Category Archives: France

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.

xx

A Spectacular Chaine Holiday

Chaine logo

The Hilton Netherland’s Hall of Mirrors adds sparkle and festive vibes to any event. Monday’s holiday dinner for more than 100 members and guests of the Cincinnati chapter of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs was no exception. Greeted by glittering glasses of Roederer Estate Brut NV (Anderson Valley sparkling), canapes passed deftly by a charming staff among hugs and holiday greetings, we were eagerly ushered into the Hall where chef Todd Kelly’s extraordinary meal awaited our undivided attention.

Though the experience of quality fine dining is central to being part of the Chaîne, wine pairing plays an equal measure. This holiday dinner was “100/100” as one member described it in a Facebook post. I’m sure you will agree!

Chaine 1st course

First course: Seriously, I could have declared victory for the evening with an utterly perfect pairing of foie gras with Sauternes. Cleverly presented on a savory, peppery shortbread, the disk of silky goodness accompanied by classic pistachio accents and a cooling dab of Muscadine gel, was frankly inhaled by everyone at the table. Always a good match with salty undertones, the unctuous honeyed sweetness of the Sauternes lingered on the palate, lifting the punch of the pepper into a long spicy finish. Château Roûmieu-Lacoste Sauternes 2013.

Chaine 2nd course

Second course: Cleverly presented as a carrot-billed duck, our second course featured a Maitake mushroom strudel topped with whipped red wine, and plated with shaved truffles and root vegetables. What better to go with this earthy dish than Burgundy? The whipped wine dissipated into a lovely sauce for the savory strudel. While truffles can at times overwhelm a dish, this was a light touch preparation. The root vegetables were pickled, striking fear in the hearts of wine lovers who know what vinegar can do to red wine — but the acidity in the Pinot Noir made it work! Maison Roche de Bellene Gevrey-Chambertin 2011.

Chaine 3rd course

Third course:  Grilled swordfish medallions were accented by aged Wattle Ham and clams, plated on smoked butter and celery, and accompanied by red and white miniature potatoes. The wine selection for this dish was an oaked California Chardonnay, again causing some trepidation for the oenophiles. Named for roasted hazelnuts, our wine selection is considered the winery’s most “appellation-expressive” Chardonnay. Oak influences were modest (30% new French barrels) and the roasted/citrusy flavor profile was more like northern Burgundy than northern California. Kistler “les Noisetiers” Sonoma Coast 2013.

Chaine 4th course

Fourth course: It took some effort among several diners to collect a photo of this bacon-wrapped filet. Not because it wasn’t terrific, mind you; rather because the wine was so amazing! This very rich beef course was presented with smoked chicken hearts, pomegranate ragout, swiss chard, and a Champagne/tarragon sabayon. Most of us simplified the experience to its essence, focusing on the filet and the wine, a smooth “drink now” Cabernet Sauvignon with a unique and vibrant aroma of milk chocolate and licorice. Odette Estate Cabernet, Stags Leap District 2012.

 Chaine 5th course

Dessert course: It was a happy moment when the Sauternes made its way back into the final course anchored by a disk of fromage blanc custard. Geometrically pleasing to the eye, the top bar was caramelized white chocolate; the “balance beam” was a hazelnut praline; and a swoosh of cranberry gelee accented small marinated fruits. The Sauternes paired beautifully with each element of the dish.

Photos courtesy of Mary Horn, Jt Mayer, Michael Lancor

Domaine Michel Lafarge, Volnay

Domaine Lafarge

Domaine Michel Lafarge, 15 rue de la Combe, Volnay.

Finding Domaine Lafarge started off as an uncertain conquest! The charming village of Volnay is quite hilly with narrow winding streets. As if the natural challenge of finding rue de la Combe wasn’t enough, it turned out that the street was undergoing major road repair. After seeking guidance from two different sympathetic residents, we finally found the boulangerie recommended for parking, yet still needed several passes up and down the street to skirt the construction equipment and locate #15. I believe it to be true that 99% of potential visitors would have absolutely no idea that lurking behind the doors of what appears to be a normal residence is a winemaking operation complete with a c. 13th century cellar!

Street repair on rue de la Combe in Volnay.

Street repair on rue de la Combe in Volnay.

Domaine Lafarge was established in the early 19th century. The family members who have given the winery its current shape include current proprietors Frederic and his father Michel, and grandfather Henri who is well known in local winemaking for blending Gamay and Pinot Noir grapes (passetoutgrain). Frederic is the winemaker. In 2000, the farm was converted to biodynamic (not certified) farming.

The estate includes 15 different wines from 12 hectares of vines mostly in Volnay plus Meursault and Beaune. In email exchanges prior to our arrival, M. Lafarge cautioned that 2012 and 2013 vintages had been very challenging for the winery. We learned during our visit that a mistral and hail storms damaged 80% of the 2012 vintage, and 65% of 2013. Understandably, we would not be able to try a barrel sample.

Most generous under the circumstances to share library wines as well as the story of the winery’s provenance, M. Lafarge led us into the seven-centuries old cellar past bottles so coated in (beneficial) mold that they looked like skunks!

Cellar dating to 13th century at Domaine Lafarge.

Cellar dating to 13th century at Domaine Lafarge.

Our tasting included two 2010 whites and two reds. The Cote Chalonnaise and southern areas of the Cotes de Beaune are successful in growing the Aligote grape. One of Domaine Lafarge’s Aligote wines is called “Raisins Dores” because the vines are 75 years old and the grapes are golden at harvest and in the glass. We found the wine to be light and refreshing, perfect as an aperitif. More recent vintages are available in the U.S. for about $20.

We viewed the domaine’s Meursault wine as a pure fruit expression of Chardonnay, more straightforward than complex, lightly oaked and ready to drink now, though it will continue to develop well in the bottle for another 3-5 years. Available in the U.S. for about $55.

Frederic Lafarge

Harry and Ann Santen with Frederic Lafarge.

The first of two reds was a 2007 Volnay (village) wine. Still quite tart and tannic, we thought the wine has good potential but needs more time before it is ready to drink. The character of a Volnay rouge tends to be more elegant with silky tannins, and this one was not quite fully integrated. Expert wine raters such as Jancis Robinson accorded the 2007 a good rating of 17/20 points. Available in the U.S. for about $60.

Saving the very best for last, M. Lafarge shared a 2006 Volnay premier cru “Clos des Chenes,” which he declared to have been an excellent vintage. He owns one hectare of this vineyard, which makes D. Lafarge the largest owner. The wine is just beginning to open up, revealing the elegance and fine tannins of which a Volnay wines are capable. Wine raters ranging from Wine Enthusiast to Jancis Robinson were divided in their assessment of this wine, which retails for $125-150 in the U.S. We thought it was delicious, so I hope you will try to find it in the market, in a restaurant, or by tapping into a friend’s cellar! Drink now through 2018.

U.S. importer: Martin Scott Wines

Feast of Saint Vincent: A Burgundy Tradition

Salle de Fete de Givry

Salle de Fete de Givry

Each year in January, 80 wine villages throughout Burgundy celebrate the feast of Saint Vincent as the guardian of winemakers. While the officially designated feast date is January 22, many wine villages organize elaborate festivals around that date honoring the 20th century tradition of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. For example, on January 18 I participated in the Chevalier du Cep Henri IV de Givry, typically held the third Saturday of January. The village festivals will culminate this year on January 25-26 in Saint-Aubin with the Saint-Vincent Tournante, an elaborate festival with banners and flags, marching and drinking.

Because each village celebration is bespoke, my friends the Santens and I were not aware that the village of Morey-Saint-Denis celebrates Saint Vincent on January 22. We learned that very morning that the feast would be held at our hotel in Morey-Saint-Denis. The Castel de Tres Girard is just steps away from many fine vineyards including three that we planned to visit.

How generous it was of Sylvain Pitiot, winemaker for Clos de Tart, and Romain Taupenot, owner and winemaker for Domaine Taupenot-Merme to make time for us on feast day!

Entrance to Clos de Tart, an abbey built in 1141.

Entrance to Clos de Tart, an abbey built in 1141.

Through the enterprise of Cistercian monks, the story of Clos de Tart is intertwined with that of Cellier aux Moines in Givry, the vineyard where we started our wine journey as part of the Chevalier du Cep festival of Saint Vincent. The Cistercian monks of Citeaux Abbey planted vineyards in 1113, which is still known as Cellier aux Moines, and also assembled the plots known as Clos de Vougeot near Morey-Saint-Denis during 1109-15. In 1141, Cistercian nuns planted vineyards and started an abbey now known as Clos de Tart.

There have been only three owners of Clos de Tart in exactly 900 years. The Marey-Mange family succeeded the monks in 1791, and the current owner is the Mommessin family.

Clos de Tart is one of five monopole vineyards in Morey-Saint-Denis. It is also the largest with 7.5 hectares of vineyards within the clos (walled vineyard). Unlike many other vineyards, Clos de Tart plants its vines north to south. There are many advantages, including less erosion, more even exposure to sunlight as the sun moves from east to west, and the possibility of safely using machines for vineyard management and harvest in the lower to middle rows of the steep slope.

Clos de Tart vines looking westward.

Clos de Tart vines looking westward.

Sylvain Pitiot became winemaker in 1996. In the nearly two decades since joining Clos de Tart, he has gradually adjusted the viticultural process in keeping with his professional training as a topographical engineer and experience as a vigneron. In M. Pitiot’s own words, “time is our tool — don’t stress the wine”! In explaining this concept to us, several elements stood out as areas of focus in the winemaking process: temperature control is key, use of sulphur is tightly limited, no racking of barrels, no fining or filtration, and a one-month period to rest in steel vats after barrel aging before bottling commences by hand in small batches of four bottles at a time.

Barrel samples of 2012 Clos de Tart with Harry Santen and Sylvain Pitiot (L-R).

Barrel samples of 2012 Clos de Tart with Sylvain Pitiot.

M. Pitiot is gradually segmenting the property further, from six to 24 smaller climats, to become even more selective in how terroir influences the final wine. We were privileged to experience two barrel samples from 2012, one from a lower part of the vineyard, and one from the middle section about 50 meters away. They tasted quite different, and though there are some explanations for the variation, M. Pitiot admitted (with a smile) that there are too many factors involved to pin down an exact reason. Each climat is vinified and aged separately, and then blended (assemblage) before bottling. M. Pitiot tastes the barrel samples daily as the aging process nears completion. The wines we tasted will be bottled some time between March and May depending on M. Pitiot’s judgment of readiness.

M. Pitiot left us to join the festival luncheon at our hotel, while we drove to a sister property for a divine lunch at nearby Chateau de Saulon. The four-hour luncheon celebration for the vignerons, called a “paulee” in the spirit of the important annual harvest festival in late fall, included a six-course meal and 40 wines selected by the participating winemakers.

We learned these facts about the paulee from Romain Taupenot, who made time to provide a tour of his winery after the festivities! We spent nearly two hours together, learning about the Taupenot-Merme family history, exploring Romain’s philosophy of wine, and tasting six samples of the 2012 vintage ready for bottling in February.

Romain Taupenot with Ann and Harry Santen at Domaine Taupenot-Merme.

Romain Taupenot with Ann and Harry Santen at Domaine Taupenot-Merme.

Domaine Taupenot-Merme was created by the marriage of Romain Taupenot’s parents, although both families had been making wine for more than seven generations. Romain joined the family business in 1998 and took over as winemaker in 2001. The Domaine makes on average 80,000 total bottles of 19 wines from 20 appellations: 3 regional, 7 village, 6 premier cru (2 are blended), and 4 grand cru.

The aspect of making wine that is most important to M. Taupenot is for one to be able to experience his philosophy and related practices in the glass. M. Taupenot used the expression “juge de paix” to describe this experience, a metaphor in French which translates literally to “justice of the peace.”

Knowing that there are more than 100 parameters to take into account in the vineyard and making wine, M. Taupenot described his view of the importance to concentrate on three or four key factors. For him, a top priority is that oak should reveal the wine, not define it. Like Clos de Tart, Taupenot-Merme buys barrels from five different coopers. While Clos de Tart uses light and medium toasts, Taupenot-Merme uses only light toast. Other key factors for M. Taupenot are natural grape yeasts, temperature control, 100% destemming, cold soak of whole berries, and racking but no filtering.

Wine tasting at Domaine Taupenot-Mermet.

Wine tasting at Domaine Taupenot-Mermet.

The 2012 vintage will be ready for bottling starting in February. Our tasting included six wines: Gevrey-Chambertin (village), Gevrey-Chambertin “Belair” 1er cru, Nuits-Saint-George “Les Pruliers” 1er cru, and three grand crus from Corton Roguet, Charmes-Chambertin and Mazoyeres-Chambertin. Proving that tasting notes are only as good as one person’s notion of aroma and flavor, each of we three tasters preferred a different grand cru. My favorite: the Corton Roguet. It was complex with a rich mouthfeel and silky tannins, floral and elegant, with a hint of chocolate on the nose.

It’s a Family Affair

Three generations of the Moreau family.

Three generations of the Moreau family.

Family inheritance is a familiar and important concept in most countries, with inevitable cultural variations. But nowhere is inheritance more important than in the wine regions of France, and nowhere is it more complex and fascinating than in Burgundy.

The Napoleonic Law of Succession (early 1800s) stipulates that property must be distributed to family members through inheritance, which means that most Burgundy vineyards are divided among multiple owners — siblings, cousins, etc. If a single family maintains ownership of a vineyard for multiple generations, and if there is no family dispute or even a congenial split, the vineyard is likely a “monopole” (one owner, one wine). Another scenario is when multiple family members own vines and produce wines from shares of a single vineyard. This all creates enormous confusion for consumers trying to sort out winemaker and vineyard information on labels.

A genealogy chart would be helpful! It’s a family affair.

The Moreau family (assembled above) hosted the 2014 reception for St. Vincent as part of the annual festival of Chevalier du Cep Henri IV de Givry. Grandfather Xavier started the wine estate very recently (1975) in Burgundian terms, though his family had owned land in Givry for many decades. In 1990, son Michel joined Domaine Moreau and now runs the winery along with his wife and son, Alix and Vincent. The estate’s Aligote Blanc and 1er cru Clos Ste. Antoine are both superb.

For over 25 years, the Moreau family has adopted my friends Harry and Ann Santen as family. As I became a new Chevaliere — despite the fact that my French is worse than terrible — they welcomed me into their home with open arms amid a throng of siblings, in-laws and grandchildren.

Early on Sunday morning following Saturday’s festival celebration, this multi-generational entourage of Moreaus descended upon the recently renamed Domaine du Gardin-Perrotto. Known as Clos Salomon for 380 years, since the du Gardin family created the estate, the vineyard is textbook monopole. After her husband’s untimely death several decades ago, Jacqueline du Gardin took over running the winery very successfully. In the early 1990s she hired winemaker Fabrice Perrotto, hence the change of name to signal the business partnership. Her son Ludovic has also joined the family business. Although Mme. du Gardin is not “officially” related to the Moreau family, it was quite clear that the families of Givry do not stand on such ceremony. They are families of the vine. What happens next to the du Gardin-Perrotto winery will be a family affair.

The Moreau family (and U.S. guests) descend upon Clos Salomon/Domaine du Gardin-Perrotto.

The Moreau family (and U.S. guests) descend upon Clos Salomon/Domaine du Gardin-Perrotto.

Barrel samples of red Burgundy from Clos Salomon.

Barrel samples of red Burgundy from Clos Salomon.

With cautionary notes that 2013 was a difficult vintage (as was 2012), the group tasted a 2013 barrel sample of Clos Salomon juice still undergoing malolactic fermentation, and a 2012 bottle sample revealing a fresh, lively and classic Givry cherry fruit profile. Clos Salomon consists of three different parcels from which grapes are selected for highest quality. The 2009, which was an excellent vintage in Burgundy, offered a richly colored wine, at once delicate and deep on the palate with silky tannins. Even so Mme. du Gardin recommends drinking this wine 2016-19.

Domaine Thenard

Domaine Thenard

In a gentle but bone-chilling rain, our entourage moved on to Domaine Thenard. As an interesting historical note, in the late 19th century, ancestor Paul Thenard discovered that carbon disulfide could be used (in part) to combat the dreaded phylloxera louse. In 1832 Paul and his wife founded the estate which has been continuously operated by his descendants. The current winemakers are M. Jacques Bordeaux-Montrieux, who is a cousin of Xavier Moreau, and Jacques’ son Jean-Baptiste Bordeax-Montrieux.

M. Bordeaux-Montrieux, current owner and descendant of Paul Thenard.

M. Bordeaux-Montrieux, current owner and descendant of Paul Thenard.

Domaine Thenard produces excellent 1er cru wines from the vineyards of Cellier aux Moines, Clos Ste. Pierre and Bois Chevaux. Its superb Grand Cru wines (Montrachet and Corton Clos du Roi) are sold to necogiant Louis Jadot for export worldwide. As a very special treat for wine lovers, the group was privileged to taste 2011 Montrachet from the barrel as well as a 2009 Corton Clos du Roi. It was a coveted experience in the wine world!

Now the complexities of a family inheritance story unfold. Like vines and wines, families mature and change over time. The final piece of this family puzzle: cousins Xavier Moreau and Jacques Bordeaux-Montrieux, as well as about 20 other family members, own shares of Domaine Thenard’s vineyard properties.

My advice? Don’t try to draw a family tree or figure out the web of family relationships. Just enjoy the wine, and be mindful of how much you can learn about families, vines and wines from the label. Volumes have been written about Burgundy by premier writers including Clive Coates, Jasper Morris and Jancis Robinson, all Masters of Wine. These are excellent resources for learning about the long-lived joys and complexities of Burgundy.

Chevalier du Cep Henri IV de Givry

View of Givry from Clos Cellier aux Moines

View of Givry from Clos Cellier aux Moines

Henry IV provided the inspiration for the Chevalier du Cep festival more than 400 years ago. It is widely said and entirely accepted that the red wines of Givry, situated in the Cote Chalonnaise, were King Henry’s favorites. Now as then, they are fresh, lively and approachable wines meant for early drinking.

But in the early 20th century, the wines of Burgundy took a nosedive in popularity. In 1934, the famous Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin was created as a solution to promote Burgundy’s wines, cuisine, folklore and festivals. Headquartered in the prestigious Clos du Vougeot, the brotherhood has more than 12,000 members.

Over the next several decades, many more confreries were created at the village level. Chevalier du Cep Henri IV de Givry was founded in 1963. Every year, on the third Saturday of January, members of the brotherhood gather to give thanks to St. Vincent, the patron saint of winemakers, and to induct new members. It is a twelve-hour affair full of pageantry and promises, love and laughter, food and wine.

The morning begins at Domaine du Clos Cellier aux Moines where the statue of St. Vincent has rested throughout 2013. While the Domaine was founded more than 900 years ago by Cistercian Monks, it has been owned since 2004 by Philippe and Catherine Pascal who have restored the domaine. M. Pascal is a former executive in the wine industry, including labels owned by Seagrams and LVMH.

Nominators Ann and Harry Santen, Cincinnati OH

Nominators Ann and Harry Santen, Cincinnati OH

St. Vincent at D. du Cellier aux Moines.

St. Vincent at D. du Cellier aux Moines.

After welcoming remarks and a glass of wine (at about 9:30 am!), the pageantry began with the festivals leaders heading in formal procession to the Place La Poste in Givry and to the church of Givry.

Procession of St. Vincent to Mass in Givry.

Procession of St. Vincent to Mass in Givry.

Following a formal mass, the third procession wound through the village streets of Poncey to Domaine Moreau, where St. Vincent will reside in 2014. Grateful there was no rain, we were nevertheless chilled to the bone in the Domaine’s courtyard. Even regular nibbles of Brie or gougeres between sips of Aligote didn’t quite take the edge off. In addition to welcoming St. Vincent to D. Moreau, a second purpose of this segment of the festival was to enjoy and purchase Brie cheese in honor of the “marriage” of the Chevaliers du Cep to the Brie de Meaux in 1992.

Domaine Moreau

Domaine Moreau

Three generations of the Moreau family.

Three generations of the Moreau family.

Shortly after 1:00 we all made our way to the grand banquet and induction ceremony. Our eight course meal stretched until nearly 9:00 with wines provided by local vintners. About halfway through this gastronomic experience, five new members from Germany, England and the United States as well as France were inducted into the Chevalier du Cep. I am proud to share that I am the only woman from the Americas to become a member of the brotherhood — a chevaliere — joining Harry Santen as the only other American.

Induction Part I

Induction Part I

Joining the Pageantry on Stage

Joining the Pageantry on Stage

Viva la Givry!!

Cabaret Meets Moulin Rouge!

Cabaret Meets Moulin Rouge!