How often do you enjoy wines from Southwest France? Can you name any of the appellations or the wines they produce? Wines of Southwest France, Sud-Ouest in French, has been cultivating vineyards since about 125 BC! What the Romans began long ago was continued by Catholic Monks during the Middle Ages and later vignerons. Furthermore, when Morley Safer revealed the French Paradox to the American public on 60 Minutes in 1991 the wine at the center of the study was from Southwest France. This begs the question, how has this ancient wine region of such notoriety remained largely unknown to many wine consumers?
Wines of Southwest France covers the region from Basque country to the Garonne River, from the hills of Massif Central in the east to the Pyrenees in the west. Overall, it extends 300 miles from east to west and encompasses 10 departments. It is a diverse wine region representing 14 IGPs and 29 DOPs, spanning several sub-regions such as Gascony, Basque Country, Béarn, and Landes.
The region is influenced by three different climates: maritime, continental, and Mediterranean. Winters tend to be short and the summers are warm. The southern region is Mediterranean influenced with hot, dry summers. The northeast region experiences harsh winters with spring frost risks. The regions on the foothills of the Pyrenees at higher altitudes experience the Autan winds. These winds blow throughout the fall and help cleans the atmosphere, keeping the grapes free of disease and pests.
“The wines of South-West France reflect the supreme beauty and variety of its landscapes and microclimates, as well as the passionate devotion of its winemakers, for whom the production of wine is not just a way of making a living but a way of life. They offer a range of choice and style unequalled by any other region, and their quality is much higher than their prices would indicate.” ~ Paul Strang, South-West France: The Wines and Winemakers, p15 via Wines of Southwest France
Southwest France is home to an unparalleled number or indigenous grapes. To date, approximately 300 varieties are documented in the region, of that 120 are indigenous. The regions is leading a couple of scientific studies related to grape varieties, including replanting disappearing varieties and altering the genetic makeup of disappearing varieties to make them more resilient. Some vineyards are dedicated to researching and replanting disappearing and forgotten indigenous grapes. Not all of the indigenous varieties are unknown, Merlot, Tannat, Malbec, Petite Manseng, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, and Ugni Blanc are among the grapes native to the region. Journeying through the wines of Southwest France opens the doors to wonderful discoveries.
Because the region is so diverse it has an infinite variety of soils. Many of the vineyards are planted in sedimentary terrains made of clay, sand, and limestone. However, there are many variations across the region.
“In terms of the personality of a wine, it is not only the subsoil rock that is the cause, it is also the composition and properties of the soil from which it is born.” ~ Charles Pomerol, Geologist via Wines of Southwest France
From as early as the tenth century, pilgrims have used the route through Southwest France to reach the sacred site of Santiago de Compostela. Without lying on a trade route, the pilgrims helped the region develop.
Regions and Wines
Bergerac is a region comprising 80 communes. It is located west of Bordeaux, along the Dordogne River. It was once part of Bordeaux but was separated during the Hundred Years War when the English took control of Bordeaux. Bergerac receives the same maritime influence as Bordeaux, only warmer.
2016 Château Laulerie Bergerac Sec Bergerac France ($12.00): blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon; Anjou pear, crisp green apple, melon, fresh herbs, lean minerality; crushed stone palate, crisp and refreshing, medium+ acidity; pair with fresh seafood or shellfish.
Marcillac AOP comprises 420 acres and is dedicated almost entirely to one indigenous variety, Fer Servadou. These reds are friendly, aromatic country wines with a rustic edge.
2015 Domaine du Cros Fer Servadou Marcillac France ($15.99): medium ruby; raspberries and black berries, dried roses and sage, tobacco, dusty earth, hint of green pepper, baking spice; medium+ tannins and acidity, elegant, approachable with a slight rustic quality, bold, medium+ body and finish.
Cotes du Marmandais AOC region is located along the Garonne River, like Bergerac, but is just southwest of Bordeaux. This region allows grapes such as Syrah and Gamay to be planted. The region is better known for its tomatoes than its wine but modern producers are drawing attention. 90% of the wines of Marmandais are crafted of a local variety called Abouriou, which is a challenge to find in the US.
2015 Elian Da Ros Abouriou Marmande France ($23.99): medium ruby; bright notes of cranberry, pomegranate, and raspberries are joined with loads of cinnamon, cloves, and spice, like Christmas potpourri in a glass; elegant and unique, medium body, tannins, and acidity, pleasant and fun.
Madiran AOP is located 35 miles from the Pyrennes Mountains and 50 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, centered around the town of Madiran. This region only produces red wines and is best known for its Tannat, the wine of the French Paradox. Tannat must comprise at least 50% o each wine, but most contain more. These wines are inky black and intense, aging is recommended but modern winemaking techniques results in more approachable wines at a younger age.
2011 Château Bouscassé Tannat Madiran France ($17.95): deep inky purple; notes of dark black fruit, garrigue, forest floor, rosemary, roasted meat, mint; pronounce tannins and acidity, mouth-coating, perfect for roasted meat and barbeque.
Cahors AOP is the birthplace of Malbec, which is known here as Cot or Auxerrois. The region is due north of Toulouse and situated on the Lot River. The region is known or producing the wines of choice or many royals like King Henry II and Emperor Peter I. Malbec is leaner and more food versatile than its Argentinian counterpart. It is a great value wine for Left Bank Bordeaux lovers.
2014 Château Lamartine Prestige du Malbec Cahors France ($17.99): deep inky purple; dark fruit, bramble berry, dried fennel and roses, leather, fresh hay; pronounced tannins and acidity, full body, rich and bold with a long finish; a great food wine.
France’s hidden gem is no longer hidden. Wine Enthusiast Magazine selected Southwest France as its 2017 Wine Star Wine Region of the Year! I highly encourage you to seek out and include wines from Southwest France in your wine enjoyment. You will be glad to discover these value priced, flavor packed, unique and delicious wines.
6 responses to “Wines of Southwest France: What’s Old is New Again”
I love the sounds of the 2015 Elian Da Ros Abouriou Marmande France the idea of the Christmas potpourri is really appealing. Another informative and interesting article.
Thanks Amber. It was such an interesting wine. New grape to me and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Nice post! The southwest of France is a treasure trove of unique grape varieties – so much to explore.
Thanks Lauren. Much like Languedoc-Roussillon the region is rich with a tapestry of grapes.
Didn’t realize the French Paradox was based on wines of SW France! Cool point. And totally makes sense with Tannat being produced in the region! As always well written and informative Michelle!
Indeed it was. Thanks Martin.