénées, which define its southern border, up to the Massif Central in the northeast. But the most important by far in terms of volume, profile and exports are the vins de pays des Côtes de Gascogne. This vineyard, only formally established in 1982, is in the same defined region where white grape varieties like Ugni Blanc and Colombard were planted principally to make Armagnac. It remains predominantly a white wine stronghold, with reds and rosé accounting for only 10% of production.
At the recent Top 100 Vins de Pays awards, in which wines from all over France competed, three of the six trophy-winning whites – including the ‘best white of show’ – came from the Gers department, the modern equivalent of the ancient duchy of Gascony at the centre of the southwest. Today, nearly two thirds of the 13,000 hectares of vineyards in Gers are devoted to Côtes de Gascogne wines rather than Armagnac.
While Armagnac remains Gascony’s best-known export, it is the success of wine that has set in train a rejuvenation of the region, creating jobs and helping stem depopulation. Both larger companies such as Château Tariquet (known for its whites) and the enterprising Producteurs Plaimont Coopérative – which also makes quality red wines in the Madiran, Béarn and St-Mont ACs to the west – and smaller producers such as Domaine de Pellehaut have helped put Côtes de Gascogne on the map. These three wineries were responsible for the trio of trophy-winning wines, but there are others too. As a whole, the region now produces nearly as much white wine as Alsace.
Thanks to this winemaking renaissance, Gascony has more to offer the wine tourist than ever before. Cheap air travel into Pau and Toulouse has only made this wild and beautiful rolling countryside (slightly) more accessible. It still has no major cities, and motorways pass by on the region’s peripheries in the north and south of the region. This apparent isolation has helped it to retain a strongly rural, individual personality that is evident in its rich and rustic cuisine.
The Plaimont cooperative has done much to re-invigorate the region over the past two decades – not just by adopting practices that have racheted up the quality of its wines, but also by investing in the social fabric. It has devised three wine routes centred on Condom, St-Mont and Madiran – any one of which could be the basis for a day’s touring – in different parts of the region where its members’ wines are produced.
It has also encouraged and helped finance its wine growers in redeveloping suitable buildings as rural gîtes. Some of these are stunning, and most are located in glorious, tranquil settings, which helps bring people and money into an area where there was little attractive accommodation in the past. Plaimont’s wine growers now run more than 25 very reasonably priced gîtes and chambres d’hôtes across the region. Some offer supper, and this home cooking is likely to be one of the best ways to experience the rich and rustic Gascon cuisine, where duck and goose reign supreme be it in cassoulet, magret de canard, confit or foie gras.
The suggested wine routes offer a mix of Gascon delights, not just vinous ones. The most northerly tour is based around the town Condom, which is also the centre of Ténarèze Armagnac production (Route des Vins et des Vallons du Pays). Seek out what’s said to be the only round square in France, in the village of Fourcès. Just to the south, one of the highlights of this tour is the ancient town of Montréal, near which, in the mosaics at the Gallo-Roman villa of Séviac, you can see evidence of Gascon vineyards dating back 1,600 years.
Montréal is also the nearest village to the impressive Domaine de Pellehaut, run by brothers Martin and Matthieu Beraut. Their L’Eté Gascon 2005 is a lush, velvety textured, honeyed blend of Chardonnay and Gros Manseng, available at just t5.50 a bottle. Their red Domaine de Pellehaut Harmonie 2005, from a young vine blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tannat (ridiculously cheap at t4.50 a bottle) shows this is another area of the southwest where decent red wines can be made too. Les Marcottes and the Family Reserve reds priced respectively at t8.25 and t14.50, the first a 70/30 Tannat-Merlot blend, the latter a classy, complex, structured 90% Tannat, are a further step up (and aren’t yet exported to Britain).
Another good base for exploring is Eauze, which is in Bas Armagnac territory to the southwest of Montréal and Condom. If you want to stay in the countryside among the fields of sunflowers, maize and vines, just outside Eauze, about 4km to the north on the road towards Parleboscq are two very different styles of gîtes close to one another.
Surrounded by vineyards, Château de Millet has been in the Dèche family for more than five generations. Today they make wine, Armagnac and the local fortified wine, Floc de Gascogne. Reached via a long winding drive, the three-room gîte is based in an 18th-century pigeonnier opposite the château. It sells a range of simple but well-made Côtes de Gascogne wines, whites and reds – the whites and straight Merlot are the most impressive – all priced at t5 or less, plus a selection of single-vintaged Armagnacs dating back to 1968.
A little further up the road from Eauze, at La Ferme de Mounet, you’ll find all the dishes you might imagine – from foie gras to daube de canard – from the large flocks of ducks and geese on the farm. Here there are four newly fitted-out chambres d’hôtes and also, further down the road, a self-contained gîte with a pool. If you stay at the latter, try to sample Madame Monas’ Grand Repas Gascon, hearty rustic cooking at its best, one evening. That’s what Gascony is really all about.
WINED and DINED OUT? try these
n Local history: Auch is the region’s capital, with an impressive 15th-century cathedral and steep, winding streets lined with wattle and daube houses, and narrow lanes called pousterles. The Abbaye de Flaran in Valence-sur-Baise (+ 33 5 62 28 50 19, www.gers-gascogne.com) is a fine example of a Cistercian abbey, founded in 1151, and holds regular art exhibitions. The Musée du Trésor in Eauze (+33 5 62 09 71 38) contains a collection of locally found Roman jewellery and coins.
n Walking: in Madiran at Château d’Arricau-Bordes (one of four grand châteaux in the Plaimont group) there are special walks in the woods to look at all the wild orchids in May. And at nearby Château de Crouseilles, there are a series of four marked walks of 2–10km among the vineyards.
n Golf: just north of Eauze there’s an 18-hole golf course with its own auberge, open-air swimming pool and tennis courts (Tel: +33 5 62 09 80 84, www.guinlet.fr).
Written by GILES FALLOWFIELD