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.”
- 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.
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
 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.