Category Archives: Wine

What Makes a Super Tuscan?

Enjoy this short piece on the history of Super Tuscan wines, featuring a profile of Ornellaia, published by French Wine Explorers.

http://www.wine-tours-france.com/super-tuscan/

Montalcino, Italy

Click on this link to enjoy a piece about the incredible wines of Montalcino written by Vino Ventures for French Wine Explorers.

http://www.wine-tours-france.com/montalcino-wine-region/

Montepulciano, Italy

Click on this link to enjoy a short piece about the great wines of Montepulciano written by Vino Ventures for French Wine Explorers!

http://www.wine-tours-france.com/montepulciano-best-wine/

Benvenuto Brunello

bb2017

Each year in February, in glorious anticipation of welcoming a new vintage, the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino hosts a bountiful tasting for the wine trade in the quaint Italian hilltown of Montalcino. Row after row, table upon table, 150 producers share their current release wines: light, fresh, “drink now” Rosso di Montalcino, current release Brunello di Montalcino, and age-worthy Riservas.

2017 Benvenuto Brunello in Montalcino, Italy

2017 Benvenuto Brunello in Montalcino, Italy

The 2017 extravaganza featured 2015 Rosso di Montalcino, 2012 Brunello di Montalcino, and 2011 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva.

The 2012 vintage has already been rated by Italian wine expert Kerin O’Keefe who, in a recent Wine Enthusiast review, proclaims this vintage to be a “return to finesse” for the second year in a row. See Kerin’s top 20 list of 2012 Brunellos here.

Wine critic James Suckling has called the 2012 vintage a “rock star.” Read about his early assessment of the 2012 Brunellos here. His earlier take on the 2011 vintage bodes well for the Riservas that are just now being released into the market. Suckling’s top 95+ Brunellos, by rating, are:

  • 100  Valdicava “Madonna del Piano” €175; Renieri €150
  • 99  Fuligni €130
  • 98  San Fillippo “Le Lucere” €58; Sassetti Livio “Pertimali” €55
  • 97  Ciacci Piccolomini “Pianrosso” €58; Altesino “Montosoli” €75; Banfi “Poggio All’Oro” €120; Castelgiocondo “Ripe al Convento” €120; Castello di Romitorio €120; Siro Pacenti “PS” €160
  • 96  La Rasina €38; Argiano €40; Castiglion del Bosco €40; Casanova di Neri “Tenuta Nuova” €75; Giodo €85; Valdicava €85
  • 95  La Mannella “I Poggiarelli” €38; Talenti €95; Banfi “Poggio Alle Mura” €95; Canalicchio di Sopra €45; Siro Pacenti “Pelagrilli” €45; Uccelliera €55; Poggio Antico €58; Renieri €59; Fuligni €60; Siro Pacenti “Vecchie Vigne” €85; Biondi Santi €100; Le Ragnaie “La Fornace” €120; La Ragnaie “Vecchie Vigne” €120; Caparzo €60

I chose my “top 10” selections  from the moderate price range (€30-45) to round out O’Keefe and Suckling top picks, and to encourage your regular experience of these fine wines. These are some perennial favorites of mine as well as some new to my personal cellar (not rated, just well liked at Benvenuto Brunello!):

  • Campogiovanni “San Felice” €35 (rated 93 by JS)
  • Casanove di Neri €45
  • Cinelli Columbini “Prime Donne” €45
  • Fanti €32
  • Fattoi €30
  • Il Poggione €45
  • La Fornacina €35
  • Lisini €40
  • Padelletti €35
  • Villa Le Prata €35

Two more bonus wines from me: Villa Le Prata 2004 and Lisini “Ugolaia” 2010. Villa Le Prata still has library wines available from most years 2003-2010. I am particularly fond of the 2003 (even though the vintage was only rated 88 — it shows what a quality winemaker can do in a less than great year!!).

Want your wines before they show up on shelves at your favorite wine merchant? You can order directly from Molesini Market in Cortona. Brothers Marco and Paolo Molesini host a trade visit to Benvenuto Brunello each year, assess the best of the best wines, and stock up for international wine lovers. Reach out to Marco. You won’t be disappointed!

Marco Molesini (center right) at Villa Le Prata in Montalcino

Marco Molesini (center right) at Villa Le Prata in Montalcino

Introducing “Ask Kathy”

ask-kathy

The world of wine can be intimidating. Where should I shop? Which wine goes best with a certain meal or cuisine, or favorite cheese? What is Carménère? Where is Irouleguy? What’s the best itinerary to enjoy the wines of Tuscany? Why is Pinot Noir so difficult to grow? Where can I take wine classes, and which type of education is best for me? Is Soave and place or a grape? Can you help me “translate” a German wine label? And so it goes…

This is an experiment to gauge interest among readers in addition to my immediate friendship network (and to try using WordPress as the vehicle)! If you have a question, just fill out the “leave a reply” comment box on the “Ask Kathy” page of my website (or use this post), and I will get back to you as quickly as I can.

Photo credit: http://www.geomarketing.com

Touring Southwest France: A Hidden Treasure

In this third and final piece about Southwest France, my goal is simple: introduce you to the little-known quality wine appellations that comprise the discontinuous set of AOCs known collectively as Southwest France, and inspire you to experience these surprisingly good, reasonably priced, wines on your own. Here are links to the first two stories about Southwest France based on the experience of traveling with wine writer Andrew Jefford on a study tour sponsored by the Wine Scholar Guild.

Southwest France: Diverse by Design?

Traditional Southwest France

Before launching into the individual AOCs, it is important to understand the importance of the highly significant IGP zone of Côtes de Gascogne. Recall that IGP stands for the European Union-designation “Indication Géographique Protégée,” a category of quality French wine positioned between table wine and the top designation of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Côtes de Gascogne is a predominantly (85%) white-wine zone, the number one IGP in France, and perhaps in the world – 70% is exported! Most of the 93 million bottles of wine produced each year are made from light, thirst-quenching grapes including Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Ugni Blanc and a bit of Sauvignon Blanc. Usually low in alcohol and sometimes semi-sweet, these are perfect introductory wines for “newbies” starting a journey to learn about wine.

Armagnac AOC is the only region of Southwest France to specialize in distilled wine. Although the known history of distillation is nearly 2,000 years old (from China during the Jin dynasty), it wasn’t until 1310 that the first written record of brandy distillation appeared in Armagnac, some 150 years before written references to Cognac. Even though Armagnac is France’s oldest brandy, Cognac is positioned closer to the sea, creating a commercial disadvantage for Armagnac.

The key difference between Armagnac and Cognac is the distilling method. Cognac is a pot-stilled spirit, which is the same method of double-distillation used for malt whisky. Armagnac is distilled only once in an Alambic continuous still, and to a lower alcoholic strength than Cognac. As a result, brandy from Armagnac has more impurities, is more rustic in style, and has more pronounced aroma and flavor.

Ugni Blanc is the primary grape variety for Armagnac (and Cognac). It accounts for about 55% of plantings in the appellation. Other permitted grape varieties include the hybrid Baco, Folle Blanche, and Colombard.

Age categories to aid consumers:

  • 1 year for VS (very special)
  • 4 years for VSOP (very superior old pale)
  • 6 years for XO (extra old, also called Napoleon)
  • 10, 20 and 25-year Hors d’Age (“beyond age,” youngest component is at least 10 years old)

All vintage wines must come from the year stated, as well as being at least 10 years old.

Photo Credit: Darroze website

Photo Credit: Darroze website

Visit Bas Armagnac Francis Darroze:
277 avenue de l’Armagnac, 40120 Roquefort
+33 5 58 45 51 22
Contact: delphine@darroze-armagnacs.com
www.darroze-armagnacs.com

Darroze was founded by Francis Darroze in the 1970s after several decades of searching out exceptional properties in the Bas Armagnac for his father Jean’s restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan. Son Marc, a trained oenologist, joined the family business in 1996 and runs the operation today. The “Unique Collection” is comprised of Armagnacs sourced from 30 different domaines. Seven offerings called collectively “Les Grande Assemblages” are aged 8, 12, 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60 years respectively. Vintage wines are also made in exceptional years.

Bergerac AOC is Southwest France’s second largest planting zone. It is both blessed and cursed by its proximity to the right bank of the Dordogne River and inevitable comparisons to Bordeaux. Conditions of terroir for the exquisite sweet wines of Bergerac are ideal. The soil composition is largely a continuation of what you find in Bordeaux: river terraces, deposits of gravel and sand, and limey clay. Compared to Bordeaux, Bergerac is slightly warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter, but the grape varieties are the same: Semillon, Sauvignon, and Muscadelle for the whites, and Merlot plus the two Cabernets for the reds. Yet, for all of these delightful similarities, Bergerac suffers commercially in the shadow of powerhouse Bordeaux.

Chateau Tour des Gendres Photo credit: Kathy Merchant (October 2016)

Chateau Tour des Gendres
Photo credit: Kathy Merchant (October 2016)

Visit Château Tour des Gendres:
SARL La Julienne
Les Gendres, 24240 Ribagnac
+33 5 53 57 12 43
Contact: familledeconti@wanadoo.fr
www.chateautourdesgendres.com

Winemaker Luc de Conti farms 20 of 50 ha that he and other family members have owned since 1925 when his Italian ancestors emigrated to Southwest France. Since 1996, de Conti has practiced organic farming, including one 6 ha parcel which is biodynamic. Recently, de Conti has begun experimenting with amphorae. Wines: three Bergerac Sec Blanc (white blend, 100% Muscadelle, 100% Sauvignon Blanc); and two Bergerac Rouge.

Cahors AOC is an appellation for red wine only. Distanced physically and commercially from comparisons to regions along the Dordogne River, Cahors is distinguished by its relationship to the serpentine Lot River. The river’s twists and turns create two different types of vineyards, each producing different styles of wine. The first terroir consists of four levels of gravel river terraces, increasing quality with elevation and distance from the riverbed’s fertile soils. The second type of soil is found on the causses, or plateau, the limestone uplands.

Malbec, locally known as Auxerrois, is the key grape variety in Cahors, though Merlot and Tannat can also be used for up to 30% of the blend. As a point of interest, it has been proven that Malbec is Merlot’s aunt! And although Malbec’s spiritual home is Cahors, Malbec is now far more widely planted in Argentina (27,000 ha) than in France (6,100 ha). Modern relationships between Cahors and Mendoza are very good even as the professional union (UIVC) promotes the brand “Cahors: The French Malbec.”

Cahors Terroir Photo credit: www.la-parole-au-vin.fr

Cahors Terroir
Photo credit: www.la-parole-au-vin.fr

Visit Château Haut-Monplaisir:
Monplaisir, 46700 Lacapelle-Cabanac
+33 (0)5 65 24 64 78
Contact: chateau.hautmonplaisir@wanadoo.fr
www.chateau-haut-monplaisir.com

Visit Clos Troteligotte:
Al Cap Blanc, 46090 Villesèque
+33 (0)6 74 81 91 26
Contact: contact@clostroteligotte.fr
www.clostroteligotte.com 

Visit Château du Cedre:
Bru, 46700 Vire-sur-Lot
+33 (0)5 65 36 53 87
Contact: contact@chateauducedres.com
www.chateauducedre.com

Union Interprofessionelle des Vins de Cahors (UIVC) Malbec Lounge
Villa Cahors Malbec, Place F. Mitterand, 46000 Cahors
+33 (0)5.65.23.82.35
Contact: complete form on UIVC website
www.vindecahors.fr

Gaillac AOC. Unlike the all-red appellation of Cahors, Gaillac is an appellation with many options – red, rosé, young primeur red (like Gamay, made by carbonic maceration and sold quickly), dry white, sweet white, and sweet lightly sparkling white wines made by the ancestral method which are bottled toward the end of the first fermentation. In this appellation, the Tarn River is the predominant influence, with stone, sand and gravel on the left bank, and chalky clay soils on the right bank.

The most planted grape in Gaillac is white Mauzac (37%).  It’s mentioned locally in records from 1525. It is the only grape permitted for ancestral method sparkling wine, and is also used for dry and sweet white wines.  It has a fresh and distinct apple aroma. Other grapes grown in Gaillac include white Len de l’El, only found in Gaillac; red Braucol, known elsewhere as Fer (“iron”) or Fer Servadou; and red Duras, also unique to Gaillac. Familiar international varieties include Sauvignon, Syrah, Gamay and Muscadelle, with small quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Aurélie and Jean-Marc Balaran Photo credit: www.ladepeche.fr

Aurélie and Jean-Marc Balaran
Photo credit: http://www.ladepeche.fr

Visit Domaine d’Escausses:
La Salamandrie, 81150 Sainte-Croix
+33 (0)5 63 56 80 52
Contact and “like” Domaine d’Escausses on Facebook

The winemaker for Domaine d’Escausses is Jean-Marc Balaran, son of the founder Denis. Jean Marc’s daughter, Aurélie is also fully engaged in the family enterprise.

Fronton AOC is situated just north of Toulouse, France’s fourth largest city. Yet it remains largely unknown on the international stage. Until the 18th century, Fronton was essentially a cereal-producing area. It wasn’t until the privilege de Bordeaux came to an end that farmers in Fronton could entertain the idea of growing winegrapes and getting wines to market.

Negrette is the grape of Fronton, used to make both rosé and red wines. Negrette produces dark wines, but they are not particularly dense or well structured. Their charm is a light note of fruit with a bit of black pepper pizzazz. Although similarities to the relationship of the Gamay grape to Beaujolais might easily be drawn, Fronton does not (yet) have the same prestige as the ten Beaujolais crus. Negrette can be blended with the Cabernets and Syrah, but must comprise at least 40% of the blend.

Château Plaisance Photo credit: www.aoc-vin-fronton.hautetfort.com

Château Plaisance
Photo credit: http://www.aoc-vin-fronton.hautetfort.com

Visit Château Plaisance:
Place de la Mairie, 31340 Vacquiers
+33 5 61 84 97 41
Contact: chateau-plaisance@wanadoo.fr
www.chateau-plaisance.fr

The Penavayre family has been farming grapes and other crops in this region since 1870. Louis Penavayre decided in 1971 to devote the entire farm to winegrapes. His son, current winemaker Marc, joined his father in 1991 and has expanded the operation. Château Plaisance converted to biodynamic farming in 2006, and Penavayre produced the first fully certified vintage in 2011. 60% of the property is planted with Negrette.

Irouleguy AOC. This is Basque country, which does not exist politically, but certainly exists culturally and linguistically. The Romans more or less left the Basque tribes alone, so their language and culture didn’t disappear as happened in the rest of Gaul and Iberia. The Pyrenees Mountains form an imposing boundary between France and Spain, with the discontinuous mountain vineyards forming a sort of amphitheater around Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Vineyards face north, east and southeast on soils based on sandstone and lime. Winegrowing in this challenging location has a strong cultural element, which is close to the pass of Roncevaux and the Abbey of Roncevalles in Spain.

The appellation produces 60% red, 25% rose and 15% white.  The reds and rosés are typically the Tannat grape plus the two Cabernets, and whites wines are made with the Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, and Petit Courbu. Most Irouleguy wine is sold locally, and thus not much is exported.

Photo credit: www.gutizia.fr

Photo credit: www.gutizia.fr

Visit Domaine Gutizia:
quartier Leisparz, 64430 Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry
+33 5 59 37 52 84
Contact: complete a form on the winery’s website
www.gutizia.fr

Domaine Gutizia was founded in 2011 by Sébastien Clauzel and Cécile Sabah, nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. Sébastien has worked vineyards in the Rhone, Provence and Beaujolais, while Cécile studied in Bordeaux and learned about winemaking in that region. Sébastien’s passion for wine and rugby led him to the Basque country and Irouleguy. D. Gutizia is small (6 ha) but produces white, rosé, and red wines.

Jurançon AOC. Many of the parcels of vines in Jurançon are tiny and isolated, which served to halt the sweep of phylloxera through the region in the late 1800s. Jurançon vineyards face southwest toward the Pyrynees Mountains, and are tucked between two parallel west-flowing rivers (locally called gaves): the Gave de Pau and the Gave d’Oleron. The mound of land between the rivers makes a lovely mound, and nice southwest-facing slopes, where about 1,200 ha of vines are grown.

Jurançon is one of France’s wettest regions, and so there is very little organic farming. High training and long pruning methods are used to avoid excess moisture. However, its two main grapes – Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng – have very thick skins and are thus not susceptible to mold in rainy conditions.

Jurançon is known for its great sweet wines (about 60% of production, mostly Petit Manseng). A distinctive feature of the climate is the foehn wind which often gives this area a beautiful Indian summer. The sweet wines of Jurançon are not made by botrytis. Instead, the method used is passerillage: grapes are left to shrivel on the vine and raisin in the autumn.

Photo credit: D. Cauhapé website

Photo credit: D. Cauhapé website

Visit Domaine Cauhapé:
64360 Monein
+33 (0)5 59 21 33 02
Contact:
contact@cauhape.com
www.jurancon-cauhape.com

Winemaker Henri Ramonteu brings great energy to the presentation of both dry and sweet wines made primarily from Petit Manseng grapes. Gros Manseng and Courbu bring finesse and fruit to the blend; Camaralet and Lauzet are ancient varieties used sparingly as they are reintroduced to dry Jurançon wines. The dry range includes five wines; the sweet range includes six wines that exemplify what happens to the Petit Manseng grapes from October through January as well as unique blends of those same wines.

Domaine du Cinquau Photo credit: www.zankyou.fr

Domaine du Cinquau
Photo credit: www.zankyou.fr

Visit Domaine du Cinquau:
64230 Artiguelouve
+33 (0)5 59 83 10 41
Contact: p.saubot@jurancon.com
www.jurancon.com

Established in 1617, D. du Cinquau is one of the oldest wineries in Jurançon and one of 60 independent producers. Recognizing that Jurançon is not as widely recognized as other regions of France, current owner Pierre Saubot invested in a beautiful modernization of the chateau as a way to bring people into the winery experience. The winery offers two dry and four sweet wines, the latter demonstrating how the grapes evolve through autumn to become increasingly sweet with extended raising.

Madiran AOC (red) and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh AOC (dry and sweet white). It is said that Madiran is in the middle of nowhere. It is, in fact, very difficult to get to. It is possible to drive through Madiran and never even see a vineyard because they are hidden away on a switchback landscape of east- or south-facing slopes along a series of valleys and ridges created by streams. The soil is heavy clay, and Madiran bears the brunt of Atlantic weather systems and rain.

The big story in Madiran is about its main grape, Tannat, which accounts for about 70% of all local plantings. It is very high in tannin, which must be handled with great care to find the balance between rustic and gentle style extremes. It is also high in acidity, and has a tendency toward reduction. It is definitely a food wine, but be sure to decant it for 24-28 hours regardless of vintage age!

Drumroll: Madiran is the most healthful wine you can drink! An emerging view of Tannat’s health properties is that it has the greatest concentration of procyanidins among common red grapes. This is not the same thing as resveratrol (a polyphenol, or antioxidant). It’s even better. Cardiovascular research conducted by Dr. Roger Corder, author of “The Red Wine Diet” (2006), has found procyanadins to be the main source of red wine’s health benefits. Offered as evidence is the surprisingly long lifespan of people living in the département of Gers in Southwest France where Madiran, spiritual home of Tannat, is located. This is the real French paradox!

Tannat is also the primary grape of Uruguay, having been taken there by Basque settlers. However, in contrast to the Cahors/Mendoza situation, there are still more plantings of Tannat in France than in Uruguay — 3000 ha vs. 1800 ha.

Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh specializes in sweet white wines. (Vic-Bilh means “old hill.”) They are late harvest (not botrytis) wines, rich and full-flavored with lots of honey notes, made from various combinations of Petit Courbu, Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, Courbu and Arrufiac. A small amount of dry white wine is also produced mostly from Petit Courbu.

Château Montus Photo credit: www.dax.ie/restaurant

Château Montus
Photo credit: www.dax.ie/restaurant

Visit Châteaux Montus and Bouscassé:
32400 Maumusson Laguian
+33 5 62 69 74 67
Contact: contact@brumont.fr
www.brumont.fr

These properties (and two more) are owned by Alain Brumont, and include the region’s highest profile single vineyard site, La Tyre. Grape varieties are Tannat, Petit Manseng, and Petit Courbu. Brumont makes white and red wines in the appellations of Madiran, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, and Côtes de Gascogne. Brumont is a large producer with distribution in over 40 countries.

Didier Barré in the field Photo credit: www.sudcomer.com (Berthoumieu website)

Didier Barré in the field
Photo credit: http://www.sudcomer.com (Berthoumieu website)

Visit Domaine Berthoumieu:
Dutour, 32400 Viella, France
+33 5 62 69 74 05
Contact: contact@domaine-berthoumieu.com
www.domaine-berthoumieu.com

The winery is physically located in Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl AOC, homeland of the famous Musketeers and stronghold of d’Artagnan (aka Charles de Batz). Ch. Berthoumieu specializes in sweet white wines. Owner Didier Barré is the 5th generation winemaker of this property. Some of the family’s vines are more than 100 years old. A speciality of Ch. Berthoumieu is Tanatis, a late harvest port-like Vin du Liqueur, which they have made since 2000.

Monbazillac AOC is France’s leading sweet-wine appellation, producing more wine than Sauternes. Monbazillac’s stickies are made primarily from Muscadelle grapes, although Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are in the blend – essentially the reverse of Sauterne. Up to 10% is permitted in the blend from a combination of Chenin Blanc, Ondenc, and/or Ugni Blanc grapes. But unlike other regions where grapes are harvested late to ripen or left to raisin on the vine, the vineyard process in Monbazillac is the same as Sauterne: botrytis.

The terroir is also similar to Sauternes: limey clay and marl soils, although a bit less gravelly; hilly; and a river-influenced Mediterranean climate with perfect conditions for noble rot as autumn morning mists from the Gardonette River give way to warm, sunny afternoons. Monbazillac wines compare favorably with some of the lesser Sauternes, although the style is different: a little darker in color, a little stronger in aroma and flavor, and typically even sweeter than Sauterne.

Photo credit: ©Gunther Vicente (Tirecul La Gravière website)

Photo credit: ©Gunther Vicente (Tirecul La Gravière website)

Visit: Château Tirecul La Gravière:
24240 Monbazillac
+33 5 47 77 07 60
Contact: contact@tirecul-la-graviere.fr
www.tirecul-la-graviere.fr

Tirecul La Gravière is owned by Bruno and Claudie Bilancini. The farm is organic. The photo above shows morning mists that typically lift by 1:00 pm, introducing warm sunshine into the cool vineyards. The range includes four white wines: Cuvée Madame, Ch. Tirecul La Graviére, Les Pins, and Andrea (dry).

Pécharment is a leading red-wine appellation, focused primarily on the familiar Bordeaux grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec for the reds; and Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for the whites.

Photo credit: Ch. de Tiregand website

Photo credit: Ch. de Tiregand website

Visit Château de Tiregand:
118 route Sainte-Alvère, 24100 Creysse
+33 5 53 23 21 08
Contact: contact@chateau-de-tiregand.com
www.chateau-de-tiregand.com

Château de Tiregand is owned by the heirs to the Comtesse F. de St-Exupéry, run today by François de St-Exupéry, with his son Cyril serving as able winemaker-in-training. The winery offers three red Bordeaux blends consisting of four out of five classic grapes (all but Petit Verdot which does not grow well in Pecharment), a Cabernet/Merlot blend, and a Bergerac Blanc.

Traditional Southwest France: Malbec and Tannat

Historic Regions of Southwest France (Photo courtesy of hubertbrooks.com

Historic Regions of Southwest France
(Photo courtesy of hubertbrooks.com)

Political History

The political history of wine in Bordeaux explains in part why the appellations of Southwest France’s “high country” are hidden in its popular shadow. At times called Gascogne (including Béarn) and Aquitaine, today Southwest France is called l’Occitainie administratively.

Bordeaux was controlled by England from 1154 to 1453. This period proved to be a golden era for wine exports to England, Scandinavia, and Baltic ports, laying the foundation for Bordeaux’s enduring reputation as a preeminent source of fine wine. Because Bordeaux merchants controlled access to the sea and collected taxes for the English Kings, a system of market control emerged called Police des Vins or the Privilege de Bordeaux. Here’s how it worked: only new wine from Bordeaux could be shipped before December 1 each year. Even if “high country” wines arrived in Bordeaux in December, they could not be shipped until after Christmas. This prejudiced system remained in place well into the 17th century.

Regional nuances explain modern circumstances in some of the better-known areas of Southwest France. For example:

Only Bergerac was exempt from the Privilege de Bordeaux system. Bergerac became part of British Aquitaine in 1255 and was afforded the same shipping privileges as Bordeaux, thus enjoying the benefits of this golden era, especially shipping to Holland where the Dutch were particularly fond of sweet wines. But disparities existed nonetheless. Bergerac is in a different department than Bordeaux (Dordogne vs. Gironde), resulting in lower bulk prices for Bergerac’s wines. Its image suffers even today in comparison to Bordeaux.

The wine-related histories of Cahors and Gaillac go back to Roman times. Madiran’s foray into wine started later, when Benedictine monks arrived in the 12th century to found the Madiran priory.

Archeological evidence (amphorae) shows that Gaillac was a major wine production center as early as the first century. At the time of the Roman conquest of Gaul, it was one of the first places soldiers came to as they made their way north. (Neither Burgundy nor Bordeaux had yet become significant key wine regions.) They may have viewed Gaillac as the furthest north horizon for viticulture due to its positioning on a navigable river (Tarn). Wines from Gaillac emerge over the centuries in stories of gifts among royals and the court’s preferred libation.

Cahors was the place where Romans crossed the Lot River as they worked their way north. Vineyards were planted early and extensively in Cahors. The town was quite prosperous and cultured even before Bordeaux began to occupy that esteemed position. In fact, half of the wine shipped out of Bordeaux in the 14th century came from Cahors. Despite economic disadvantages caused by the Privilege de Bordeaux, and other setbacks through the 19th century, Cahors managed to maintain its reputation for fine wines. Problems began to escalate in the mid-1800s, however, and for the next 100 years (through the 1950s), Cahors experienced a sharp decline in production and market reputation. Today, producers are aligned in a rebranding strategy to reposition the region as home to “The Original Malbec” in a friendly competition with Argentina.

Madiran wines did not enjoy the export notoriety of the other regions of Southwest France. The Adour River, key to moving product from the region to export markets, did not become navigable until the 18th century, and then only in one small area. Madiran’s rural location in the “middle of nowhere” with no major cities or towns has meant that other crops such as cereals and root vegetables predominate. Most of the great winegrowing sites in the region have already been planted. The wine industry in Madiran seems destined to remain small, slow and steady.

Spiritual Home of Malbec and Tannat Grapes

Most wine consumers today highly associate Malbec with Argentina. Others may think of Malbec primarily as a blending partner with the major grapes in Bordeaux blends. One of many French paradoxes, however, is that Malbec’s original spiritual home is actually Cahors.

How can two countries, one in the old world and one in the new, both lay claim to the preeminence of one grape? The history of the Cahors region shows that Malbec has been documented to Roman times, but a combination of market forces and vine diseases diminished growing, production and market relevance.

Spiritual Homes: Cahors and Mendoza (Photo credits: Wine Folly grapevine; Wines of Argentina map; Lot Cycling Holidays “Cahors Malbec”)

Spiritual Homes: Cahors and Mendoza
(Photo credits: Wine Folly grapevine; Wines of Argentina map; Lot Cycling Holidays “Cahors Malbec”)

As this was happening, mostly in the mid-19th century, Malbec made its way to Argentina – according to “Wine Grapes,” possibly via cuttings that were imported to Chile from Bordeaux. The timing is key here: these vine cuttings escaped the deadly phylloxera louse taking hold in France! Malbec quickly found its happy place in the Lujan de Cuyo region just south of Mendoza.

Both Cahors and Argentina have made the modern mistake of either replanting sick vineyards (Cahors) or grubbing up Malbec vines (both countries) in favor of more popular international varieties. It has taken some time to restore total Malbec vine supply in both places. Today about 70% of all Malbec is grown in Argentina, perhaps at least partially explaining consumer familiarity. At considerable risk of oversimplification, differences in terroir yield Malbecs in Argentina that tend to be higher in alcohol and fruit-forward, whereas the Malbecs of Cahors are more savory, even meaty, with firm tannins.

It wasn’t until Cahors AOC was approved in 1971 as a 100% red appellation that the region embarked on a three-decade “golden age.” There has been a strong brand strategy movement afoot for nearly a decade to reposition Cahors as home to the original Malbec. “The French Malbec” campaign was born to elevate Malbec and Cahors to “the center of the modern world.”

Tannat is a dark-colored red grape, richly textured with readily extracted tannins, and relatively high in acidity. But there is one common misunderstanding, oft-repeated by wine writers (and even some wineries on their websites): Tannat is not a thick-skinned grape! Like its brethren great grapes – Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Grenache, just to name a few – Tannat has thin skin, but excellent skin-to-pulp ratio, and thus generates excellent tannins for structure and aging potential.

Tannat from Madiran (Photo Credit: aquitaineonline.com)

Tannat from Madiran
(Photo Credit: aquitaineonline.com)

An emerging view of Tannat’s health properties is that it has the greatest concentration of procyanidins among common red grapes. This is not the same thing as resveratrol (a polyphenol, or antioxidant). It’s even better. Cardiovascular research conducted by Dr. Roger Corder, author of “The Red Wine Diet” (2006), has found procyanadins to be the main source of red wine’s health benefits. Offered as evidence is the surprisingly long lifespan of people living in the département of Gers in Southwest France where Madiran, home of Tannat, is located. This is the real French paradox!

Less well known in wine world is the fact that, like Malbec, Tannat also has two spiritual homes: Madiran and Uruguay. Wine write Alder Yarrow (vinography.com) describes Uruguay as a “quiet neighbor” to South America’s big producers: Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Uruguay has been producing wine for over a century, and getting to a pretty high level of quality in the last 25-30 years. Many of Uruguay’s residents are Italian immigrants – a longer story for another day. Their native grapes did not do well in the windy, humid Uruguayan climate. In 1870, a Basque immigrant by the name of Pascal Harriague brought Tannat plantings to Uruguay. Today, Tannat plantings represents about 25% of all vineyard acreage.

Traditional Food

Southwest France is the land of geese and ducks prepared every way imaginable (including pâté, foie gras, and rillettes). Fat from these birds is used in many recipes ranging from potatoes to confit. But don’t overlook the many other regional specialties including garlic soup, black Périgord truffles, goat cheeses, walnuts, and dried fruits (especially prunes). The Southwest diet, plus all that tannic red wine, is actually a very healthy one – the real French paradox!!

“Perhaps there is no dish in the Southwest France more iconic, cherished, and controversial than the cassoulet. Cassoulet was originally a food of peasants–a simple assemblage of what ingredients were available: white beans with pork, sausage, duck confit, gizzards, cooked together for a long time.” [dartagnan.com, a French purveyor of gourmet food]

The legend of cassoulet is claimed by Castelnaudary, dating back to 1355 during the Hundred Years War when hungry townspeople gathered up available ingredients to make a hearty stew. Other cities – particularly Toulouse and Carcassonne – also lay claim to this traditional dish as the one, true Cassoulet. The name cassoulet comes from the word cassole, the traditional clay pot in which it is cooked (c. 1377).

Cassoulet (Photo Credit: Curtis Stone on Pinterest)

Cassoulet
(Photo Credit: Curtis Stone on Pinterest)

Traditional cassoulet is made with goose or duck confit, but the recipe varies from town to town in Southwest France. Some recipes include pork shoulder and sausage or mutton. Whether or not to add crumbs to the top is a matter of fierce debate. Even the type of bean is debated. In southern areas closest to the the Pyrénées Mountains, the bean must be the Coco, or Tarbais, bean. Further north, flageolet beans are used. In the spring, fresh fava beans are used. But in other parts of the world, cassoulet is typically made with Great Northern or Cannellini beans.

Some general advice for making a classic cassoulet:

  • The texture should be similar to a thick stew. If it is too dry, add some liquid. If it is too moist, cut the crust to concentrate the juices.
  • If adapting a recipe to maximize flavor, which is encouraged, use as many different confit meats as possible.
  • Always eat cassoulet very hot!
  • Cassoulet is better the next day as a leftover after the flavors have had more time to meld.

“How to Make Cassoulet” from allrecipes.com

INGREDIENTS (8 servings)

Beans
1 pound dried Great Northern or Cannellini beans
1 whole clove
1/2 onion
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
10 cups water

Soak Great Northern (or Cannellini) beans in water in a large bowl overnight. Drain beans and place into a large soup pot. Push whole clove garlic into the 1/2 onion and add to beans; stir in 4 cloves smashed garlic, bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, and 10 cups water. Bring beans to a simmer and cook over medium-low heat until beans have started to soften, about 1 hour. Drain beans and reserve the cooking liquid, removing and discarding onion with garlic clove and bay leaf. Transfer beans to a large mixing bowl.

Casserole
1/2 pound thick-sliced bacon, chopped
2 ribs celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
1/2 onion, diced
salt to taste
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 pound link sausages (preferably French herb sausage), cut in half crosswise
1 pound cooked duck leg confit
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence (or similar herb mixture)
1 (14 ounce) can diced tomatoes

Topping
1/4 cup butter
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 cups panko bread crumbs
1 bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  2. Cook bacon in a large, heavy Dutch oven over medium heat until lightly browned and still limp, about 5 minutes. Stir celery, carrots, and 1/2 diced onion into bacon; season with salt. Cook and stir vegetables in the hot bacon fat until tender, about 10 minutes.
  3. Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat; brown sausage link halves and duck confit in the hot oil until browned, about 5 minutes per side.
  4. Season vegetable-bacon mixture with 1 1/2 teaspoon salt, cracked black pepper, and herbes de Provence; pour in diced tomatoes. Cook and stir mixture over medium heat until juice from tomatoes has nearly evaporated and any browned bits of food on the bottom of pot have dissolved, about 5 minutes. Stir mixture into beans.
  5. Spread half the bean mixture into the heavy Dutch oven (or traditional Cassoulet baking dish) and place duck-sausage mixture over the beans; spread remaining beans over meat layer. Pour just enough of the reserved bean liquid into pot to reach barely to the top of the beans, reserving remaining liquid. Bring bean cassoulet to a simmer on stovetop and cover Dutch oven with lid.
  6. Bake bean cassoulet in the preheated oven for 30 minutes.
  7. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat; add 4 crushed garlic cloves, panko crumbs, and parsley to the melted butter. Season with salt and black pepper, and drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil over crumbs. Stir to thoroughly combine.
  8. Uncover cassoulet and check liquid level; mixture should still have several inches of liquid. If beans seem dry, add more of the reserved bean liquid. Spread half the crumb mixture evenly over the beans and return to oven. Cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes. There should be about 2 or 3 inches of liquid at the bottom of the pot; if mixture seems dry, add more reserved bean mixture. Sprinkle remaining half the bread crumb mixture over cassoulet.
  9. Turn oven heat to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C) and bake cassoulet, uncovered, until crumb topping is crisp, edges are bubbling, and the bubbles are slow and sticky, 20 to 25 more minutes. Serve beans on individual plates and top each serving with a piece of duck and several sausage pieces.

Up next: Appellations and Winemakers (Part 3)

Southwest France: Diverse by Design?

Southwest France (Sud Oest) is best known for what it isn’t. Frankly, and unfortunately, it’s not widely recognized at all. With an accompanying eye-roll, I must report that many people have asked me – quite genuinely – “where is Southwest France?”!

Let’s get positioned on the map. Sud Oest is the deepest rural France, la France profonde. “In terroir terms, it’s a big area and rather difficult to generalise about, but most of the high-quality vineyard zones…owe their existence to the slopes created by rivers coming down either from the Massif Central, or from the Pyrenees. The overall zone is the Aquitaine Basin, and almost all of the soils…have been developed from sedimentary rocks of various kinds, or by the action of the rivers themselves.”[1]

  • To the west, the Atlantic Ocean curves along the French coastline, moderating altitude and winter weather (along with several smallish rivers) to create both maritime and semi-continental climates with plenty of rainfall.
  • To the south, the Pyrenees Mountains separate France from Spain. Beautifully majestic and occasionally craggy, the mountains are quite permeable. Basque language, food, and culture seep into the foothills on the French side.
  • To the north, Southwest France stretches inland, cupping the edges of Bordeaux and capturing misty river effects to generate some of the world’s greatest (if little known) sweet wines.
  • To the east? Well, that’s a good question. Several of the appellations that comprise Southwest France are actually nestled within the great Massif Central. The city of Toulouse might be a good eastern marker signaling the regional shift to Languedoc-Roussillon.
Map Credit: Wine Folly

Map Credit: Wine Folly

So what is (or is not) Southwest France? It is not an official appellation; it is a collection of appellations, glued together for convenience into a sort of cornucopia. Its terroir is not homogenous, although there are some common threads. It is the spiritual home – exclusive, in some cases – to spectacularly interesting grapes. Despite New World claims to the contrary, Malbec and Tannat can rightly claim Cahors and Madiran, respectively, as their spiritual homes. It’s not all obscure and mysterious, though. The appellations closest to Bordeaux do grow international varieties and make familiar blends.

This all adds up to a perplexing global-market branding nightmare for the winegrowers of Southwest France. There is very little that ties this huge geographic region together naturally as either an appellation or a brand. What might it be called instead? South X Southwest? Pyrenees North? Bordeaux Near? Gascony? High Country? l’Aquitaine?

Contributing to the overall brand issue is the fact that only about 25% of the 330 million bottles produced in Southwest France is AOC wine. Most of it – nearly 2/3 – is a regional designation of IGP (formerly Vin de Pays), and the rest is basically table wine for local markets. It is difficult to lift up and distinguish the highest quality wines.

It’s quite possibly impossible to create a proper synthesis of the region. While this alignment and branding problem is being sorted out, perhaps at a smaller scale on an appellation by appellation basis, the interim solution seems clear to me. Take a deep breath, hire a driver, plan a wine route that matches your sense of adventure, and enjoy by design the diversity of Southwest France. Just be sure to plan enough time to make the most of the >1,800 km touring experience!

Up next: Part 2 | History, Food & Wine

[1] Thank you to Andrew Jefford for the use of his extensive reference notes and excellent leadership of a Wine Scholar Guild tour of Southwest France.

Tradition Meets Innovation in Bergerac, FR

(This article was published October 20 by Wine Scholar Guild)

Day one of the Wine Scholar Guild (WSG) study tour of Southwest France, led by Andrew Jefford, was a very special opportunity to spend quality time with the owners/winemakers of three appellations, each providing a different glimpse of the diverse terroir of the region.

A bit behind schedule, we stopped for lunch at La Flambée near Bergerac just before 1:00. Bruno Bilancini had earlier explained the region’s daily rhythm of cool mists lasting until about 1:00, then giving way to warm sunshine (and thus perfect conditions for botrytis). The daily weather story was right on schedule!
Back on the bus, warmed by a lovely meal and and a preview of a white wine from Château Tour de Gendres, we headed to our third and final visit of the day in Bergerac with winemaker Luc di Conti. Instead of vineyard cats, we were greeted enthusiastically by a boisterous pooch who was determined to latch onto the knitted scarf of one member of our group.

In Ch. Tour’s vineyards we walked high atop a hill where we could see clearly the patchwork quilt of soils that provide great diversity and a perfect setting for organic farming (since 1996) of each parcel in a different manner. While the complete picture of the di Conti family vineyard holdings encompasses 50 ha, Luc farms 20 of them, choosing the 6 ha closest to the winery and cellars for biodynamic farming. When asked whether organic farming is more expensive than traditional commercial methods, Luc said unequivocally “no. If you are playing chess, you are always one step ahead. The same is true of viticulture.” After 20 years, nature is in balance at Ch. Tour and inspires new directions such as the dozen amphorae where Luc is also making orange wines.

Our tasting included a sample of Sauvignon Blanc from amphora (no skins, 10 days in the vessel) to compare with SB from a wooden vat. The amphora sample was cool, cloudy, slightly effervescent and sweet. The vat sample was warmer and also cloudy at this stage; though there was no sign of effervescence, there was more residual sugar. Continuing with comparisons, we tasted a vat sample of 2016 Bergerac Blanc (Muscadelle a Petits Grains) and a finished sample from 2014 which had been aged 80% in vat and 20% in amphora. The vat sample was quite leesy and tasted of pamplousse (grapefruit), while the finished wine was rich and full bodied with a slightly saline character. The vines for a 2014 Sauvignon Blanc are 80 years old, grown on calcere soil, resulting in a style typical of SW France. The final taste was a sample of 2015 Cabernet Franc, aged 14 months in a vat, ready to spend a year in bottle prior to release.

Chateau Tour Des Gendres

Chateau Tour Des Gendres

Southwest France: Monbazillac, Pecharment and Bergerac

Day one of the Wine Scholar Guild (WSG) study tour of Southwest France, led by Andrew Jefford, was a very special opportunity to spend quality time with the owners/winemakers of three appellations, each providing a different glimpse of the diverse terroir of the region.

Chateau Tirecul La Gravière

The misty morning launched with great aplomb: sweet breakfast treasures from Monbazillac. Standing with us on the edge of vineyards where botrytised grapes awaited the launch of harvest (by hand) on October 19, Bruno Bilancini led a discussion of the vineyard’s primarily clay (with a bit of limestone) terroir, explaining the influence of being situated in the microclimate of a valley on the left bank of the Dordogne River and the effects of slopes that face north and east (rather than the more customary south and west). Although Sauternes is perhaps better known than Monbazillac, the latter has twice the vineyard area. We also savored a vineyard sampling of raisined Semillon and Muscadelle grapes. The Bilancini family’s hunt for their white vineyard cat — yes, cat! — added a suspenseful moment to the visit.

Winemaker Bruno Bilancini; Wine Scholar Guild study group led by Andrew Jefford; misty morning in Monbazillac

Winemaker Bruno Bilancini; Wine Scholar Guild study group led by Andrew Jefford; misty morning in Monbazillac

Our tasting started with a dry white wine, 70% Muscadelle and 30% Semillon (2013), named “Andrea” for Luc’s daughter. Unoaked, virtually no skin contact, only a single day of fermentation (no MLF), resulted in a rather flinty but elegant super-dry wine. The centerpiece of the tasting, however, was a trio of sweet wines, all revealing a tangy tangerine note that Bruno said was characteristic of the region. Ranging from light and crisp (young vines) to bold and complex (vines 20-30 years old), these field-blended wines are not intended for dessert! Bruno’s advice was to serve them decanted for as long as two days and quite cold, the lightest (2015 Les Pins) as an aperitif and the more luscious pair (Tirecul La Graviere, bottled spring 2015, and a 1998 Cuvee Madame) with spicy cuisine.

Chateau de Tiregand

Onward to Pécharmant, where the youngest heir to the Saint-Exupéry dynasty met us for a tour of the vineyard, winery and tasting. Cyril is the son (and winemaker in training) of the current winery leader, François-Xavier, who was en route from a trip to Belgium. A bit nervous to lead the presentation for eight wine students and professionals, young Cyril did a fine job walking us through the vineyards, the basics of wine production, and a tasting. (At one point in the cellar, a black cat, heavy with soon-to-be-born kittens, managed to give us all a start as we discussed barrel aging.) Due primarily to its location, Ch. de Tiregand specializes in blends of traditional Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Our walk through the vineyard revealed vines heavy with nearly ripe grapes, sweet and juicy to the taste until met with the crunch of a still-green pip. The date for harvest will be soon, but had not yet been selected.

Cyril Saint-Exupery; Cabernet Franc nearly ready for harvest; busy preparations in the winery.

Cyril Saint-Exupéry; Cabernet Franc nearly ready for harvest; busy preparations in the winery.

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