France, it is well-known, is a wine-producing country and within there are well-defined production areas. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace, The Rhône, the Loire, Languedoc could all be found on a map by most wine-lovers but asking them to find the Southwest and its extent, would produce some mixed results. The types and styles of wines produced in most French wine-producing regions are familiar to most yet the Southwest represents somewhat of a mystery.
The main reason for this state of affairs is that the term “Southwest” is rather unimaginative, conjured up no doubt by a disaffected civil servant right before aperitif time on a Monday after the Summer holidays. It is indeed a lack of imagination to agglomerate so many eclectic and ancient appellations under one banner. For here is perhaps the greatest collection of often little-known grape varieties in France, akin to what is found in countries such as Italy, Greece, Croatia or Georgia.
However the Southwest or Eclecticland as it shall be known forthwith, is not completely shorn of familiarity to the imbiber. Bergerac, Gaillac, Cahors or Madiran will all be familiar in some small way and that is where it ends for most unless holidays are taken in this vast region. Arm yourself with a map of France and the region stretches from Aveyron in the shadow of the Massif Central to the Atlantic coast of the Basque Country along the Pyrenees to Languedoc and north to Bergerac.
The region harbours a deep vinuous past with many surprises along the way. Hands up for example; how many think Malbec comes from Argentina? Wrong! It comes from Cahors, known locally as Côt or Auxerrois, and the wines produced in Cahors are different from Argentinian wines. It is not only the growing conditions which explain the difference. Malbec was first planted in the 1860’s, before Phylloxera struck, by Miguel Pouget a French agronomist, at the behest of the then governor of Mendoza, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who wished to improve the wines on offer. Thanks to Phylloxera, a vine disease that swept through the wine world in the 1880’s, Argentinian Malbec has become a different Malbec in effect, being much fruitier to Cahors’ tannic dryness. Incidentally, the native Gaulish tribe which lived around Cahors, the Cadurques, were also responsible for giving the world the wooden barrel, which is not a condemnation merely a practical observation.
The good people of Gaillac were producing wine before the Romans came along with swords in one hand and a bunch of vines ready to be planted in the other which must have been a grave disappointment to the Romans. It is indeed an ancient vineyard area whose genesis may have come from contact with the Greek colony of Massilia, modern-day Marseille. Whatever its origins Gaillac produces a superb range of wine styles from red to sparkling. Bergerac is also quite the jack of all trades with its own myriad of appellations within its confines yet it is in effect an eastward extension of Bordeaux availing of the same grape varieties and styles.
Madiran is the other headliner with Tannat providing the brooding depth in the wines. Tannat is related to Malbec having been grown more extensively in Cahors and yes it too made it across the Atlantic courtesy of those great voyagers, the Basques. Today Tannat forms the bedrock of the Uruguayan wine industry which is becoming more active in export markets.
The native grape varieties here are gems of flavour and depth although there are some that can be somewhat challenging. The list of grape varieties includes Len de L’Elh, Mauzac, Mauzac Rosé and Fer Servadou in Gaillac; Fronton with its Négrette; Madiran with Tannat which the Basques took to Uruguay; Jurançon and Pacherenc have Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng; Irouleguy with Tannat; Côtes de Gascogne with Ugni Blanc and Colombard. There are other grape varieties which are used to a lesser extent like Abouriou, Arrufiac, Baco Blanc, Baroque, Bouysselet, Béquignol, Camaralet de Lasseube, Claverie, Courbu Blanc, Courbu Noir, Crouchen, Duras, Folle Blanche, Gros Cabernet, Jurançon Noir, Lauzet, Magdeleine Noir, Manseng Noir, Mauzac Noir, Mérille Noir, Milgranet, Moural, Négret castrais, Ségalin, Ondenc, Petit Courbu, Prunelard, Négret de banhars, Plant de cauzette, Portugais Bleu, Pounjut, Raffiat de Moncade, Saint-Côme, Valdiguié and Verdanel. The keen-eyed among will have seen no doubt that I did not include every variety; quite so.
Many of these varieties were more widely planted but now many are grown in tiny quantities and nearly all are vinified in blends which benefit generally from their addition. There are some that merit varietal bottling and a few that merit the vinegar store but it is a testament to the vigneron’s love of wine and place that they have survived. Some are ancient varieties like Malbec or more recent additions like Baco Blanc, which was developed for Armagnac production. Furthermore some varieties are being saved with new clones made as the vigneron seeks to offer the lost tastes of Eclecticland. In addition to these local varieties there are the more familiar varieties; Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Cinsaut, Gamay, Merlot, Muscadelle, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Semillon, Syrah and Viognier. They are not an afterthought but in many cases they are from elsewhere. Now before anybody says “but Cahors was replanted with vines from Bordeaux after the frosts of 1956”, I will say that it was exceptional and there was no other choice. These grape varieties have adapted superbly, let’s face it only a complete imbecile could fail to make wine from Chardonnay, and they offer generally better yields and taste profiles to the modern wine-drinker familiar with the grape names.
My final words are this; try the wines from Eclecticland if presented with the chance. And not just Cahors, Gaillac, Bergerac or Madiran oh no! Be brave and seek out Jurançon dry and sweet wines, the succulent sweet wines of Pacherenc-du-Vic-Bilh, the fresh red wines of Marcillac made from Fer Servadou, the Tannat-infused reds of Irouleguy in the Basque Country, the deep reds of Fronton from north of Toulouse, the brilliant aromatic whites from the Côtes de Gascogne in the Gers and the list goes on wines of Ariège, Béarn, Buzet, Coteaux du Quercy, Côtes du Brulhois, Côtes de Duras, Côtes du Marmandais, Côtes de Saint Mont, Entraygues et du Fel, Estaing, Saint Sardos, Tursan, and the IGP areas which were formerly Vin de Pays. There are many surprises waiting for you, so happy private investigations!
Written for Estate & Manor Magazine by professional Butler and wine expert, Patrick Kelly