Wines of South West France: Exciting & Excellent Value

Keeping in the spirit of exploring new wines and wine regions for 2011, I am taking you on a little tour of the red wines of South West France. Still fairly undiscovered as a wine region, the area offers excellent value, and it is home to a diverse array of interesting wines and appellations.

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South West France & Its Wines

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South West France is essentially the area between Bordeaux to the north and Spain to the south with the Languedoc to the southeast. Like Bordeaux it has an Atlantic-influenced climate, unlike the Languedoc, which is distinctively Mediterranean. Anyone who ever has visited or driven through the region will be familiar with how beautifully rural and remote the landscape is, as well as have most likely feasted on some of the local treats such as confit de canard and foie gras. I first fell in love with the South West while living in Paris back in the 1990s.

While many of the South West wine regions make both red and white wines, today I am focusing solely on the reds, which broadly break down into two types – those that are made from the classic Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) and those made from indigenous local varieties such as Negrette, Duras, Fer or Tannat, as well as Malbec, which is in fact of Bordeaux origin.

Appellations that we see most often for their red wines in the United States are Bergerac, Cahors, Buzet, Madiran, Gaillac, Irouléguy, Fronton and Saint Mont. There are also a number of Vin de Pays wines worth seeking out including Vin de Pays de Gascogne and Vin de Pays du Comté Tolosan.

Style-wise, the wines differ greatly. Many are earthy, some are rustic, but in a charming way. Most are medium-to-full bodied with bright acidity. Traditionally the wines have been fairly tannic, requiring long-ageing to become accessible, but today most producers are aiming for a more modern style by crafting smoother wines (i.e taming the tannins) using a variety of techniques such as more rigorous grape selection, overall gentler handling, total de-stemming, shorter maceration times, maturation in new oak and some micro-oxygenation.

So in a nutshell, very hard to generalize, especially, when you take into consideration those made from local grapes. Some of the wines that I have been enjoying are from the following designated appellations.

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Appellations to Look For

Cahors - Which only produces red wine and predominantly from the Malbec grape, a Bordeaux variety that has shot to fame in Argentina. Malbec must account for at least 70% of an AC Cahors wine, with Merlot and Tannat allowed as blending partners. Interestingly, neither of the Cabernets is allowed in the wines. Traditionally these wines were known as ‘black wines’ because they were extremely deeply colored and tannic, needing many years to soften. Today, thanks in part to Malbec’s ever-growing popularity most producers make more modern, accessible styles.

Madiran - Further south than Cahors, Madiran also makes fairly full-bodied, wines predominantly from the Tannat grape (Basque origin), which is also a deeply colored tannic variety and shows bramble fruit flavors and aromas. AC Madiran wines must comprise at least 40-80% Tannat, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Fer also allowed. In practice, the top wines are generally made exclusively from Tannat.

Irouléguy - Situated in the Basque area, near Spain, this is a very isolated, rural region located in the extreme southwest corner. You will notice that wine labels are often written in the local Basque dialect with lots of ‘Xs. Both red and white wines are made. For red wines, Tannat is the principal variety along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Wines are typically medium-bodied.

Fronton and Côtes du Frontonnais - These are small appellations near the bustling city of Toulouse making red and rosé wines made predominantly from the local Negrette grape, which gives a distinctive raspberry flavor and silky texture. For AC wines it must account for 50-70% of the blend. Syrah, Fer and both Cabernets are also allowed. These wines are generally not for long-ageing and are often unoaked.

Gaillac – Another small appellation near the town of Albi that is also well known for its sparkling and white wines. The red are deeply colored, powerful and spicy. Two local varieties, Duras, which is deeply colored with spicy peppery notes and Fer (known locally as Braucol) adding suppleness, perfume and red fruit flavor, must account for at least 40% of the blend. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are also allowed and are often used to add more structure to the wines.

Bergerac and Côtes de Bergerac – Located not so far from Bordeaux, Bergerac wines, rightly or wrongly are often called ’Bordeaux-look-likes’ as they are made from the classic Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Not as age-worthy or pricey as Bordeaux, this region can be the source of some excellent everyday wines.

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Wines To Try From South West France

Below are some of the South West France wines that I’ve tasted lately. And there are many more widely available in stores throughout the country.

2008 Chateau Bellevue La Forêt, Fronton, $12 – A blend of Negrette, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Light to medium bodied, supple, honest with good intensity of earthy black fruit. Well balanced and slightly rustic in a charming way.

2007 Domaine Rotier Les Gravels Rouge, Gaillac, $12 – Made mainly from local varieties Duras and Fer (Braucol) and a little Syrah. Unoaked, it is deeply colored with a delicious medley of bright black fruit aromas and flavors. Nicely refreshing with notes of pepper and licorice. Fairly grippy tannins but not intrusive.

2005 Gorri D’Ansa Irouleguy, $10 – Produced by a local co-operative, this is a gem. It is a blend of predominantly Tannat with some Cabernet Franc. Another endearing, slightly rustic, but honest wine. Grippy and earthy with enjoyable bramble and black fruit flavors with hints of savory spice.

2008 Aramis Rouge, Vin de Pays de Tolosan, $8 – Another gem, quite modern style with lots of juicy, lively black fruit – blackcurrants, plums and bramble fruit. Smooth and easy-drinking. Unoaked. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat.

2005 Chateau Peyros, Vieilles Vignes, Madiran, $13 – Deeply colored, full-bodied and somewhat brooding with fairly gripping tannins. Earthy and savory with ample fruit flavor with layers of spice, clove and licorice and fairly lingering earthy finish.

2007 Clos Siguier, Cahors, $13 – Made from Malbec, this is a fairly modern example and fairly fruit driven, yet retains an attractive grip and savory minerality. Not terribly complex, but quite delicious and fresh with a moderately long finish

2005 Monastère de Saint-Mont, Saint- Mont $20 – This one is a bit more on the expensive side. Blend of Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon this wine had a nice firm structure, and tannins, which had a grip but were supple. A lot of flavor with layers of cedar, spice and earth mingled through the ripe black fruit. Fairly long, interesting finish. It is probably worth the extra dollars.

Until next week, I would love to hear of other South West France wines that you have already discovered and enjoy.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

Related: Exploring Some of France’s Lesser-Known Wonderful Wines

(Images: Image with signposts by Michael Carossio (via Sopexa). Others by Mary Gorman)

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Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.