Wine writer and former member of The Wine Society's tasting team Jane Parkinson tells us why the rich panoply of indigenous grapes in France's South West are key to the region's success.
One of the best things about wine, for me at least, is that there's always something new to discover. Don't get me wrong, I'll always be a huge fan of inimitable classics like Chablis and Barolo, but there's still something heartskippingly exciting about discovering the hidden gems of the wine world. Even better… hidden gems that are also delicious! And we wine drinkers have been spoilt for choice in the last couple of decades with wines that fit this bill.
A new generation of globe-trotting winemakers who have picked up tips and techniques during their travels, combined with advances in winemaking technology and greater belief in the value of the varieties in 'their own back yard', have resulted in an eye-watering choice of well-made and original wines from local grapes. Wines that in the past might not have had the same freshness, fruitiness or deftness of touch, or, to be completely blunt, simply weren't as high in quality as we find them today.
There seems to be a kind of hidden-gem momentum gathering pace all over Europe at the moment, whether from a region or grape or both. One region that's riding the crest of this wave particularly well is the South West of France – the somewhat fragmented wine zone that arcs from the eastern tip of Bordeaux to the border with Spain. Here, vines have adapted and evolved over hundreds of years to flourish in their chosen environment, making wines that heroically fly in the face of wine-style internationalisation (dare I say, standardisation).
The diversity of this region's wine was especially highlighted to me last year through my work as a member of The Wine Gang. We were involved in a project with the overall wine body for the region, during which time we conducted a benchmark tasting of the region's wines and subsequently chose a selection to feature at their stand in the UK wine trade's largest exhibition, the London International Wine Fair. The exercise proved to be a serious wake-up call as to how many top-quality wines are being made from the local varieties in the region.
Having said that, just because the grapes are native to a relatively unfamiliar region, that's not to say all the grapes themselves are unknown. Not at all. In fact, starting our whistle-stop native grape tour with the sub-region of Cahors, some 50 miles north of Toulouse, auxerrois is the king variety.
Cahors – a good match for duck
Heard of it? Maybe not, but I bet most who read this will have heard of its synonym, malbec (or even its other synonym, côt). In Cahors, auxerrois produces a meaty, rich red, which is more rustic than, say, your average Argentinian Malbec, but it's a cracker with a hearty red-meat stew. It also ages well as Andrew Jefford pointed out in his article in March Societynews. There are two on The Society's List, Cahors, Clos La Coutale, 2009 has a touch of merlot in the blend. Uncomplicated and satisfying, it's a good match for duck and remains excellent value (ref N-FC20281, £7.75). Cahors, Clos Triguedina Petit Clos, 2009 also has some merlot in the blend and is full-on but elegant too. A recent addition to The Society's List, it comes from one of the region's leading producers and as buyer Marcel Orford-Williams says, there is nothing petit about it! (ref N-FC21871, £8.75).
Fer servadou sounds a bit like a Eurovision Song Contest band, granted, but it's actually another valuable asset in the South West of France's buzzing red wine scene. It has so many local synonyms it's hard to keep up (pinenc, mansois, braucol, brocol...) but fer servadou is not only the most memorable name, it's the most common one too. This makes another bruiser of a red wine, and gets its name from the vine's famously hard trunks (fer being French for iron). It's quite widely planted all over the South West but it reigns supreme in Marcillac, where the grape must make up 90% of the blend but more usually accounts for 100%. Back on The Society's List is Marcillac, Domaine du Cros, Lo Sang del Pais, 2011 (ref N-FC22391, £7.95). Though deeply coloured it has a light, sappy taste reminiscent of wild red berries; perfect for sausage and mash or for early picnics with saucisson and pâté.
Madiran has hogged the limelight in Gascony in the past; hardly surprising given the success of both its reds and whites.
Tannat makes powerful muscular wines
The local red here is made from tannat, the variety that the Uruguayans have so cleverly adopted as their own. Tannat makes powerful, masculine and (surprise, surprise) tannic wine. Because of all this, it's typically at its ultimate drinking point after a good six years or so, after which time it seems to wake up and turn headily scented, vibrant and fruity. It has enjoyed a recent revival thanks partly to the well-documented links between the high levels of procyanids in the wine and healthy hearts. The locals have a higher life expectancy than anywhere else in France! There are several Madirans on the List ranging from the softer-style to the full-throttle Madiran, Domaine Pichard, 2000 (ref N-FC19231, £14.95) a fabulous example of a fully mature wine.
White wine from Madiran has its own name, Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, but be careful when choosing a bottle because it can be anything from dry to sweet. The local varieties used to make zesty, citrus dry Pacherencs include arrufiac – which gives delicate floral characters, petit courbu – which is pretty herbal, and the manseng siblings, gros manseng and petit manseng.
The two mansengs are also important in Jurançon, one of the most famous sub-regions in South West France. Here, the thick skin of the petit manseng gives it the wherewithal to stay on the vines for longer, useful for the production of the famous sweet Jurançon. Gros manseng on the other hand, can, at its best, make wines with tight acidity and crisp grapefruit characters. The Wine Society has long championed the wines of Domaine Cauhapé, leading lights of the appellation and a new cuvée, Chant des Vignes is made from gros manseng and the ancient camarelet variety which the property has revived.
So, even though that's just scratching the surface of the wine scene down in the South West of France, I hope it's enough to pique your palate's interest. These grapes and wines should be celebrated rather than avoided for their relative anonymity. They scream authenticity like nothing else out there, but more importantly, they offer delicious variety and are effortlessly food-friendly. Happy fossicking!
Jane Parkinson writes for several wine publications and is a member of The Wine Gang (thewinegang.com). She also has her own website, janeparkinson.com Our selection of wines from South West France can be found here.