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
Visit Bas Armagnac Francis Darroze:
277 avenue de l’Armagnac, 40120 Roquefort
+33 5 58 45 51 22
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)
Visit Château Tour des Gendres:
SARL La Julienne
Les Gendres, 24240 Ribagnac
+33 5 53 57 12 43
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.”
Visit Château Haut-Monplaisir:
Monplaisir, 46700 Lacapelle-Cabanac
+33 (0)5 65 24 64 78
Visit Clos Troteligotte:
Al Cap Blanc, 46090 Villesèque
+33 (0)6 74 81 91 26
Visit Château du Cedre:
Bru, 46700 Vire-sur-Lot
+33 (0)5 65 36 53 87
Union Interprofessionelle des Vins de Cahors (UIVC) Malbec Lounge
Villa Cahors Malbec, Place F. Mitterand, 46000 Cahors
Contact: complete form on UIVC website
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.
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.
Visit Château Plaisance:
Place de la Mairie, 31340 Vacquiers
+33 5 61 84 97 41
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.
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
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.
Visit Domaine Cauhapé:
+33 (0)5 59 21 33 02
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.
Visit Domaine du Cinquau:
+33 (0)5 59 83 10 41
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.
Visit Châteaux Montus and Bouscassé:
32400 Maumusson Laguian
+33 5 62 69 74 67
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.
Visit Domaine Berthoumieu:
Dutour, 32400 Viella, France
+33 5 62 69 74 05
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)
Visit: Château Tirecul La Gravière:
+33 5 47 77 07 60
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
Visit Château de Tiregand:
118 route Sainte-Alvère, 24100 Creysse
+33 5 53 23 21 08
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.