France's Hidden Treasures

Visiting the southwest of France is a voyage of wine discovery. Here, you'll find surprising wines representing great values.


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I live in France’s southwest, in the Côtes de Gascogne region (it also produces Armagnac). Across the valley is Madiran. It’s an exciting place to be, offering unique flavors from grapes found nowhere else.

In fact, the southwest is one of the wine world’s great indigenous grape incubators.

“[The grapes] are the identity of each region,” says Lionel Osmin, who created his négociant company, Lionel Osmin & Cie, in 2010 to produce and market southwest wines. “They are both our history and our future.”

Here’s a quick look at the region’s major appellations and grape varieties.

Bergerac

Of all the wine oases of the southwest, Bergerac is the one that’s closest, geographically and stylistically, to Bordeaux. An extension of the St.-Émilion escarpment, Bergerac was once a poor relation: same grapes, lesser wines.

Increasingly, the winemakers are getting it right. Thanks to an astonishing vineyard renaissance and quality-minded producers, Bergerac is now a treasure trove for lovers of Bordeaux blends. The reds are principally made from Cabernet and Merlot, while the whites are mainly crafted from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon.

As the Dordogne River flows toward Bordeaux, the Bergerac vineyards spread up the banks on north- and south-facing slopes in a pastoral setting where tobacco once vied with vines as the major crop.

Bergerac is needlessly complicated. It has 13 appellations, some for red and white wines, some for red, white and sweet wines and some for sweet wines only. Simplify your life by remembering these three: Montravel for full-bodied reds, Pécharmant for long-lived reds and Monbazillac for sweet, botrytized whites. All offer excellent value.

Top producers: Château de Corbiac (Bird Rock Imports), Château de Tiregand (Bird Rock Imports), Château Tour des Gendres (Baron François), Domaine de l’Ancienne Cure (Bird Rock Imports).

Cahors

This is Malbec country, the home, as the producers like to describe it, of the original Malbec. In Cahors (don’t pronounce the “s”), the grapes result in powerful wines, stacked with tannins in their youth. To compare them to the silky, transplanted Malbecs of Argentina is a lesson in terroir.

Every Cahors is red. Some are blended with a little Merlot to soften the structure. For a rougher style, some winemakers blend Malbec with Tannat, adding tannin to tannin. But true Cahors is all about Malbec, with its dark color, flavors of black plums, cedar and chocolate. The best are impressive wines, worth aging 10 years or more.

Along the sinewy Lot River’s deep valley, the vineyards of Cahors descend in a series of three terraces. Each terrace gives a different wine style: the highest creates the most austere, the middle one produces the most ageworthy and the terrace closest to the river yields the lightest. With an increasing number of high-quality estate wines, Cahors is at the cutting edge of the southwest’s renaissance.

Top producers: Château du Cèdre (Martine’s Wines), Château la Caminade (Wine Traditions), Jean-Luc Baldès (Misa Imports), Mas del Périé (Wine Traditions).

Madiran

Madiran is a red-wine spot in the white-wine sea of the Gascony region. On the first foothills of the Pyrénées, spicy, black-fruited grapes grow in deep clay and stone soils.

The region’s indigenous Tannat grape traditionally yielded powerful and tannic wines, which sometimes never softened.

Taming the Tannat and realizing its true potential has been the work of Alain Brumont of Château Bouscassé and Château Montus and talented oenologist Patrick Ducournau, who developed micro-oxygenation, a technique to add carefully measured amounts of oxygen during winemaking to soften harsh tannins.

The result has been intensely concentrated wines that develop over a decade or more. The technique is now used in wineries around the world.

ust 40 years ago, there were only 15 acres of vines in Madiran, and the region’s wine industry was dying. Now there are 3,200 acres, and the region’s top producers can justifiably claim that they make one of France’s great red wines.

Top producers: Alain Brumont’s Château Bouscassé and Château Montus (Verity Wine Partners), Château d’Aydie (Five Grapes), Domaine du Crampilh (Bourgeois Family Selections), Producteurs Plaimont (PlaimArques).

Jurançon

Step forward Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng. These two varieties are the white stars of the southwest. Maybe these two grapes are the future in a white-wine world ready to venture beyond Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Nowhere are these white varieties better expressed than in Jurançon.

Nearly 2,500 acres of vines are planted on terraces and in sheltered valleys set against the Pyrénées, just outside Pau and to the northwest of Lourdes. Cold and wet in winter, hot in summer and autumn, these ancient vineyards produce attractive dry white wines and legendary sweet ones.

While Gros Manseng is the power behind the dry whites, Petit Manseng creates the region’s unique sweet wines. Its balance between acidity, sweetness and concentration yields some of the most poised aromatic sweet wines anywhere in France.

Producing them is a risky process. Pickers may make several passes through the vineyards, harvesting shriveled grapes over a period of weeks. Sometimes the vintage extends right up to the end of November.

Top producers: Château de Jurque (Wineberry America), Château Jolys (Baron François), Clos Lapeyre (Charles Neal Selections), Domaine Bellegarde (Bourgeois Family Selections).

Côtes de Gascogne

The Côtes de Gascogne is Armagnac country. It’s the land of The Three Musketeers, of rugby, bullfights and berets, and where Wynton Marsalis takes up a two-week residence at Marciac, home of arguably the best annual jazz festival in Europe.

The same local varieties that go into Armagnac—Ugni Blanc and Colombard—also go into the many dry whites of the Côtes de Gascogne. The gently contoured vineyards produce some of the best value white wines around. Gascogne is light, fresh and immediately drinkable.

Other grapes grown in the region are a Who’s Who of white French varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. Among reds, Tannat is a small player, but the classic Bordeaux varieties are more popular. Blends are the norm.

Two big producers dominate the region—the privately owned almost 2,000-acre Domaine du Tariquet (celebrating its 100th year in 2012) and theinfluential cooperative, Producteurs Plaimont. Investment here is on the rise.

Top producers: Domaine du Tariquet (Robert Kacher Selections), Haut-Marin (Elite Wines Imports), Producteurs Plaimont (PlaimArques).

Other regions

All across the southwest of France, from Marcillac, which is almost in Languedoc and close to the Mediterranean, to the Pyrénées vineyards of Irouléguy, in Basque country and with views of the Bay of Biscay, there are pockets of vines.

The variety is immense. Chief among the other regions is Gaillac, with its peppery reds, soft whites and light sparkling wines. Marcillac has chunky, perfumed reds from Fer Servadou grapes. Fronton, close to the regional capital Toulouse, specializes in spicy reds predominantly from the Négrette grape. Côte de Duras and Côtes du Marmandais are close to, and influenced by, Bordeaux. Béarn and Irouléguy add Tannat and other local grapes to the Bordeaux varieties.

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