Plotting in Saint Mont

We do not normally associate vineyards with high technology.  Vine growing is basically specialised agriculture and all the usual factors for farming apply: soil condition, fertility, drainage, seasons, rain fall, hard work.  If you walk through a vineyard on a bright sunny day it is difficult not to be affected by romantic feelings combining perfect order and ‘natural’ growth – but usually this is usually completely false! Modern science and computers have had been applied to the vineyard just as to every other field of commerce.  Those very straight lines that you see in the vineyard are perfect because a laser beam was used to guide the tractor.   The soil in a new vineyard will have been tested scientifically for its nutrient composition and ‘corrected’ before a vine is planted.

Thirty years ago three village cooperatives in Gascony, nearer Toulouse than Biarritz, came together to form Plaimont, now a group committed to combining the factors unique to their locality and the best methods of contemporary viticulture.   The group has grown to 42 villages and 1200 hectares in the Saint Mont AC. The locality gives them:

  • an Atlantic influenced climate;
  • rain in abundance in the first half of the season and then near drought to mature grapes perfectly;
  • big day-night temperature difference to maintain freshness;
  • three soil types – pebbles and clay, fawn colour soil, limestone and clay – resulting in subtlely different wines;
  • some parcels of pre-phyloxera vines, even up to 200 years old with trunks a foot across;
  • local grape varieties of real individuality and character – Tannat for powerful reds and Gros Manseng for robust, aromatic whites.

But on their own these factors would not of themselves produce quality contemporary wines. You could end up with super tough reds and eccentric whites. However, Plaimont are determined to make their mark with the best of up-to-date viticulture and marketing. One of their approaches has been to a comprehensive mapping of the territory and plotting of the soil composition, an enterprise their ancestors could  not have dreamt of.  Enter ARP, Automatic Resistivity Profiling, a wizard device that can be trailed by a tractor and which enables you to check the homogeneity of the soil two metres below the ground, without having to dig a single hole. This technology has been borrowed from archaeology and applied to viticulture.  A low level of resistivity points to clay, a high reading to sand and pebbles.  And you don’t stop there: a total of six parameters can be fed into a computerised model – angle of the slope, altitude, exposure, the extent to which the land is convex or concave, theoretical water accumulation, and the aforementioned soil homogeneity. From this model you can advise your growers which plots are worth persisting with, which varieties to grow in a variety of sites and where the potential for expansion lies – and more, importantly, where it doesn’t lie. Olivier Bourdet-Pees, not only sports the company’s mandatory beret, he is jolly impressed with the results of all this high tech plotting.

The wines certainly speak for themselves – it is difficult to imagine products less confected or less made to a predetermined consumer model.  L’empreinte de Saint Mont, Grand Vin, AC Saint Mont comes in white and red, the white being 80% Gros Manseng, filled out with Petit Manseng and Arrufiac.  The 2010 vintage has a powerful floral nose, with melon, herbaceous and grapefruit flavours on the palate, excellent acidity and body, and a salty finish.  This is wine full of local character and assertiveness.  My tasting note finished with the simple: ‘brilliant’.  Its red sibling is an overgrown teenager – it just needs to be studiously employed somewhere else for five years and it will turn into a model and long-lived citizen.  The 2008 vintage was made from 80% Tannat, 10% Pinenc and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. It features dense but elegant red fruit, a pronounced minerality, robust acidity and fine if powerful tannins – as you should expect at this stage of its development.

Plaimont shows that there can be a real excitement in marrying serious science to robust local traditions.


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