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Jefford on Monday: Enigma Variations

Areas like Bordeaux and Burgundy have not always produced France's most luxurious wines. Andrew Jefford decodes the Gaillac puzzle...

You can’t call many wine regions ‘enigmatic’ – but Gaillac fits the bill.

It’s about 50 km northeast of Toulouse, on the Tarn river, which gouges its course through the Cévennes limestones from its source on Mont Lozère.  When the river reaches Gaillac, the hills open up and the river becomes navigable – all the way, via the Garonne, to the Atlantic.

Strangely, this was one of the two Grands Crus of Roman Gaul.  (The other comprised the vineyards around Vienne, Ampuis and Tain.)  As quality wine, it was a millennium ahead of Burgundy and 1500 years ahead of much of Bordeaux.

Incredulous?  Remember that the Romans came from the south, and that they favoured hill sites (no use for grain production) for their vines.  Once the legionnaires had marched over the Cévennes, Gaillac offered the first suitable hillside land, with the evident transport advantages for colonists and garrisons further north that the river provided.  (Bordeaux’s first Roman settlers drank Gaillac.)  It was also a crossroads for the paths and roads which ran from east to west across Gaul; there were wild vines in the local forest of Grésigne.  Archeologists have discovered a large Roman-era pottery for creating amphorae at Montans just downriver from Gaillac.  The French historical geographer Roger Dion speculated that, to the Roman mind, Gaillac might have marked the northerly limits of viticulture (most vineyards in Roman Gaul, of course, were in Languedoc).

  • Scroll down to see Andrew Jefford’s Gaillac tasting notes

We don’t know exactly how good the wine was in Roman times – but it was certainly sought-after in the Middle Ages and beyond.  The Benedictine monks of the Abbaye St Michel in Gaillac created a set of appellation-like rules for its production, which they wouldn’t have done had there been no reputation to protect (it included the singular one that the vines could only be manured with pigeon droppings, known as colombine, which is why the area is still full of majestic stone dovecotes).

From 1397, what is probably the wine world’s first brand – Vins du Coq – was created for Gaillac and given official recognition in the early C16.  Moreover at that latter century’s greatest ‘summit’ – the meeting between Francois I of France and Henry VIII of England in 1520, known as The Field of the Cloth of Gold – the young French king gave his still-dashing English counterpart 50 barrels of Gaillac, underlining its luxury status.

Then, alas, disaster.  First of all came the ‘privilege of Bordeaux’, which shut off export markets for Gaillac and other upland areas of the Garonne and Dordogne basins; then the vine-killing winter of 1709; and finally phylloxera.  Gaillac’s vineyards today occupy  one-twentieth of their former size.

There’s more enigma when you ask what might be Gaillac’s representative wine style, or its leading grape variety.  There are so many answers to both questions that one of Gaillac’s vanguard producers, Jean-Marc Balaran of Domaine d’Escausses, considers Gaillac’s leading quality to be sheer adaptability.  “The soils and climate aren’t a limiting factor for us.  We can do more or less what we want.”

At present, around 60 per cent of Gaillac’s annual production of 155,000 hl a year is red wine, and around seven per cent of that is a Primeur wine based on Gamay.  Ten per cent of production is rosé, and 30 per cent is white wine.  The white total, though, includes both dry and sweet whites, as well as another local speciality called Perlé, a slightly sparkling speciality of the dominant local co-operative at Labastide de Lévis; and there’s a Méthode Ancienne sparkler, too.

The grape varieties are a complicated mix of indigenous varieties and French staples.  The latter include Muscadelle, Sémillon and Sauvignon for whites, and the two Cabernets, Merlot, Syrah and Gamay for primeur reds.

The indigenous varieties, though, are what gives Gaillac its uniqueness: they include the white Len de l’El (locally believed to be a descendant of the wild vines of the forest), Mauzac and Ondenc, and the red Duras (grown only here, by the way, and not in Côtes de Duras), Braucol (the local name for Fer Servadou) and Prunelard (one of Malbec’s parents).  There is much talk of beginning to exclude some of the ‘staples’ from the appellation in order to give Gaillac more personality and individuality.  It’s superficially seductive, but the question is far from straightforward, since the staples can help fill out blends very effectively.

gaillac wine map

A Gaillac wine region map. Credit: Vins de Gaillac.

In soil and terroir terms, there are two main and two subsidiary zones.  The clay-limestone hills of the Rive Droite (the ‘right bank’) is probably the best area of all; indeed it contains the little-seen subsidiary appellation of Premières Côtes de Gaillac, for white wines only (just 8 ha planted for this AOP).  The Rive Gauche (‘left bank) is a lower lying zone with alluvial or clay soils.  The Plateau Cordais (around Cordes-sur-Ciel to the north) is limestone-soiled and higher sited, up to 300 m in altitude, while the schist-soiled Noyau de Cunac lies much further upriver, to the east of Albi itself.

Climatically, Gaillac is open to many influences – the mountains to the east, the Mediterranean to the south and the Atlantic to the west – and this may be the principal key to its adaptability.  “We get our weather from different directions,” says Margaret Reckett who, with her husband Jack, recently began a new life as a Gaillac wine-grower at Clos Rocailleux on the Plateau Cordais.  “You get a very pronounced vintage effect.”  Jack feels the best description is “like Bordeaux, but more continental”.  The south-easterly Autan wind is as much a feature of the Gaillac climate as the Mistral is of the southern Rhône – but in this case, it brings a few days of dry warmth, sometimes followed by a little rain.

Having briefly visited the region last autumn and spent most of a day tasting recently, it’s clear that standards vary greatly in this appellation; some wines are weak.  The best, though are genuinely fascinating and unique.

The whites are, for me, more compelling than the reds at present, even though production is slanted in the other direction; it is in the whites that the subtlety, delicacy and grace of Gaillac is most clearly on view.  They sometimes remind me of the best Italian whites in their supportive gastronomic discretion – almost as if the long-departed Romans had left a plump little Bacchus or two tucked away in the region to guide the spirit of the place.  Sparkling wines can work well here (I’m a fan of the teasing, tickling Perlé), and dessert wines can be outstanding, too, if hard to sell.  The Mauzac of Gaillac makes a fascinating contrast to that of Limoux: it’s a little softer and less pungently appley, freshened with some lively finishing bitter notes.

The reds, even though they’re sometimes picked well into October, are generally light, crunchy, refreshing wines which rarely crest 13%.  It’s almost as if they look up towards the mountains, while the whites gaze down into the plain.  And it’s with the reds, too, that the indigenous varieties have most to say for themselves: the region owes a lot to pioneers like Robert Plageoles for helping to salvage these.  A small selection of tasting notes is given below – and I begin with the Balaran family’s identically labelled, limpidly vinified series ‘Les Anciens’.  These six varietal wines, made with the key local indigenous varieties, make a useful introduction to Gaillac if you’re interested in what the French call cépages modestes.  (Some go to market as IGP Côtes du Tarn, owing to the exigencies of the appellation rules.)

Tasting Gaillac

Les Anciens, Memòria, Famille Balaran, Domaine d’Escausses:

Ondenc 2015

This is the white variety which tastes most like it came lurching out of the forest just a century or two ago: leafy, grapefruit pith and lemon peel scents, with lively, bitter-edged grapefruit and rose flavours and a little closing asperity.  88

Mauzac 2015

This is a relatively restrained, limpid rendition of white Mauzac (see below for a fine-dining version from Aurélie Balaran’s l’Enclos des Rozes): sweet orchard scents and poised, fresh russet-apple flavours.  87

Lenc de l’elh (sic) 2015

This is a much subtler, less overt white wine than the Mauzac or the Ondenc, with sappy, leafy aromas with a faint hint of honeysuckle to them, and gentle pliant, submissive flavours.  Everything is very soft and supple in this white, yet it still has a notably green, leafy, woodland-fresh style.  91

Braucol 2015

Smooth and bright with lots of primary cherry on the nose, but once in the mouth that cherry disappears and this red wine is more bitter-edged, sylvan and refreshing, with a sappy-earthy finish: a typical South-Westerner in lively, upland style.  89

Duras 2015

A touch of reduction quickly clears to make way for a blast of blackcurrant and sloe, and that’s the theme on the palate, too: a vibrant draught of black-fruit flavours with forest-like wildness and cleansing bitterness on the finish.  90

Prunelart (sic) 2015

If you had to pick the red of the trio with most potential, I suspect it would be the Prunelart, which has deeper plum-sloe fruits than its two peers; a touch of tar, sap and copse in its aromatic spectrum; and more of a sense of completeness to it than the Braucol or the Duras.  90 

Other Gaillac white and sparkling wines:

Vines at Château Clément Termes. Credit: Clément Termes.

Domaine Barreau, Gaillac Méthode Ancétrale

A pure Mauzac sparkler with 17 g/l residual sugar and just 10%, this is as light as the wind, grassy-fresh, grape-skin-pungent and with some finishing bitter-fresh notes which contrive to cover the sugars almost completely.  Hard not to finish the bottle as quickly as you’d polish off a beer.  91

Ch Clément Termes, Gaillac 2016

The David family’s property is an enormous one, with 130 ha under vines; this fresh, subtle, light-flavoured (12%) blend of Muscadelle, Mauzac and Len de l’Elh, with its soft vegetal notes, its orchard fruit peels, its quenching acidity and vinous finishing turn is uncomplicatedly delicious.  89

Clos Rocailleux, Far From The Eye, Vin de France 2015

This is mostly Len de l’El (with around 20 per cent Mauzac).  It’s softly leafy with a touch of sweetness, and with graceful, textured, secondary flavours which combine freshness, subtlety and well-roundedness.  88

Ch l’Enclos des Rozes, Gaillac Premières Côtes 2013

This pure Mauzac is fermented in demi-muids (of which around 30 per cent are new): classy, sumptuous, softly creamy aromas and a softly appley flavour with lots of peel and perfume, a honeyed fullness and a touch of tannin, too. 90

Look out, too, for the fine value Petit Enclos white — a blend of Mauzac and Ondenc — and an elegant and bracing Méthode Traditionnelle Rosé made from directly pressed Duras alone.

Ch l’Enclos des Rozes, Gaillac Doux 2015

This late-harvest wine is made from a blend of botrytis-affected Sauvignon and raisined Mauzac.  Apricot, peach and pineapple scents and flavours in a lush and luscious sweet white of frank sweetness balanced by comely but un-prominent acidity and a botrytis tang.  91

Domaine d’Escausses, Vendanges Dorées, Gaillac Doux 2013

Mauzac, Len de l’El and Ondenc come together in this dessert wine made from indigenous varieties only.  It’s vinous, structured, sinewy and intense despite its amplitude and richness, with much more of an apricot stamp to it than for the wine above.  92

Domaine Sarrabelle, In Genium, Gaillac 2014

Laurent and Fabien Caussé have crafted another supple, honeyed, delicately phrased Mauzac which has clearly benefited from its barrel fermentation and bâtonnage89

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