First just to set the scene
Calling this a region is little more than a convenience. Rather like the Loire, the South-West, or Sud-Ouest as it should be called, is really a patchwork of micro regions. Distances are huge and frankly, there is precious little in common between say Jurançon and Gaillac. What we have today is the remains of a much larger, though equally disparate wine region.
A common thread though does run through these areas and is an important one. All the districts of the Sud-Ouest coincide quite neatly with the many paths that brought countless thirsty pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. And doubtless these same by-ways were previously used by Romans who brought viticulture to this corner of Gaul in the first place, by Visigoth tribes on their way to Iberia.
The scourge of disease and war
Phylloxera was no pilgrim but rather a locust-like invader that munched its way across Europe, roughly at a time when The Wine Society was created. Strange coincidence? If that wasn't bad enough, phylloxera was followed by war and economic collapse. Recovery had to be prioritised; the great vineyard area of Bordeaux was spared, but the backwoods had to fend for themselves and many didn't make it.
The worst wines of France!
At the heart of the Sud-Ouest is the Gers département which accounts for much of the production of Armagnac. So, while that assured its survival, it came at the expense of quality as whenever vineyards were replanted, yield was just about the only consideration. To quote André Dubosc, of whom more later, the Gers became the producer of the worst wines of France. No interest to The Wine Society then!
A time for heroes
But of course, the land itself remained, abused maybe, but with its potential undiminished. Now was the time for heroes: pioneers of the land who would bring these sleeping beauties back to life. Fortunately for us, there were many and as luck would have it they were pretty evenly spread across the Sud-Ouest.
My first hero is Yves Grassa who as it happens was my first contact in the Sud-Ouest. I can still recall the trip. It was in January and in those days going to the Sud-Ouest was no more than a very long day out from Bordeaux. Starting out early and leaving the mercantile grandeur of Bordeaux behind, the route was ever more scenic with vast forests and a succession of small towns with character and names of sometimes historic significance: Casteljaloux, Lavardac, Nérac and Condom.
Condom is twinned with Toro in Spain. I find that significant as it brings me back to my tale of hardy pilgrims sometimes walking across the whole of France and across the Pyrenees. Not wishing to digress here, there is I think a definite link between the sturdy, long-lived wines of Toro and the tannat-based wines of Madiran, an hour or so away.
Condom is the capital of Armagnac. Mercifully this famous spirit was not given the name of condom! Armagnac is better. The roads become increasingly bendy; drivers drive faster so the last a few miles are just a little nerve racking, but I arrived safely enough.
Château du Tariquet is like so many fortified farmhouses in this part of the world – made of old stone, golden in the last rays of the mid-winter sun. The meeting is largely around the large kitchen table. Pierre, one-time cowherd, barber and resistance fighter, presides, Havana in one hand, glass of Armagnac in the other. Hélène, daughter of a bear tamer who had bought Tariquet, cheaply when the vineyards had been reduced to just a few acres, was in charge of the kitchen stove. Seated at the table were their two children, Yves and Maité, then in charge of the estate. Also, there, wrapped up in an old Guernsey was Christopher Tatham. Christopher had been buyer and joint-general manager of The Wine Society. To him we owe so many of our favourite wines. Sancerre from Domaine Vacheron and Jurançon Domaine Cauhapé. Christopher was among the first to realise that the Sud-Ouest was changing and no longer making the worst wines in France. Maybe he should be my first hero? We ate copiously: duck pâté with salad and crusty bread, followed by duck confit, served with fried potatoes cooked in the duck fat and then a dish of heavenly peas from the garden. We drank copiously too, and we didn't refuse the Armagnac with coffee. Different times.
Pierre and Hélène had worked tirelessly in the interests of quality. Yves transformed over-production of Armagnac base wines into an ever-increasing range of very quaffable table wines, His sons, Rémy and Armin have followed, increasing the size of the estate and the range of wines still further. Others have copied but few match the brilliance and simple joy of their wines. At its heart, Tariquet is an Armagnac estate with now a stock of old spirits to make some wonderful brandies. Yves Grassa, after having achieved so much has since left and still with just as much energy, can be found farming grain in Romania. Pierre and Hélène sadly passed away as did Christopher Tatham, or Tatam as people often, fondly, called him.
My second hero is still very much alive though no longer in charge of the Plaimont group of co-operatives. The headquarters of this group is in the village of Saint-Mont where there is a monastery and a long history linked to the cult of Saint James and wine. Yet when André arrived at Saint-Mont, viticulture was in a pitiable state.
Saint-Mont doesn't lie within the Armagnac district so the wines here had always traditionally been table wines. But in post-war France these were wretched indeed. Tannat was the principal variety, encouraged to produce plethoric yields and wines of no more than 9.5% alc. But Dubosc saw the potential in his patrimony. After convincing his fellow growers, Dubosc had to convince the authorities in Paris. It took a long time, but he eventually won, and the Saint-Mont appellation was created.
He went further still, studying old vines, apparently growing wild and abandoned and he is still rediscovering long lost grape varieties today. Daleks always had a problem with stairs; for the phylloxera louse, the blind spot was sand. Many of these lost varieties were planted on sand and so escaped extinction. That work is ongoing and Plaimont are the custodians of something of a living ampelography museum. So far it has created better versions of tannat, fer and gros and petit manseng. Arrufiac is now part of the Saint-Mont appellation for whites. One day members will be able to taste manseng noir which is being developed at Plaimont. A foot in the past and the future.
Named after Saint-Mont's lost vines, Les Vignes Retrouvées modern taste belies its historic roots.
Luc de Conti
Bergerac, so close to Bordeaux, was not in any danger in the same way as the more remote districts. But the wines were rarely any good and at best pale imitations of better-known names. But de Conti at Château Tour de Gendres is an undoubted hero of this region as he has tried to give Bergerac its own identity, something it was crying out for. He's done this by focusing on the malbec grape variety for the reds, differentiating from the wines downstream. This he is doing with some success, evidenced by the fact that we Wine Society buyers made his 2017 one of our Wine Champs!
The Baldès family in Cahors
It is strange to think that this famous appellation, so loved by the English, almost disappeared. The Baldès family were among the rescuers at Clos Triguedina. Jean-Luc Baldès is definitely one of the heroes of Cahors. He has tried to copy the wines that used to be made here. Cahor's reputation was founded on its so-called Black Wine, created by heating part of the must (the grape juice) in order increase concentration.
Alain is the hero for Madiran. Though one should also mention the Laplace family at Château d'Aydie and Auguste Vigneau who founded Domaine Pichard and was one of the fathers of the appellation. I still have bottles of his 1979 and 1985 Madiran which I treasure. But it was Alain Brumont who created the Grand Vin in Madiran, winning in blind tastings against the good and the great of Bordeaux. His wines from Châteaux Bouscassé and Montus are world class.
Henri wasn't intending to make wine. A family tragedy bought him back from farming cereals to wine. Jurançon has had its fair share of heroes, but Ramonteu remains special. He created an estate (Domaine Cauhapé) cast in pristine cleanliness, so essential in the production of sweet wines. But at time when the market for such nectars is diminishing, he was able to create a range of dry wines, some crisp and fruity, others of incredible richness and complexity.
The monastery at Roncesvalles or Roncevaux, which guards the famous pass where Charlemagne lost his rear-guard in 778, had control over the wines of Irouléguy until the border between the kingdoms was defined in 1659. There was a time when Irouléguy thrived before decline set in, followed by near extinction.
The Branas were wine merchants and distillers and grew pears for distillation. Interest in the wines soon followed, starting a slow process of reclaiming the steep mountain slopes where signs of past vineyards remained. Jean Brana continues the tradition today and has gone further, propagating varieties that had all but vanished. Most of the vines are tannat and cabernet franc, locally known as axeria, for the reds. Old varieties, newly discovered and planted include arrouya and erremaxaoua.
And so, to my last hero…
At one time the Teulier family of Domaine du Cros produced just 4,000 bottles from a single hectare of Marcillac. That was pretty much all that remained of this wine-growing region which had enjoyed such a glorious past, steeped in the history of the Pilgrimage, the nearby monastery of Conques and the ironworks of Decazeville.
Here, as elsewhere, people struggled to get their heritage recognised but an appellation was eventually created. Philippe Teulier was slowly able to extend his vineyard, by buying some land and renting others, preferring to plant on very steep slopes, sometimes reclaiming ancient terraces. As the crow flies, Marcillac is not far from say the sea. But Wine Society buyers are only very distantly related to crows and getting to Marcillac is always a long, and very scenic drive. In winter, it becomes a near impossible feat as winters here are harsh and often icy.
The spirit of the South-West lives on…
The spirit of the Sud-Ouest thrives elsewhere, especially in South America. Malbec has become the national variety in Argentina. And Basque settlers brought the tannat grape variety to Uruguay. The Sud-Ouest has become wonderfully transatlantic!