Buried treasure in the South West

Wine drinkers are on the whole a pretty conservative lot. We know what we like and we generally stick to it. This applies equally whether we are supermarket shoppers or have developed specialised palates. But one of the joys of the world of wine is its huge diversity, a product of its deeply entrenched localism of old vine-growing areas.  The range of grape varieties available today (to take one determinative factor) is vast. Jancis Robinson reports that her new multi-author book on grape varieties is so large that it will take a year to get from the completed text to the volume appearing the shops.  (Incidentally, it sounds like this means that a present for Christmas 2012 is sorted as long as the book will fit in the car!)  Similarly, the standard ‘popular’ book on indigenous Italian varieties lists 580.  and yet we mainly drink Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc …

The way we use the term ‘South West France’ illustrates the same contrast.  In wine speak this means the wonderfully disparate, historic, series of regions scattered from the Atlantic to the Massif Central, less Languedoc-Roussillon which is important enough to have an identity of its own.  Oh, and did we mention ‘specifically excluding Bordeaux’ – by far the largest fine wine area in France or even the world?  Bordeaux is geographically in the South West of France but by ‘South West’ we mean anything but Bordeaux.  

Just look at the amount of attention given to Bordeaux in comparison to the ‘South West’!  My only gripe with the otherwise excellent Decanter magazine is the acres of coverage given to this important region in contrast to the South West.  Typically there is an occasional feature on one of its few famous ACs, not its multiple ‘less important’ regions or varieties.  And, of course, the fine wine investment market is obsessed with Bordeaux.  The best we can say about this phenomenon is that the concentration on Bordeaux limits the damage that investment-driven wine buying does to the interests of those of us who want to enjoy the wines of the rest of the world and learn about their extraordinary diversity.  Wouldn’t it be terrible if people started speculating in top Alsace crus or Australian Riesling with the result that these wines too would get out IMG_0920of the reach of those who like to drink wine? 

Andover Wine Friends November 2011 meeting was a very special occasion to redress this balance of attention.  Paul Strang was the ideal guide.  Paul lives in the South West of France for part of the year and has recently published the results of his decades’ long personal engagement with the regions in South-West France. The wines and the winemakers (University of California Press, 2009).  He also brought to the task a gentle spirit, wit, a commitment to quality examples of local wine styles, a wisdom built up patiently over years of slowly accumulated experience and a admirable openness to learn from others. It was a winning combination! 

We tasted ten wines, featuring a total of nine grape varieties, IMG_0910all of which are local varieties. One has become well known elsewhere – Malbec in Argentina – but most are only grown in these regions between the Pyrenees and the Massif Central.  The aperitif for the evening was Mauzac nature, Plageoles, AC Gaillac non vintage, 11.5%.  In this wine the bubbles are created by the most traditional method: a single fermentation completed in the bottle in the spring when the temperatures begin to rise.  This example was barely sparkling, a pleasant spritz rather than the energetic bubbles we have become used to.  The Mauzac grape gives a characteristic old apple taste, joined in this example by a pleasant creamy quality.  A really worthwhile style. In the straw poll of the 30 people present, most of the votes were for ‘good’, the mid point of a five point scale. 

Two still white wines followed, both made with local grape varieties.  A product of the local co-operative, La Cave de Irouleguy, Xuri, AC Irouleguy, 2010, 13.5%, is a blend of 55% Gross Manseng, 45% Petit Manseng and 10% Petit Courbu. The Manseng grape is the leading white grape of the area, with a thick skin which means that it can resist botrytis, helped here by the fact that the predominant wind is dry, not damp.  This means that the grape can be picked at full ripeness in early October or late harvested for sweet wine.  This dry wine has a rich if subtle fruitiness, beautiful fruit and an acidic twist, a white with plenty of character.  The biggest vote by far was for 4 out of 5 (‘very good’). 

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The Ondenc grape variety is only grown in Gaillac with the resulting wine also coming in dry and sweet versions.  The variety starts growing early in the season and finishes late. Robert and Bernard Plageoles’ Ondenc Sec, Premier Côtes AC Gaillac 2008, 14.5%, is a testament to quality and good wine making.  The nose is reminiscent of white flowers and honey with a palate with  delicate fruit and a slight herbiness. The depth of flavour becomes evident as you hold the wine in your mouth.  There is no hint of heat and this in a wine with 14.5% alcohol.  Most votes fell squarely in the mid range, 2-4: ‘acceptable’, ‘good’, ‘very good’. 

The six reds fell neatly into two groups: rare local varieties, followed by versions of the better known Malbec and Tannat.  In order of tasting and of rising popularity the local peculiarities (in the best sense!) were made with the Negrette, Fer Savadou and Abouriou varieties. 

IMG_0915 The Negrette really polarized opinion. It scored the night’s record of six ‘0’ votes!  But others liked its distinctive charms – including me.  Alabets, Pénavayre, Ch. Plaisance, AC Fronton, 2010, 13%, a dark wine, is normally a blending component. On its own it has rich, plum and mulberry aroma on the nose but a rather thinner palate. 
Marcillac is the appellation for the Mansois grape or Fer Servadou.  Lo Sang del Païs, Domaine du Crois, Philippe Teulier, AC Marcillac, 2010, 12.5% comes from the Venetian red soil of the area.  It was deep ruby with a blue-purple tinge, plenty of red and black fruit, menthol, and a mineral note. It was well received: scores in the ‘acceptable’ to ‘very good’ range.  IMG_0936

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Elian da Ros, who learnt his trade with Olivier Humbrecht in Alsace, is the new star of the Marmandais, an area otherwise more noted for its tomatoes than its wine. Côtes du Marmandais 2009, 12.5% had scented fruit, some savouriness and good tannins.  The Abouriou grape (or at least this wine made from it) was the hit of the evening when it came to the local grapes:  ‘good’ and ‘very good’ was the majority view, with one ‘outstanding’.  One of the two bottles was suffering from pronounced reductive aromas which led to an informed technical discussion of the chemistry involved – very useful to us Diploma students!  

The second trio of reds was from the better known grapes, starting with two versions of Malbec.  Paul Strang explained that Cahors now produces Malbec in at least three styles, thereby making life difficult for the consumer.  Many wine makers are producing easy drinking reds, with little to distinguish them from a plethora of wines around the world.  Then there are the modernists who have learnt from the New World, with long maceration times, lots of new oak and high alcohol levels – but are making wines which could really be from anywhere.  Finally, there are the traditionalists who produce wines which need ageing, like the two which we tried.

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Clos Triguedina, Jean-Luc Baldès, AC Cahors 2004, 13% had very attractive lifted plum and raison notes. What really distinguished it was it leanness, complexity and balance – classic Cahors.  It is good value at £12 or so.  Most voted for ‘good’ and ‘very good’, with three votes for ‘outstanding’.  There was then a big step up in concentration to Clos de Gamot, Cuvée des Vignes Centenaires, AC Cahors 2002, 13.5%, from the family which first sold wine in bottles in the region in 1962.  The vines for this wine, however, were planted in 1886 and it is only produced in acceptably good years.   A very rich and dense nose, great concentration on the palate, lovely acidity, many years of possible development ahead.  The voting (and the price at £22) reflected all this: a three way split between ‘good’, ‘very good’ and ‘outstanding’.

IMG_0952The last red showcased the Tannat grape – with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon allowed in for good behaviour. With Tannat, as the saying goes, the clue is in the name: these are normally very tannic wines, with top selections needing 10 years or more in the bottle before they even become approachable.   Cuvée Charles de Batz, Domaine Berthoumieu, AC Madiran 2007, 13.5%, by contrast will improve with further ageing but is already very drinkable.   This wine had an immediately attractive bouquet, a combination of some vanilla and ripe fruit, good fruit on the palate (a hint of the sweetness of ripe Cabernet along with the solid bones of the Tannat), plus an obvious tannic rasp.  By far the biggest grouping of votes was for ‘very good’, with a further five for ‘outstanding’.  The wine was a perfectly judged compromise between local character and the contemporary palate. 

IMG_0957No evening on South West France could finish without one of its sweet wines, in this case a fine example of Jurançon.  Characteristically, the wine is made from late harvest Petit Manseng, grown on the Poudingues soil, a chalky, gravel mixture which can set like concrete. The thick skins enable the grapes to be late harvested safely in a number of passes through the vineyard and then allowed to shrivel yet further for a December vinification and maturation in oak barrels.  The resulting wine, La Magendia de Lapeyre, Larrieu, AC Jurançon, 2007, 12% was rich in exotic fruit but not overly sweet or luscious, in fact for a sweet wine it had quite an austere palate.  People liked it however: votes were predominantly ‘very good’ or ‘outstanding’. Either it was a very good wine or the alcohol had kicked in, or both … IMG_0931IMG_0933

This was a splendid evening and showed just what a wine club can do. You might not enjoy all the wines that you try but that is not the point. We were all left indebted to Paul Strang for introducing us to a range of wines, some of which we might drink from time to time, and others which you would rarely encounter outside the region itself. Thank you to Paul for broadening our horizons.   

Wines supplied by Les Caves de Pyrene

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