France’s South West provides much for wine lovers to discover
O n the crowded contemporary wine stage, the international spotlight rarely shines on France’s South West. Emerging consumer trends could, however, give the region’s wines deserving attention.
In France’s nearly 2 million-acre swath of vineyards, South West plantings comprise only 5 percent. But according to Eric Serrano of Institut Français de la Vigne et du Vin, the region accounts for 30 percent of France’s grapevine diversity. The Institut’s conservator, Olivier Yobrégat, has tirelessly scoured South West vineyards to identify and preserve over 130 distinct grape varieties, including many thought to be extinct after the 19th century’s phylloxera onslaught.
This variety appeals to savvy consumers and sommeliers who increasingly seek new quality wines with good value. Amidst seas of boring, homogenous wines made from international grapes, the South West’s diverse, terroir -driven wines stand out. They also fit perfectly with the passionate enjoyment of the region’s highly prized fresh meats, cheeses and seafood.
“We value the good life, and take time to do everything,” notes Christophe Logeais, Les Vins Sud Ouest France communications director. “Food, wine and traditions are very important. People here are attached to quality over quantity.”
Vibrant regional spirit unfurls vividly each morning at the bustling Victor Hugo Market in the center of Toulouse, France’s fourth largest city and the South West’s capital. The covered marketplace offers a foodie fantasyland.
Butchers, bakers, cheese mongers, dairy stands, fish mongers, flowers stands, ice-cream sellers, olive and fruit stalls, pastry makers, poultry sellers and even horse-meat vendors have places. Naturally, several cavistes — wine and spirits retailers — serve regional wines.
On a barrel head in front of Chai Vincent, Logeais pours glasses of Côtes de Gascogne white, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh white and Madiran red. The wines match beautifully with luxuriously flavorful, wafer-thin slices of Jambon Noire de Bigorre, ham made from the region’s pasture-raised black pigs.
“Our wines are a bit complicated with lots of styles and appellations,” Logeias says. “But the wines speak, appellation by appellation. The stories are important.”
The vineyards sprawl over a far-flung area bounded by Bordeaux to the northwest, the Pyrénées Mountains to the southwest, the Languedoc and Mediterranean Sea to the southeast and the Massif Central to the northeast. Directly north of Toulouse, Cahors, perhaps the South West’s best known appellation outside France, makes a convenient starting point for discovery.
Cahors ( ka-ore ) provides the spiritual home for the red-skinned malbec grape, also known locally as “Côt Noir” or “Auxerrois.” As in all the South West, a mixed climate prevails.
Chilly, but muted, Atlantic Ocean temperatures filter in from the west, while warm temperatures flow from the Mediterranean. The Lot River also meanders through Cahors and critically influences the terroir by combating potentially devastating springtime frosts.
On a recent morning, under scuttering gray clouds and pale sunshine, the Lot flowed smoothly, reflecting riverbank trees.
Cahor’s vineyards begin up the riverbank on three gently climbing terraces with clay, gravel and limestone soils. The terraces end at steep hillsides leading to a limestone plateau called “Les Causses.” Wines from the terraces display more power and rich fruitiness, while those of the plateau show elegance and finesse .
Philippe Bernède’s 2012 Clos La Coutale, Cahors, France (Luxury 45169; $16.99) provides a terrific introduction. Bernède’s family has tended the vineyards since before the French Revolution. In the winery building, dating from 1775, modern temperature-controlled stainless-steel fermentation tanks capture essential fruit aromas and flavors. Aging occurs in large oak foudres and neutral barrels.
The blend of malbec (80 percent) and merlot from second- and third-terrace vines unfolds dark-purple color with dark-fruit and smoked-meat aromas. Bright acidity and smooth tannins frame this rustic, yet immediately enjoyable, red as a perfect match with either grilled rib-eye steak with black-pepper sauce or duck cassoulet, a regional specialty. Highly recommended.
For a delicious white, enjoy the 2013 Domaine de Pellehaut Harmonie de Gascogne Blanc, Côtes de Gascogne (Luxury 48459; $7.99). The wine blends ugni blanc, gros manseng, Colombard and others for crisp grapefruit and juicy pineapple flavors galore with a soft, fruity finish. Recommended.
Next Week: The discovery of South West France wines continues with wine recommendations from Fronton, Gaillac and Marcillac.
Dave DeSimone write about wine for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].