Monday, July 25, 2011

SOUTHWEST FRANCE: Explored Identities

Could this be Basque country? No, not all of it. Vasconia? Not for the last thousand years. Then can we call this land Guyenne-Gascony? Maybe, but it needs to include the important Lot-et-Garonne & Tarn-et-Garonne departments to the north-northeast. The Pyrenees-Atlantique is only its western half to the Atlantic and it can't correctly be called the Aquitaine because it covers precious Bordeaux. Then Midi-Pyre'ne'es is only its Mediterranean influenced eastern half. Today, this rural landscape that makes up the wrist to the Iberian fist to the South is composed of nine(9) administrative departments across two(2) regions.  It is commonly known as the Southwest, or Sud-Quest. Primarily a red wine region, it is most notably the home of the oldest distilled spirit in France, Armagnac.

Among France's oldest wine regions, it is perhaps also its most diverse. It produces wines that can be often compared to Bordeaux, as well as wines from unique indigenous grapes that grow no where else. Defined by valleys and its rivers: the Dordogne in the North, the Lot, the Garonne, and the Gers cutting across its middle, to the Adour River valley in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the Southwest is a broad landscape of dissimilar wines.  In total there are about 16000 hectares planted, where 6000 winemakers, peasant farmers and cooperatives work in the giant shadow of Bordeaux to the mountainous border with Spain.

South of Bordeaux lies the large Bergerac AOC of the Dordogne/Bergerac sub-region, which continues to be defined by good value Bordeaux varieties.  All the major grape players are here, including dry Muscadelle and botryized sweet Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, notable products of the small sub-appellations Monbazillac AOC and Sussignac AOC. Some of the regions best reds are quality wines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and indigenous Fer, using the Cotes de Bergerac AOC.
Cahor AOC Chateau

The Garonne sub-region to the south includes Cahors, historic Gaillac AOC on the river Tarn, and on to Buzet AOC. Red wine Cahors AOC on the river Lot, is the home of the dark Malbec grape, known locally as Cot or Auxerrois, producing long lived wines which do not permit the Cabernets in their blend(getting back at the Bordelais?).  Some of the oldest vineyards in France(Celtic origin?) are in Gaillac AOC, today producing a full range of wines: from nouveau reds and whites, to sweets(doux) and sparkling(mousseux).  Some of its most interesting sparklers are the product of methode rurale, using just one(1) fermentation with no added liqueur de triage, so that the bottled sweetness is from the original grape sugars. Northwest of Toulouse is Buzet AOC, often described as a "supervalue" Bordeaux satellite, producing good quality still reds, whites and rose' from Bordeaux grapes.

Heading south, the Gascony sub-region includes world famous Armangnac, the distilled product of ten(10) allowed grapes, including workhorse white grapes Ugli Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanc(Italy's Trebbiano), and the notable region of Madiran AOC. This small appellation is the only AOC based on the tannic Tannat grape, comprising a minimum 70% of any blend. The broad rolling hills and river valleys of the Baise and Gers rivers to the east are the landscape for the sub-regions Cotes de Gascogne, France's largest producer of white Vin de Pays.

Raisined Petit Manseng in Juracon

Within sight of the Pyrenees Mountainsin the southern foothills lies Juracon AOC, a white only appellation known historically for its sweet wines from native late harvested Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng grapes. Also in this Northern Basque region is isolated Iroule'guy AOC, known for its red soiled vineyard terraces, and producing mostly red wines from Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Scattered across this large, diverse region, artisan wine-grape growers and their many cooperatives here have not been as politically active as elsewhere in France. They do remain tied to the land, slowly benefiting from modernization, and producing a wide range of wines of distinctive character. But, rather than having a regional identity, they are a mix of cultures from lands that have been fought over since the beginnings of recorded history.  Whatever we choose to call these lands of the southwest, they remain uniquely different from every other part of France. To discover these wonderful products is what wine exploration is all about.
Barge life on River Baise, Buzet AOC


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