Stages 12-14 send the peloton scurrying around South West France, a large swath of forests interspersed with vineyards and farms. Its quiet, rural landscape runs from the Pyrénées Mountains in the south, up the Atlantic coast to Bordeaux.
As you can imagine, many styles of wine are produced here, most from grapes native to the area. Which brings us to the only challenge in tasting wines from South West France: availability. While Malbec from Cahors and Tannat from Madiran are no strangers to U.S. shelves, they are hardly ubiquitous. And they’re the best-known bottles!
Don’t despair, though. The French #Winophiles have done the heavy lifting for you, compiling a list of their vinous treasures from South West France. This Saturday at 11 a.m. EDT, we’ll meet on Twitter to share our findings from this intriguing area of France. At the bottom of this post you’ll find a preview of exactly what we’ll be discussing.
Côtes de Gascogne IGP
Encompassing the vineyards of Armagnac (home to some of France’s most celebrated brandy) this large appellation overlaps the regions of Madiran, Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, and a few others. As with most IGP designations, rules are a bit more relaxed here than in the more exclusive Appellations d’Origines Contrôlees, allowing for plenty of experimentation with grape varieties, blends, and winemaking techniques.
Gascony, as it is called in English, was part of the much larger Aquitaine region, which has an interesting history. King Louis VII of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the wealthiest and most powerful European women of the era. Eleanor came to the marriage with a pretty hefty dowry – the Duchy of Aquitaine – which significantly extended Louis’s holdings in France. Alas, no happy ending for them; their marriage was annulled in 1152 when no male heir was produced. The Duchy reverted to Eleanor after the split.
Soon thereafter, Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou: and thanks to his new wife, now also Duke of Aquitaine. By the time Henry ascended to the British throne in 1154, his empire included a vast territory extending from Scotland in the north, to the Pyrénées Mountains at the French-Spanish border. The area of Aquitaine remained under British rule for nearly 300 years.
Modern Times in South West France
Nowadays this corner of France is more famous for its culinary delights including pâté de foie gras and confit de canard, not to mention wines with excellent price-quality ratios and some of the best brandy in the world. Probably not high on the must-see lists of vegetarians or teetotalers but, for the rest of us, South West France is a gastronomic wonderland.
Pork is celebrated here, especially the highly prized Porc Noir de Bigorre, a species of black pig native to the region. According to local tradition, they spend their lives grazing freely in the fields and meadows, where they feast upon the acorns and chestnuts that are also specialties of this area. In fact, they are raised in a manner quite similar to the famous pigs of Jamón de Serrano, who also subsist on a diet of acorns. Their meat is dried and aged for at least 18 months. Like Jamón de Serrano, Porc Noir ham is lightly streaked with succulent and highly flavorful fat that reflects the unique diet of the pigs. It makes a delectable addition to a charcuterie plate, paired with a mild cheese, or strewn over top of a green salad. For additional recipe ideas, visit LeNoirdeBigorre.com.
From Armagnac to Table Wine
Historically, brandy producers relied on the grape Folle Blanche as the main component of their base wines. After phylloxera ravaged vineyards throughout France, Folle Blanche was replaced by Ugni Blanc, which had the added benefit of being resistant to powdery mildew and grey rot. Late to bud and ripen, it was less susceptible to spring frosts. Its propensity toward high yields made it attractive to commercial growers who also valued its high acidity levels. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Ugni Blanc was made into a still wine. For the same reasons it made great sense to the brandy distillers, Ugni Blanc was also a good candidate for white table wines. A new way of thinking about white grapes in South West France had begun.
Many other grapes contribute to the Côtes de Gascogne portfolio, but I’m going to focus on one in particular: Colombard. A cross between Chenin Blanc and Gouais Blanc, Colombard makes a reliable blending partner with Ugni Blanc. When its vigorous growth is curbed and careful winemaking ensues, Colombard can give rise to delicate wines with a distinct floral component. Prone to oxidation, vigilant winemakers guard against this by implementing strict temperature controls and using stainless steel vats for fermentation. An interesting aside: many of these techniques were first employed by growers in California, who had taken a shine to Colombard. It was their expertise with oxidation prevention that brought forth this new personality to the variety. So in essence, the new order taught the old guard how to coax the best qualities from one of its native grapes.
The old guard were apt pupils, quickly adapting these techniques to their own purposes. This change of thinking was instrumental in the drive to create the Côtes de Gascogne IGP back in 2009. Now it is one of the most productive IGPs in France, with a healthy demand for its products far beyond the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge: approximately 75% of production is exported.
And Now, the Wines
2015 Maison Georges Vigouroux Pigmentum (11.5% abv; $10 retail)
A blend of Ugni Blanc (60%) and Colombard (40%) this wine is the product of a fourth-generation winemaker who combines traditional methods with modern winemaking techniques to elicit the best quality wine from his grapes. He begins with old vines: 40 years old, for the Ugni Blanc; 25 years old for the Colombard. The wines are separately fermented and receive different treatments before being blended. The Colombard undergoes pre-fermentation maceration on its skins, to coax as many aromatic properties out of the grapes as possible. The Ugni Blanc rests on its lees for two to six months, with periodic stirring to increase complexity and richness in the finished wine. That’s a lot of care and attention lavished on a wine that retails for about $10. And it shows!
Color: Palest lemon, with a clear rim.
Nose: Distinctively floral – honeysuckle, acacia – followed by citrus and melon. Lovely.
Palate: Bright lemon and grapefruit with a note of cantaloupe. Tart acidity balanced by a creamy texture makes this very refreshing.
Note: This wine was listed as a Wine Enthusiast Best Buy (86 points.) I found it at Total Wine, so it should be widely available.
2015 Domaine du Touja Côtes de Gascogne (12% abv; $9 retail)
Colombard (80%) and Chardonnay (20%)
Another family endeavor, Domaine du Touja has been making wine for three generations, in the village of Cravenceres in Gers. They farm 45 hectares of vines in the picturesque hills of the Midi-Pyrénées, and suggest serving a glass of their crisp, dry white wine with charcuterie, mild cheese, or just by itself. I did that very thing a few nights ago, putting together a plate of Parmigiano Reggiano, fresh sliced figs, and mild salami. Outstanding combination!
Color: Pale lemon.
Nose: Lemon meringue pie.
Palate: Lemons, lemons, lemons! Some citrus pith, pineapple and lime on the finish. This wine had a rounder, smoother mouthfeel than I was expecting, balanced by bright acidity. I really enjoyed it! By the way, this was another Best Buy from Wine Enthusiast, garnering 85 points.
For additional ideas on food pairings for wines of the Côtes de Gascogne, check out this website, which features local recipes and offers more detailed descriptions of the region and its history. I was particularly taken with the recipes for Ocean Skewers with Coconut, and Smoked Salmon Maki, which are recommended as accompaniments to a glass (or two) of dry, white Gascogne wine. Don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get busy in the kitchen!
If you’d like to join us for the Twitter chat this Saturday, and discover for yourself the charming wines of South West France, it’s easy to do. Just log into Twitter at 11 a.m. EDT and type #winophiles into the search box, and enter. Then click the “Latest” tab at the top of the page and you’ll be able to see all of our tweets in real time!
Check out what’s on offer this month:
Take a look at all the discoveries made by our Winophiles group!
- Jill at L’occasion shares “Périgord Wines: Bergerac and Duras”
- Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Southern France at a Midwest BBQ”
- Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Cam shares “Pistachio-Armagnac Sabayon with Strawberries and Meringues”
- Michelle from Rockin Red Blog shares “#Winophiles Showdown: Madiran vs Applegate Valley”
- Rob from Odd Bacchus shares “Bergerac: Underappreciated Wines & Controversial Cuisine”
- Martin from Enofylz shares “Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Arrufiac? Oh My!”
- Olivier from In Taste Buds We Trust shares “If it makes you happy…”
- Nicole from Somm’s Table shares “Cooking to the Wine: Paul Bertrand Crocus Malbec de Cahors with Lavender-Herb Ribeye and Grilled Veggies“
- Lynn from Savor the Harvest shares “Basque-ing in the Sud-Ouest: Wines of Irouléguy“
- Lauren from The Swirling Dervish shares “Toast #TDF2017 with Wines from the Côtes de Gascogne“
- Gwen from Wine Predator shares “Finding and Pairing Southwest France Wine Cheese & Spirits for French
- Mardi from Eat.Live.Travel.Write. shares two posts (!) “Clafoutis, Southwest France style” and “Armagnac: A Primer”
- Jeff from Food Wine Click! shares “Exploring Madiran with Vignobles Brumont”
Join our chat on Saturday at 10-11am CDT (11am EDT, 8am PDT, and 1700 hours in France)! See what we think of Southwest France, and tell us about your experiences with the wine, food, or travel in the region! Simply log into Twitter and search for the #winophiles tag, and you’re in!