If you're looking to quench your thirst with something new and palatable, then I urge you to take your senses on an adventure with the diverse wines of France's Southwest.
I was invited to attend a day of tasting of "les vins du Sud Ouest" in Montreal. Putting aside my slight (ok, large) fear of human flight, I loaded up on the free breakfast cookies in the Porter lounge at the Toronto Island Airport and boarded the plane to "sit in a chair in the sky".
With those hard-earned classes with the Toronto Alliance Francaise, the day provided me an opportunity to practice my French. The tasting itself consisted of a media portion in the morning, and a walk around tasting in the afternoon. Each one of us could quietly move through the lineup put out before us, and after lunch we could mix and mingle with those in the local Montreal wine scene, as well as the various representatives from la France. It was great to run into Suresh Doss of Spotlight Toronto. Always nice to see a familiar face! Sitting down to write this post was a bit daunting at first as this is not a region that I'm too familiar with. In an effort to bring forth the best information, I rolled up my sleeves and hit the books!
After exhausting my palate, I decided to leave the show for a couple of hours to explore the city. My wandering took me to a more colourful part of Saint Catherine's street. I eventually settled myself in a cafe where I could sit and watch the city and wait for the more casual evening tasting event at a local spot nearby. I met a friendly urban artist along the way who was cataloging his latest street art.
- Located in the southwest corner of France between Bordeaux and the Languedoc-Roussillon
- The Southwest is really an umbrella name for a number of scattered areas
- These areas are influenced by Bordeaux, Southeastern France, and Spain
- Rich in diversity, there is no one signature wine style that represents the region: dry, sweet, and sparkling
- Home to a true mosaic of preserved native grape varieties
- Topography boasts many rivers, valleys, hills, mountains, and forests
The history plays out like a great novel that spans the ages. There were the Romans, monks, pilgrims, Kings, elements of sabotage, and disease. A true old-school soap opera. Then again, isn't that history in general? Take that Young and the Restless.
The Southwest is experiencing a rebirth. Here is centuries of history summed up in a few bullet points:
- Romans planted vines in the area around 125 BC.
- Evidence of wine vessels were found in Scotland and Spain suggesting a flourishing export trade of Gaillac wines as early as the second century.
- In the Middle Ages Catholic monks began to tend the vineyards and make wines that were enjoyed by royalty and religious heads of Europe.
- Pilgrims, heading towards Spain on the "Way of St. James" restored their physical and spiritual energy with the wines of Cahors and Gaillac.
- Eleanor of Aquitaine, who came from the Southwest of France, married King Henry II of England. This really put the wines on the map and a flourishing reputation was born. Women can be great influencers of industry!
- Blessed with many rivers, it was easy to export the wine to other European markets through the major port of Bordeaux
- From the 13th century until the French Revolution, Bordeaux would blend its own wine with the the higher-quality wine from the Southwest, increasing its commercial success.
- Heavy taxes were placed on wines coming through the port of Bordeaux leaving the Southwest at a great disadvantage, unable to compete.
- The root-eating insect Phylloxera strikes and destroys vines throughout France, including those of the Southwest.
The Southwest contains a vast assortment of grape varieties, many of which have never left this home. This is what makes this region so unique.
cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec, merlot, tannat, duras, fer servadou, negrette, prunelard
sauvignon blanc, semillon, ugni blanc, mauzac, petit manseng, gros manseng, courbu, colombard, ondenc, baroque (not the music), loin de l'oeil, arrufiac
Whew...that's a lot!
Exploring the Southwest
Cotes de Gascgone (the Tuscany of France)
Rolling hills, medieval towns, and distant views of the Pyrenees mountains, this is a wine-producing territory in the Armagnac region. Known to us as Gascony. Embracing a history of 2,000 years, approximately 75% of these wines are for export. Red wine is produced here but the focus is on white. Most of the wines produced are dry, crisp, aromatic whites, using local grape varieties colombard, gros manseng, sauvignon blanc, and ugni blanc.
Pronounced "guy-yak", this is one of the oldest wine regions in France. Vines were first planted in the area around the city of Albi. I encourage you to look up the city of Albi. As one of the major centers for the Cathars in the middle-ages, this scenic “pink city” is steeped in rich yet tumultuous history. There is no signature wine to represent Gaillac to the international audience. With such diversity, you can really take your pick: red, dry white, sweet white, rosé, and sparkling. Whatever strikes your mood.
Cahors (Malbec's hometown)
Pronounced "ka-or". Malbec has gained fame by establishing a career in Argentina, but its home is Cahors. The wines are offten described as "old world" or "rustic" in style. This means that the wines are not as fruit-forward as their cousins in South America but rather displays more earth-like characteristics. Of course, like many things in wine, this is a generalization as you'll always find producers going against the norm. The area of Cahors is another wine region dating back centuries and is for red wine only. The wines were a favourite of kings and royal courts throughout Europe. Going back in history, these "black wines", as they used to be called due to their dark colour and tannic structure, were often used by merchants in Bordeaux to beef up their own wines when the vintages were less than stellar. Auxerrois, or cot noir, which is another name for malbec, may be blended with the varietals merlot and tannat. However, the blend must contain mostly malbec. Merlot is used to soften the wine winemakers are adding it more and more to create a fruitier wine, for earlier consumption.
"Blacker than black… In the Middle Ages, winemakers had a trick up their sleeves for making the wine even darker : they heated the bunches of grapes in the oven before pressing. This procedure has now been revived by one of the vineyards in the AOC area, which markets it under the name ‘New black wine’." - www.tourisme-lot.com
South of the brandy producing region of Armagnac, Madiran is home of the indigenous, red Tannat grape. Established in the 11th century, this area also only produces red grapes. Whenever you see the name "Madiran" on the label, be sure that the wine is red. There is however, a small area for whites called Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh that overlaps the land. The wines of Madiran are often described as the healthiest of all the red wine types due to a higher level of "good-for-you" compounds. I don't need much more convincing than that. Supporting the leading role of Tannat, other varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and fer servadou can be added to create a blend. What are these wines like? Typically the wines of the Madiran are deep, powerful, and tannic with a necessity to be laid down for a while before opening. However, there is a trend to create wines that are more approachable in their youth.
Creating a border between France and Spain, the majestic Pyrenees mountains keep watch over the vines, which are nestled into the steep rolling hills. One of the earliest appellation systems to have been created in France (1936), this higher altitude area is for the production of white wine only. The classic example of a Jurancon wine is moelleux (sweet) style, created from the late-harvested petit manseng grape. It is medium-sweet with balancing, refreshing acidity. Sec (dry) whites, are made from gros manseng with petit manseng and courbu added to create an aromatic, blended wine.
History has it that in the 16th century, baby Henry IV, the future king of France and who would also become one of the country's most popular monarchs, had his lips moistened with a drop of Jurancon wine at his baptism in city of Pau. The wine was believed to have given him a blessing early in life that led to his spirit and success. It's a shame that his luck ran out for he was assassinated later in life.
After returning from a wonderful day "avec les vins du Sud Ouest", I went to my local shop and picked up a few bottles that represent the various regions. My goal is to gather a bunch of my girlfriends for an evening of discovery. I'm sure that they'll have a fantastic introduction. I hope to record the tasting for posting.
Of course, there are many more regions that I haven't listed. I've highlighted the main ones that we see here at the LCBO.
If you want to dive deeper into the wines of the French Southwest:
A great article:
Thank you to everyone at Sopexa Canada for inviting me to attend such a superb event!