Planet of the Grapes: Intrigue of Southwest France
Negrette. Mauzac. Fer Servadou. Gros Manseng. Loin de L’Oeil. No, I am not just making up gibberish words. These are the names of grapes used to produce the wines I’ve been drinking for the past few weeks.
Fronton. Madiran. Marcillac. Gaillac. No, these are not place names from Lord of the Rings. These are the real designations of origin in Southwest France where those wines come from.
Ah, Wine. Once I think I have you all figured out, have all the grapes sorted in my mind, all those foreign pronunciations learned, and all the geographical hairsplitting committed to memory, you throw something new at me. Something I’ve never tasted before that makes me realize once again that I will never, ever know everything about you.
Over the past couple years, that something new has been wines from Southwest France. Even though it’s France’s fourth largest appellation in terms of volume, we see very little of the wine from this region in the U.S. That’s a shame, because most of what I’ve been drinking has offered tremendous value.
I was first introduced to these wines last fall when I visited rustic Gascony — where I was stuffed with duck confit and foie gras — to write about Armagnac. Much of the viticulture in this region is focused on brandy-making, with much of the vineyard land given over to ugni blanc. Until recently, ugni blanc (known as trebbiano in Italy) was dismissed as a neutral, high-acid, and characterless wine better left to be distilled into brandy.
That’s changed in recent years, and a number of producers are making wines by blending ugni blanc with more aromatic varieties like colombard (also used for Cognac and Armagnac) or gros manseng (a floral, fruity white you’ll only find in Southwest France) or even international grapes like chardonnay. Most wine stores now carry an ugni blanc blend from Gascony — such as Domaine la Hitaire Les Tours — that’s ridiculously cheap (almost always under $10) and it’s usually a nice, crisp, zingy wine to serve chilled on a hot afternoon.
But there is much more to Southwest France than zippy whites. In Gaillac, they blend the mauzac grape, with its baked apple and fleshy peach notes, along with sauvignon blanc or chenin blanc or other local varieties to create a distinct, aromatic full-bodied white. Gaillac can be inconsistent, but when it’s good — like the Esprit de Labastide Blanc I recommend here — it’s very good.
Perhaps the best known wines from Southwest France are big reds from Cahors. Long before the malbec grape gained popularity in Argentina, it flourished here, and the region has been trying for several years to gain a foothold in the market with its “Cahors—the original Malbec!” campaign.
But a big red I enjoy even comes from Madiran, where the tannat grape is king. The only other place I’ve seen tannat widely planted is Uruguay.
Madiran wines are muscular, earthy, meaty, tannic wines that feel perfect for when the weather turns cold — to me there’s a even a hint of autumn leaves in nose. I paired a Madiran wine with the decadent pressed duck dinner at Zinc. A friend of mine described one of the Madiran we tasted as “smelling like a beautiful woman who’s been hard at work picking grapes all day in the vineyard.” She meant this as a good thing, and I kinda had to agree with her. What’s most amazing is the price — most every Madiran I’ve seen in U.S. liquor stores retails for under $15.
At the other end of the spectrum are the light-bodied, blood-purple wines from Marcillac, made with the extremely obscure grape fer servadou. Good Marcillac shares certain green, spicy, dried herb characteristics with cabernet franc, particularly those from Chinon. The Marcillacs I’ve opened are some of the most food friendly wines I’ve tasted in a while. The Domaine du Cros is a regular purchase and the bottle is always drained very quickly: always the most reliable test of a wine’s drinkability.
But perhaps my favorites from Southwest France are the negrette-based wines from Fronton. Negrette is a dark red wine that’s often blended with cabernet franc or cabernet sauvignon, full of berries and flowers, but with unique spice and a backbone that you don’t usually find in rosé. I especially enjoyed the rosé from Chateau Bellevue La Foret, which is blended with gamay and syrah. I drink a lot of great rosé during summer, and this is one of the best, and best-priced at $10.
Which meant that I had to add the geographic place Fronton and the unqiue Negrette grape — along with the other odd Southwest France place and grapes — to my ever-crowding space in my head where I keep wine information. Now, fer servadou and gros manseng are as old hat to me as chardonnay and merlot. Perhaps I’m getting closer to having this wine thing all figured out.
Which means, I guess, that something will come along soon enough to remind me otherwise.
Domaine la Hitaire Les Tours 2011. Gascony, France. $7.99
65% ugni blanc; 30% colombard; 5% gros manseng
Fresh, with herbs and a hint of evergreen on the nose, juicy, with crisp pear, and good acidity on the finish.
Esprit de Labastide Blanc 2008. Gaillac, France. $9.99
The grape here is mauzac. Intensely aromatic, with a bit of (good) funkyness. Floral and a touch of nuttiness and creamy richness, but with enough acidity on the finish to pair well with a meal.
Chateau Bellevue la Forêt Rosé 2011. Fronton, France. $11.99
60% negrette; 20% gamay; 10% syrah; 10% cabernet franc. The strange, dark negrette grape (blended with a little gamay, syrah, and cab franc) gives this a lot more structure and liveliness in the mouth than most rosés have. It’s more complex as well, with notes of berries and good acidity, and a touch of pepper and herbs.
Domaine du Cros Lo Sang del Pais 2010. Marcillac, France. $13.99
From the obscure fer servadou grape, this is totally purple, light-bodied, low in alcohol (12.5 percent) and so drinkable. Fresh, spicy, with a touch of smokiness and dried herbs, somewhat similar to cabernet franc, yet still unique.
Domaine des Terrisses Rouge 2009. Gaillac, France. $13.99
50% fer servadou; 30% cabernet duras; 20% syrah. Holy pepper! Like cab franc on a euphoric high. Dried herb garden, like potpourri, with a hint of smoke.
Chateau Viella Tradition 2009. Madiran, France. $14 (at Moore Brothers in Pennsauken)
Great introduction to the tannat grape. Deep purple, dark, elegant, but friendly and approachable, with lots of plum, a bit of spice. An example of a subtly, beautifully oaked wine. Super drinkable, great value, and a favorite of my tasting.
Clos la Coutale 2009. Cahors, France, $14.99 (on sale for $11.99 at Wine Legend in Cherry Hill)
Austere nose — a hint of green/tobacco notes from merlot (20%), along with raspberries from malbec (80%). Would be great with grilled meats on a spring afternoon.