Andrew Jefford finds out about a co-operative mutiny.
Mutiny? Perhaps the word is a little strong. There was, though, a whiff of insurrection …
The growers of the Cave de Crouseilles in Madiran are, in general, relatively happy with their lot. This is a polycultural region (most growers also have fields of seed maize or other cereals, and some tend livestock or grow kiwis). Viticulture has been doing relatively well over the last decade compared to those other sectors, and as a result the cooperative has actually gained 100 ha rather than lost land, like most of its sisters across France. But something was bothering the key growers.
“My grandfather was one of the founders of the co-operative in 1950,” says grower Emmanuel Lagrave, “and he always said that these could be fine wines of freshness and digestibility. But we never saw our bottles on top restaurant tables. We also knew that we had some great winegrowing sites here, not all of which were planted. We felt we could do more.” Crouseilles has worked, since 1999, in co-ordination with the Plaimont group; the ultimatum landed on the desk of Plaimont’s MD, Olivier Bourdet-Pees. “Either we are allowed to to show what the appellation can do within Crouseilles,” the growers said, “or we’re off. We’ll do it for ourselves.”
He encouraged their initiative; they stayed; and the result is called Vignobles Marie Maria: new vineyards, new techniques and a range of new wines based on single soil types and sometimes single parcels.
Why the Catholic-sounding name? For the answer, head to Madiran’s town hall, and look up at the old clock you’ll find in the Salle du Conseil Municipal. ‘Pour les soeurs de Charité à Maridan’, it says (‘for the Sisters of Charity at Maridan’). A horological misspelling? Actually no – Maridan was the former name of Madiran, based on the ‘Maria Dona’ who has been, since the eleventh century, the patron saint of the village church and nearby monastery. Two letters, it would seem, were switched in Revolutionary times in order to avoid trouble when anticlerical feelings were running high.
According to the Crouseilles director Denis Degache, Madiran’s current 1500 ha of planted land (and 300 ha of the white Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, whose growing zone is identical) could easily be tripled without any loss of overall quality. Moreover this region, like that of Cahors, is one where the best quality vineyards were often abandoned after phylloxera, and have never been replanted since. In Madiran’s case, that means its steeper west-facing slopes, particularly in the eastern part of the appellation.
The co-operative doesn’t want to become a vineyard owner itself, but it is helping some of the younger growers buy and plant propitious sites with investment schemes. Its own cellars didn’t used to have the tank space to make small quantities, but that, too, has changed with the acquisition of the cellars of Arricau-Bordes in 2001 and Ch de Diusse in 2012. It’s working in the vineyards, too, to improve plantation densities (polyculture meant big tractors, and big tractors meant low densities) and improve the quality of the vine material and the way in which different varieties are used. In this warm but wet region, the principal variety Tannat grows prolifically – meaning lots of work to rein it back towards qualitative restraint (around 200 hours of vineyard work per hectare per year). Cabernet Franc is the much older variety here (its origins lie in nearby Basque country), and both Cabernets are easier to grow than Tannat – but it’s Tannat which gives the highest quality, and Crouseilles is aiming to bring Tannat up to 75 per cent of plantings, from just 50 per cent in 2000.
Nor are Pacherenc whites (based on the two Mansengs and Petit Courbu) being overlooked. Madiran, like Champagne, has its own ‘Côtes des Blancs’, famous back in the eighteenth century as the most celebrated wines of the Vic Bilh hills: this is the hilltop ridge running between the villages of Lembeye and Portet in the west part of the appellation and is little planted at present – something that the growers hopes to change.
The Marie Maria conspirators also have firm stylistic ideals. Since they hope to see their wines on restaurant tables, they are aiming above all for the freshness and digestibility that Emmanuel Lagrave’s grandfather stressed the region could achieve, rather than the ‘scary’ wines – black, fierce, prolific in both tannin and acids, slicing down into the palate like a portcullis — which ambition can so easily deliver here, and which demand either a spell in a cellar or a 24-hour decant, and preferably both.
Macerations and extractions are delicate (a cold soak first, then just 4 to 6 days of swift pump-overs before the tanks are left alone for up to 30 days, with simple moistening of the cap but no further extraction) and wood-ageing unobtrusive, the aim being to allow individual soil and site expression above all.
I’ve tasted the range (see the notes below) and it seems to be a good start, especially given the modest prices (9 to 15 euros for the young wines) and attractive labeling. I worry less about tannins than the Marie Maria team do (these are hearty food wines, after all), and I stressed to Denis Degache that acidity could be as scary as tannin; it’s the balance between the two which matters. For sheer complexity, resource and reward as food wines, though, I still think it’s hard to beat the value offered by Madiran – as the fruits of the Crouseilles conspiracy show.
Tasting Marie Maria
Vignobles Marie Maria, Novel, Madiran 2014
Novel is the introductory cuvee for the Marie Maria range: a blend of the three principal soil/site types, 70% Tannat and 30% of the two Cabernets, with just 30% given wood ageing. It’s dark, with sweet raspberry liqueur scents, and then a switchback palate of plunging, acid-heightened raspberry-plum fruits with soft but ample backing tannins. 89
Vignobles Marie Maria, Veine, Madiran 2014
Veine is grown on the soil type locally called nappe de Maucor: the rolled pebbles of former watercourses found on the top of Madiran hills. This blend of 70% Tannat with 30% Cabernet Sauvignon is aromatically quiet and tightly gathered at present, but promising; the palate combines poised black woodland fruits with a quietly spicy meatiness; the tannins are forest whispers rather than any kind of portcullis, and there is a sweetness of fruit behind the shapely acidity. 91
Vignobles Marie Maria, Grèvière, Madiran 2012
Grèvière is made from the mid-slope gravelly clays which are perhaps the most typical Madiran soil type; this wine is 90% Tannat with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and in 2012 came from a single parcel though subsequently it will be a blend of parcels. Luxury scents: elderberry and damson liqueur this time, with a shake of earth. Full, vivid and tongue-coating on the palate, and seamless already; there’s dark chocolate and plant essences behind the vivacious woodland fruits. Perfumed to the last. 92
Vignobles Marie Maria, Argilo, Madiran 2014
Argilo is a new, pure-Tannat cuvée from 2014, based on clay-limestone soils at the base of steep hills. Clay in Madiran tends to bring lots of slabby, meaty, carnal aromas to the wine and this is no exception, though there are dark fruits, too. On the palate, it’s packed with spear-like sloe fruit and has a richly laden, textural, faintly saline finish; this does need a year or two of cellar calm, in contrast to its peers. 91
Vignobles Marie Maria, Bonificat, Madiran 2001
Bonificat is the name chosen for an older release, and it’s worth a look to see Madiran with a little age: mushroomy, woodland scents and a dense, slightly stewy palate in this instance. Vineyard improvements and the more refined vinification of the younger wines will, I feel sure, mean that they age a little better than this honourable but slightly rustic wine. 87
Vignobles Marie Maria, Novel, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh Sec, 2015
The 2015 vintage of this dry Pacherenc (made from Gros Manseng and Petit Courbu) marks a huge improvement over the rather thiol-laden 2014 vintage: creamy, zesty scents and an electric balance between almost flinty acidity and singing, tropical fruit. A great value aperitif. 91
Vignobles Marie Maria, Lutz, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, 2015
In the case of the sweet Pacherenc called Lutz, the 2014 is a very good wine and much better than the rather obvious though gratifying 2013: this has much more aromatic finesse (delicate buttered pineapple) and succulently pure lime, melon and pineapple fruits, too. 90
Vignobles Marie Maria, Bonificat l’Hivernal, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, 2011
The 2011 winter-harvested Bonificat l’Hivernal is made from a single parcel belonging to Emmanuel Lagrave, picked by 200 invited guests on December 21st, the darkest day of the year: deep gold in colour, with mint and verbena scents as well as the melon and pineapple richness; while the flavours are tangy, bright, deep and full of succulent contrasts, with a rich fruit spectrum in which citrus and quince mingles with tropical fruit. 91