Friday, 10 June 2011

Pilgrimage among the vines

Sometimes it must feel like the French are doing it deliberately. Making life difficult for people trying to get to grips with their wines, that is.

Leaving aside the whole business of region names rather than grape varieties, no back label explaining what sort of wine might be in the bottle and an impenetrable Appellation Contrôlée system – is a Saint-Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé better (in theory at least) than a Burgundy Grand Cru? We'll let all that go, but let's talk names.

You pick up a bottle, not cheap, and it says Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh on the label. Is that a grape variety that you've never come across before? A region? And while we're at it, how on earth do you pronounce it?

In fact there's nothing bloody-minded or contrary in the story of how things got so confusing in the world of French wine. It's simply a perfect illustration of local produce, consumed locally, with names, rules and customs that evolved over centuries when, for the most part, people were born, lived and died within the same small corner of the country.

If you lived in the Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh wine-growing area (yes, a place, rather than a grape) you would know that its white wines are so labelled. The grapes involved would probably be a blend of gros and petit manseng, possibly with some petit courbu or arrufiac as well. Travellers from elsewhere in France would be every bit as confused and intrigued as you or I if they ever found themselves in Southwest France, home to Pacherenc and a host of other little-known wines and grape varieties.

Southwest France is the name given to the rather rag tag band of wine appellations lying roughly between Bordeaux, Toulouse and the Pyrenees. Sometimes it's hard to see what unites them – and in truth, sometimes, there is no real link between the wines you find here. However, one thing that all these little mini regions share is that they lie on the ancient pilgrimage route south towards Santiago di Compostella – and where there's pilgrims, it seems, wines will follow. Now, wine pilgrims with an adventurous bent will find it a rewarding area to explore.

The same vineyards which produce white wines labelled Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh also make red wines, this time called Madiran, from the aptly-named tannat grape. As you might imagine, this grape is naturally high in tannin (and acidity) and makes some of the densest, monster reds you will ever encounter – though they can also age surprisingly gracefully.

Or you can stop off in Fronton, which supplies sappy, robust and spicy reds and rosés made from the Fer Servadou grape to the thirsty inhabitants of nearby Toulouse.

Beyond Toulouse is Gaillac, where Fer Servadou is known as Braucol (still with me?). This same grape is also known as Mansois in the tiny appellation of Marcillac. Confused? And we haven't even touched on Negrette, Pinenc or Duras yet.

Heather D had the chance to immerse herself in the wines of the region (not literally you understand) while working on behalf of Southwest France at the recent London International Wine Fair. Having tasted her way through 77 wines, these are her picks of the Southwest.

Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2010, Domaine Capmartin, £10.30 from
There has to be a Pacherenc in the list and this one typifies a modern, fresh style. Light bodied, floral, crisp, dry and tangy – and somehow unlike anything else you've tasted. This is mostly gros manseng with a little arrufiac and petit manseng.

Côtes de Gascogne, Les 4 Réserve, Domaine du Tariquet 2009, £9.40 from Wineservice of Lingfield
Gascony, famously the home of d'Artagnan, the fourth musketeer, is also home to the family-owned Tariquet winery. Most Côtes de Gascogne is pretty simple, fruity and crisp stuff. This one, an intriguing blend of gros manseng, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and semillon has a hint of floral, slightly peachy fruit – a gentle introduction to the region.

Saint Mont, Le Faîte 2009, £14.99 from Adnams (branches include Richmond)
Gros manseng makes another appearance here, this time joined by arrufiac and petit courbu. Save this wine for food – for a white wine it's surprisingly beefy, but the crisp acidity keeps the fruit nice and juicy. An interesting alternative to oaked chardonnay.

Irouléguy, Xuri 2009, Cave d'Irouléguy, £15.49 from les Caves de Pyrène of Guildford
This may look like an incomprehensible list of names from a Tolkein novel, but in fact this is simply our, by now, old friends gros manseng, petit manseng and petit courbu – but grown in the Basque region of Irouléguy, literally in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The aromas are honeysuckle and exotic fruits, while the palate is bone dry and bracing – a real original.

Marcillac, Lo Sang del Païs 2009, Domaine du Cros, £10.99 from les Caves de Pyrène
Marcillac is the region, the grape is fer servadou (often also called mansois here). Lo Sang del Païs means blood of the land in the local Occitane language, so the rather delicate nose ,with a whiff of violets, might surprise. The palate, however, is indeed earthy, with a refreshing acidity. This is what you might call a wine bar wine – great with some rustic finger food.

Saint Mont, Le Faîte 2007, £16.99 from Adnams
The red twin to the white above, this is similarly big-boned and needs decanting, or at least opening well in advance, in order to open out and soften a little. This is mostly the fiercely tannic tannat grape, with some pinenc and cabernet sauvignon, and has big, bold flavours of liquorice and chocolate.

Madiran, Château Bouscassé Vieilles Vignes 2006, £29.99 from les Caves de Pyrène
Bouscassé is one of the top estates within Madiran, and this is a great illustration of the power and poise of the best wines that the tannat grape can make. Smoky, fragrant, full-bodied but with succulent fruit. This will keep on developing for a few more years to come.

Madiran, Château Montus Prestige 2002, £44.99 from les Caves de Pyrène
Both these Madirans are made by the same man and both are 100% tannat, so this is a chance to explore the influence of terroir. The extra age also gives you a chance to see how tannat ages – this wine is full-bodied, rounded, satisfying, long-lasting and is a truly authentic expression of a unique wine style. A word of warning – decanting is needed as there is quite a sediment in the bottle.

Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, Brumaire 2007, £22.49 for a half bottle from les Caves de Pyrène
Back where we started, with Pacherenc. Brumaire is the name of one of the months from the French revolutionary calendar and equates, more or less, to November, when the grapes for this dessert wine were harvested. Brume means mist, which conjures up images of ghostly figures moving through the vineyards, their cold-numbed fingers searching out bunches of nobly rotten grapes. That may be poetic licence, nevertheless the wine is hauntingly delicious, with layers of honey, tropical fruit, caramel and beeswax in a lusciously sweet mouthful – but with a beautifully fresh, clean finish.

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