It’s late September and already there’s a hint of autumn in the air. To the south the first snows of the season have cloaked the peaks of the Pyrenees in a glistening mantle of white, and in the vineyards the leaves are turning red and gold. This year the harvest has started late but the weather has held up and swarms of workers are out among the vines picking the ripe grapes. It’s a reminder that winemaking is essentially a collective effort—from the vigneron who prunes the vines to the tonnelier who makes the barrels that hold the wine as it ages.
Yet great wines and wineries are often the result of one person’s vision and drive. Think Mouton Rothschild and the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild immediately springs to mind, well out in front of his 19th-century forebear Nathaniel, who founded the famous estate. There would be no Mas de Daumas Gassac (often referred to as the Lafite of southern France) without the indomitable Aimé Guibert, and where would Château Margaux be today without the steady hand of Corinne Mentzelopoulos? Who could imagine California’s Au Bon Climat without the irrepressible Jim Clendenen?
And then there’s André Dubosc. Recently retired, Dubosc is a modest man who would be uneasy seeing his name sharing a page with a Rothschild. But some 30 years ago he had a vision that has helped transform the wine-making reputation of southwest France. He is the founder and prime mover of Plaimont Producteurs, one of France’s most dynamic and forward-thinking wine cooperatives.
Based in the wine-producing region of Gascony, home of that feisty semi-fictional swashbuckler d’Artagnan, Plaimont’s growers are the musketeers of the wine world—all for one and one for all. And if you haven’t heard of them, maybe it’s because you haven’t been looking at the small print on the labels of a range of well-crafted, value-for-money wines that are now winning prizes and accolades around the world, as well as space in the cellars of the most discerning wine lovers.
For those who believe that the majority of French wine cooperatives are engaged in a race to the bottom—an unfair presumption—the rise of Plaimont Producteurs may come as something of a surprise. After all, they hail from that part of Gascony more recognized for its Armagnac than its wines. (Although the old name is still widely used, the traditional region of Gascony no longer officially exists; most of Gascon wine country is now in the Gers département.)
But for those who know Dubosc and Co. their undoubted success is confirmation that French growers and wine producers—even those who proudly sport the time-honored black beret as their trademark—are not all hidebound traditionalists but are fully capable of embracing change in order to survive in the highly competitive global wine market.
Company lore has Dubosc’s “eureka” moment taking place appropriately enough during a 1979 trip to California, where he noted that the best-selling white wine in the Golden State was made from grapes identical to those he and others were growing back home—except that Dubosc’s grapes were not being used to make wine for general consumption, but to be distilled into Armagnac. “There was Robert Mondavi selling a wine called French Colombard,” Dubosc recalls. “He was making a popular wine from our grapes and making good money. I thought to myself, if he can do it why can’t we?”
But in fact Dubosc had been hatching a plan to improve the region’s wines long before his epiphany in America. An earlier visit to Germany had shown him what modern wine-making methods could achieve. “They were taking execrable grapes and making them into drinkable wine,” he explains. “My American experience simply confirmed that we had to move with the times or we would soon be out of business.”
The big switch
Back home, business was not looking good when Dubosc called together the members of three cooperatives in Plaisance, Aignan and Saint-Mont (Plaimont is a contraction of the three names) to explain his plan of action. At that time Armagnac production was in the doldrums, since French drinking habits had already begun their long shift away from traditional spirits. Suppliers of wine to the Armagnac stills were faced with a stark choice: they could either stay on the slide or get off. “We decided to jump,” says Dubosc. “It was the only way to survive.”
But there was more to the big switch than the decision to make wine for drinking rather than distillation. Armagnac producers are fiercely proud of their brandy and deservedly so, but they are not too bothered about the quaffability of the wines they start with in distilling their eau de vie. They tend to favor high-yielding vines that produce acidic, even astringent, wines that imbue their brandy with structure and backbone for long aging. For the most part these days, those wines are made from the lowly ugni blanc grape, with some colombard or folle blanche occasionally thrown into the mix. They can be a challenge to wine drinkers unless they are vinified differently.
The Plaimont winemakers introduced new techniques, such as cold fermentation, to emphasize and retain the fruit and aromas of their humble grapes, making the wines lively and easy to drink, especially on a hot summer day. They also made the switch from quantity to quality. “Less can be more,” says Dubosc. “Our members soon discovered that smaller amounts of good wine made with great attention to detail could earn them as much as huge volumes of indifferent bland-ola.” Hitherto they had pursued high yields thanks to the policy of paying growers by the weight of grapes delivered to the presses.
Under Dubosc they were rewarded for quality and so began introducing methods to achieve it, notably by reducing yields. With more traditional vignerons shaking their heads and predicting imminent disaster, the black beret brigade introduced “green harvesting”—the practice of culling a percentage of unripe grapes from vines in midsummer in order to concentrate flavors in those remaining for the fall harvest. Plaimont’s growers even imposed upon themselves compulsory, and costly, hand harvesting of their grapes for optimum quality and ripeness.
Burning the clogs
One more important innovation encouraged Plaimont’s producers to discover best practices in the business. “We took them traveling to see how others were making wine,” says Dubosc, recalling one early trip to Portugal that was an eye-opener for his colleagues. “They were expecting third-world production methods,” he says. “What they saw was state-of-the-art technology that set off alarm bells.” A visit to South Africa is planned for next year and there’s already a waiting list for would-be participants.
Another important requirement for Plaimont’s producers was that they meet and mingle with their customers, whether at local wine tastings or on more ambitious marketing expeditions to Paris or New York. Says Dubosc, “We take pride in our wines and come back from these trips fired up to do better.” At any given moment, dozens of Plaimont’s members are learning English or other languages to support the global sales effort.
It helped that Plaimont’s producers had some of France’s best terroir to work with and a white grape—colombard (which is marketed as Colombelle)—that seemed almost tailor-made for a world waiting for a fresh, fruity white wine at a reasonable price. In capable hands the wines of the southwest reflect the immense variety of the region’s landscape and microclimates, and in Gascony vignerons have been growing and pressing grapes for wine since before Roman times.
Like the rest of France’s vineyards, they were almost wiped out by the phylloxera aphid in the second half of the 19th century (see “Rare and Ancient Grapes”, below), but enough of them clung to their vineyards over the next hundred years to pave the way for the renaissance that Plaimont helped inspire and bring about—a renaissance that brought together tradition and modernization. As Dubosc likes to say, “We kept our accents but burned our clogs.”
The next generation
Fast forward to the 21st century and Plaimont is now one of France’s most successful and admired wine cooperatives whose 1,000 growers and 13,000 acres of vineyards produce some 40 million bottles of wine, not just in Saint-Mont and Madiran but farther afield in Gascony where wines—mainly colombard whites carrying the Côtes de Gascogne moniker—are produced.
Dubosc did not want Plaimont to be known only for well-made, inexpensive wines, however, and he set about introducing other regional grape varieties that would add character and diversity to Plaimont’s lineup. Today there are whites (both dry and sweet—notably from Madiran’s white alter ego, Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl) made from arrufiac, petit courbu, gros manseng and petit manseng grapes.
Tannat grapes remain the foundation for the co-op’s increasingly sophisticated reds, along with cabernet sauvignon and fer servadou—known locally as pinenc. But these bear no resemblance to the mouthpuckering, tannic offerings of yesteryear that needed long aging to become drinkable. Made exclusively from free-run juices and then aged in oak barrels, Plaimont’s Madiran and Saint-Mont reds are as velvety as the best Bordeaux, especially the premium bottlings from the co-op’s own domaines—the châteaux of Saint-Go and Sabazan in the Saint-Mont appellation and Crouseilles in Madiran.
Dubosc has now retired, his place at the Plaimont helm taken by Olivier Bourdet-Pees, who shares Dubosc’s passion for quality and innovation. Today more than half of Plaimont’s wines are exported—mainly to other European countries but also to North America and, increasingly, Asia—but the co-op remains rooted in its Gascon soil. “We are now seeing a whole new generation of producers,” says Dubosc. “They are better-educated than their predecessors and even more passionate about the wine they make.” Surely that’s a recipe for Plaimont’s continued success.
RARE AND ANCIENT GRAPES
“To safeguard the future,” says André Dubosc, “we need to remember the past.” The future of wine production, he explains, depends on preserving biodiversity in the vineyard. The gene pool for vines is contracting fast and that could reduce wine-making options in the future. “We used to have thousands of grape varieties,” he warns. “Now we are down to a handful.” After phylloxera devastated Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th century, the wine industry revived only because wine producers were able to graft their vines onto American root stocks that were resistant to the fatal sap-sucking aphid. Without diversity, say forward-thinking winemakers like Dubosc, where will we find the weapons to combat future catastrophes?
The latest DNA research suggests that Gascony was the birthplace of some of the world’s great winemaking grape varieties, including merlot and cabernet sauvignon. That has yet to be confirmed, but what’s not in doubt is that southwest France is home to a major endeavor to ensure that the past is not forgotten and that biodiversity is maintained. The Conservatoire de Saint-Mont, founded by Plaimont in 2002 and directed by Régis Lacoma, is a vineyard planted with 60 rare and ancient grape varieties, 33 of which are unknown.
The conservatory is also supporting a small vineyard planted with old vines that miraculously survived the phylloxera scourge—largely, it is thought, because the sandy soil in which they stand discouraged the phylloxera aphid. Located in the village of Sarragachies near Saint-Mont, the small parcel has just been declared a French historic monument—an accolade normally reserved for ancient churches and châteaux. Wine experts are still working on the precise identity of seven of the vineyard’s 20 varieties, but they are agreed that the vines—some 600 of them—could be at least 190 years old, meaning they were producing grapes while Napoleon was still alive. Rumor has it that Plaimont will release a special bottling made from its pre-phylloxera grapes later this year. Or so we’ve heard through the grapevine.
It’s not easy—or fair—to single out a handful of wines from a range that demonstrates such variety and quality. Plaimont’s wines start with entry-level whites in the Côtes de Gascogne category and climb to top-of-the-line reds and whites. Some are blends of the very best the co-op’s vineyards produce, others the product of a single château or domain. But at every level these wines represent great value for money—it’s a shame that they are not all available everywhere—at least not yet. A few of our favorites:
L’Empreinte de Saint Mont Elegant and fruity, with a long finish.
Château Arricau-Bordes A Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh (the white counterpart of Madiran), this sumptuous sweet wine is made from petit manseng grapes, harvested after the first autumn frosts, which have raisined on the vine.
Le Faîte An AOC Saint Mont made from the best grapes Plaimont has to offer in any year, Le Faîte (meaning the top or summit) is a triumph of the blender’s art, with input from independent wine experts. Found more and more frequently on the wine lists of Europe’s best restaurants.
Plénitude Blended from the best Madiran terroirs, which tame the tannat grape without subduing its wild spirit—an iron fist in a velvet glove.
Monastère de Saint Mont Gascony’s monasteries kept wine production going during the Dark Ages, and this wine, from the old monastery vineyards in the hillside village of Saint-Mont, is a jewel. Production is limited so it’s neither cheap nor easy to find—a bit like salvation, as the monks of Saint-Mont would testify.
Château de Crouseilles Another Madiran beginning to hit its stride after massive investment. Keep an eye on it for future pyrotechnics.
Château de Sabazan Plaimont’s signature vineyard, whose tannat-based AOC Saint Mont reds equal anything the region (and beyond) can produce.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of France Today