True to Terroir

True to Terroir

When the French—and particularly Parisians—talk about la France profonde it’s not always clear whether they are conjuring up a faraway geographical region or a state of mind. Either way, if there’s any part of France that corresponds to the notion of “deepest France” it’s the southwest. Within this part of l’Hexagone (another French term for France, thanks to its roughly six-sided shape) there still remains much of what the French, in their more nostalgic moments, imagine their country to be: an old-yet-ageless, bucolic idyll where the pace of life remains much as it was in palmier days of yesteryear, and whose denizens, housed in medieval hilltop bastides, still have the time to savor the good things in life—meaning truffles from the Périgord, jambon from Bayonne, plums from Agen, brandy from Armagnac, foie gras from just about anywhere and, of course, the local wine.

The lucky people of the southwest have all these things, but—rugby aside—it’s probably the wine that most arouses their passions. The region is hugely diverse—the red wine of Madiran bears no resemblance to the “black wine” of Cahors. Some believe this is a problem, denying the southwest the recognition it might claim as a more cohesive region, such as the Rhône Valley.

But the vignerons who produce these widely differing wines can boast that they are true to their terroir, preserving and reflecting the diversity of the region and its winemaking traditions—a diversity that this short survey can only begin to explore. The diversity also makes the southwest a bulwark against the global wine industry’s relentless rush to conformity. In the southwest you will find good wines made from the standard cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay grapes, of course. But you will also discover the delights of wines made from fer servadou, duras, prunelart, mauzac, muscadelle, côt, tannat and petit manseng, to name but a few regional varietals. And when you get to tasting them, bear in mind the old Aveyron proverb quoted by southwest wine guru Paul Strang in his comprehensive guide South-West France: the Wines and Winemakers:

Wine should be drunk…

neat in the morning

without water at midday

and in the evening just as

the Good Lord gave it to us


The Dordogne

One of the loveliest rivers in the Southwest, the Dordogne meanders through Bordeaux wine country before converging with the Garonne River in the Gironde estuary. But backtracking upstream and east along the Dordogne will lead you to Bergerac, the largest of the Dordogne region’s wine appellations which, were it not for a quirk of France’s administrative map, would be part of Bordeaux and the département of the Gironde.

But the département of the Dordogne begins here. For Bergerac’s winemakers, the administrative boundary is almost irrelevant. In terms of geology, soil, climate and other factors that make up the notion of terroir, Bergerac could be an extension of Bordeaux. In fact, in the past, Bergerac enjoyed an exemption from the onerous duties and other restrictions levied on other southwest wines by the Bordelais.

Today it’s often difficult to distinguish between Dordogne wines and their Bordeaux cousins. By and large they use the same grapes—cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, with some malbec for good measure. And although local winemakers  insist their wines are different, it is only when you reach the red-wine appellation of Pécharmant, much farther east, that subtle differences in terroir assert themselves.

But it would be wrong to write off Bergerac as a poor relation of Bordeaux. Enterprising winemakers can and do distinguish themselves. Just as some of the smaller Bordeaux areas like Côtes de Castillon are now producing exciting wines, so are many of Bergerac’s small growers—and they are not charging as much for them as winemakers do downstream.

The distinctive sweet wines of Monbazillac, one of the Dordogne’s oldest and best-known appellations, come from an area south of the city of Bergerac. As in Sauternes, the sémillon grape reigns supreme and in good years Botrytis cinerea—the mold known as noble rot—works its magic, shriveling the grapes, concentrating sugar and flavors, producing a liquid gold much beloved of oenophiles. Monbazillac used to command much the same prices as Sauternes, but falling quality after World War II turned consumers away, leading to lower prices. Today prices are on their way back up, and quality is improving even faster, just as it is for most other southwest wines.


Well over half of the wine produced in the southwest these days falls into the vin de pays category. These are wines that, for one reason or other, do not conform to the rules that would allow them to be classified as AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) or even VDQS (vin délimité de qualité supérieure). Time was when a wine sporting the vin de pays label or (heaven forbid!) deemed to be a mere vin de table was probably a modest wine with much to be modest about.

But today wines with these lowly labels are often the most fascinating around, because they are being produced by vignerons who are happy to break the rules in the pursuit of a better wine. Vin de pays is now the fastest growing wine category in the southwest and nowhere is it growing faster than in Gascony—that loosely defined historic region stretching from the Garonne River in the north down to the foothills of the Pyrenees. The département of the Gers, in the heart of old Gascogne, is now France’s most prolific producer of white wine.

It’s a welcome development, given that Armagnac, Gascony’s most famous liquid product, is currently going through one of its periodic sleeping-beauty phases. Gascony’s success on the wine front is a tribute to the legendary, now-retired André Dubosc who, back in the 1970s, came up with the then eccentric notion that the region could produce wines for drinking rather than distillation. To develop their vin de pays des Côtes de Gascogne, Dubosc and his fellow vignerons (grouped in the cooperative known as Producteurs Plaimont) found new ways of vinifying the rather acidic grapes used for making Armagnac. They also introduced new varieties, particularly colombard and, more recently, gros manseng, that now go into the fruity, highly drinkable white wines of the region. Another major player has been the Grassa family, whose Château du Tariquet properties now constitute the largest privately owned wine estate in the region and whose marketing muscle has ensured that Gascon wines can be enjoyed around the globe.

Gascon winters are more forgiving than winters farther inland, while the influence of the Atlantic makes for cooler summers. The resulting white wines are nicely balanced and eminently drinkable. The reds of the Côtes de Gascogne usually take a back seat to the whites but, in Côtes de Saint-Mont, squeezed between the vineyards of Bas Armagnac and the neighboring wine region of Madiran, reds of some distinction are being produced, thanks again to Producteurs Plaimont who have earned VDQS status for Saint-Mont’s tannat-based blend.

Madiran and Pacharenc

The tannat grape that gives Côtes de Saint-Mont its backbone reaches an apotheosis of sorts in Madiran, where winemakers like Alain Brumont have turned this once obscure and endangered grape into one of the southwest’s greatest success stories, despite its reputation for being difficult to tame. Brumont (profiled in The Man from Madiran, France Today September 2010) can take the credit for putting Madiran back on the map, with wines from his Château Montus and Château Bouscassé properties that can rival and even best Bordeaux’s finest.

Other producers have also risen to the challenge. It is no exaggeration to say that the tannat grape, as manifested in Madiran (the other place it’s grown extensively is Uruguay), has taken a deserved seat in the red wine pantheon. And a good thing too: research indicates that tannat-based wines contain more heart-protecting antioxidants than other red grapes, which no doubt accounts for the highly-touted paradox that life expectancy in Gascony is among the highest in Europe, notwithstanding the consumption of vast amounts of goose fat and foie gras.

Only red wines qualify for the Madiran appellation. Whites from the region carry the appellation Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh. They can be either dry or sweet dessert wines whose complexity matches that of the permitted grape varieties: arrufiac, courbu, gros and petit manseng, sauvignon and sémillon. Locals drink sweet Pacherenc with foie gras and feel sorry for those who have never tasted that divine combination.


The vineyards of Jurançon, in the ancient province of Béarn (not be confused with those of the Jura in eastern France) have the majestic, snow-capped Pyrenees as a backdrop and produce a wine said to have been used to baptize the future King Henry IV, who was born in nearby Pau. The Béarn enjoys Indian summers and mild winters and in many years the grapes (gros manseng and, increasingly, its petit cousin) can be left on the vines until late in the year to produce a late-harvest wine of immense flavor, with more than just hints of honey, caramel and dried fruits. All Jurançon AOC wine is white and can be either sweet (moëlleux) or dry (look for the word sec on the label).


This part of France’s Basque country, close to the Spanish border, is where the various pilgrim routes to Saint Jacques de Compostelle converge. To provide refreshment for weary pilgrims, the monks from the abbey of Roncevaux planted vines in the valley of the river Nive; as late as 1912 (when, belatedly, phylloxera hit the region), the abbey had as many as 1,230 acres in production. These days the area devoted to wine production is barely half that size, and the pilgrims have been replaced by sun worshippers who flock to the Atlantic coast holiday resorts around Biarritz. But the tourists too have had their impact: the red wines made from the tannat grape (splendidly called bordolesa beltza in the Basque language) that once predominated have fallen victim to the modern rage for rosé (argi in Basque) which is probably as good an antidote as any for the hot red Espelette pepper that pervades the local cuisine. And although at the moment it’s unlikely to win any prizes, it’s as good a wine as any to toast the success of the southwest’s wines and winemakers. But how do you say “cheers” in Basque? Topa!




Château Tour des Gendres

Winemaker Luc de Conti and his cousins Francis (who tends the vines) and Jean (who looks after the family farm) are leading the organic movement in Bergerac. Their wines are among the best in the southwest. Try the Anthologia red (the “Margaux of Bergerac”) and La Gloire de Mon Père, dedicated to Luc’s father. The white Cuvée des Conti is delicious. website


Château Haut-Bernasse

Businessman and cellist Jacques Blais acquired the property in 1977 and it’s been in the vanguard of Monbazillac’s renaissance ever since. Now owned by Jules and Marie Villette who have built on Blais’s foundations. The eponymous Château Haut-Bernasse is their top wine. website


Clos d’Yvigne

Patricia Atkinson has been making elegant, balanced red and white wines for some 20 years, but the star is the sweet wine she makes in the years when noble rot affects her sémillon grapes. They like it at Buckingham Palace, where it makes state banquets even more stately. website


Château du Tariquet

The best-known producer in the Gers with a range of white and red wines (and Armagnac too). Try the chardonnay/sauvignon blend. website

Domaine de Pellehaut

The Family Reserve red and the Ampeloméryx are outstanding. website


Producteurs Plaimont

Les Vignes Retrouvées is a white blend now gaining an international following, and the splendid red Monastère is limited to only 10,000 bottles a year. website


Château Montus and Château Bouscassé

Alain Brumont’s two properties are Madiran’s most famous domains. Montus Prestige and Bouscassé Vieilles Vignes are sumptuous, and La Tyre is the top dog. website

Château d’Aydie

If any Madiran vineyard can give Brumont a run for his money it’s the Laplace family’s Château d’Aydie. The top red carries the Château d’Aydie label as does the sweet Pacherenc. website


Camin Larredya

For a dry Jurançon try Jean-Marc Grussaute’s A l’Esguit (local argot for daybreak). His top sweet cuvée is called Simon. website

Château Jolys

Pierre-Yves Latrille and his daughter Marion Latrille are making some fabulous wines, including the barrel-aged Cuvée Jean—100% petit manseng and a best seller. Epiphanie, as the name suggests, is an eye-opener. website

Originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of France Today

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  • Joy Butler
    2011-08-18 07:04:18
    Joy Butler
    A very well written and extremely informative article. I am printing it out and will share it with some of my friends. Thank you!!