Madiran is a beautiful, sleepy, wineproducing region in the south west of France among the gentle foothills of the Pyrenees, south of Armagnac. The region is known locally as 'the heart of darkness', not apparently due to any similarity to Joseph Conrad's nightmare vision but, some say, after the Black Prince who frequented the area in the 14th century. Others, myself included, prefer to believe it's because of the deep, dark, brooding colour of the wonderfully individual local red wine.
The name of the favoured local grape, tannat, betrays the character of the wines it produces: often coarse, earthy and rustic with rough tannins, perfect for washing down the deliciously hearty duck, goose and cassoulet cooked locally.
US filmmaker Woody Allen reputedly once recommended 'elephant burger' when asked to suggest a suitable food to go with Madiran. I know what he means; Madiran calls for something BIG. In days gone by, the wines were guardedly closed and harshly tannic for most of their youth before eventually opening up to reveal structure, depth and spicy complexity alongside the inherent strength.
This lack of approachability meant that Madiran was little known, or loved, outside its home. Indeed, ravaged by the twin horrors of phylloxera and war, vineyards covered just 15 acres in the early 1950s.
Modern fashion, however, dictates that wine should be approachable much earlier and Madiran growers have cleverly managed to create a far more acceptable modern wine without compromising the individuality that makes it unique. The technique of micro-oxygenation, developed by Madiran grower Patrick Ducournau in 1990 and now widely used across France, involves bubbling tiny amounts of oxygen through young wines, reducing the ferocity of the tannins and making the wines much smoother.
The introduction of Bordeaux grapes, cabernets sauvignon and franc, to the blend (they can account for up to 40 per cent) have added structure. These factors and the picking of riper grapes and a warmer climate, have convinced devotees that the best examples can now match some of the finest wines of all of France.
Heart of the matter
Wine is a food, a medicine and a poison - it's just a question of dose,16th-century Swiss physician Paracelsus
But Madiran is also winning plaudits for its health benefits as well as its style and taste.
"Wine is a food, a medicine and a poison - it's just a question of dose," noted 16th-century Swiss physician Paracelsus. A truism followed closely by Professor Roger Corder of the William Harvey Research Institute, London. Corder led a recent study by British scientists that examined the health benefits of wine consumption.
"Wine drinkers are generally healthier and often live longer; have less heart disease and diabetes, and are less likely to suffer from dementia in old age," says Corder, encouragingly, in his book The Wine Diet (Sphere, 2007).
Corder and his team wanted to get to the bottom of the 'French paradox' - the statistical phenomenon of a relatively low level of heart disease in France despite a high level of saturated fat in the diet. He was attracted to further examination of the Gers region of France because it had double the national average of men aged 90 or above, despite it being the home of foie gras, cassoulet, saucisson and cheese. Had he found the home of the real French paradox?
Yes. In a word. And it was, he concluded, all thanks to the local red wine, Madiran. Corder's research had revealed that while moderate consumption of red wine was beneficial to health, certain red wines were more beneficial than others. The secret is the amount of procyanidins, a polyphenolthought to protect the blood vessels and thus reduce the risk of heart disease, in the wine and the amount can vary enormously in different wine styles.
"The best results I've had in my laboratory have been from Madiran wines," says Corder. "These have some of the highest procyanidinlevels I've encountered, as a result of the local grape variety, tannat, and the traditional long fermentation and maceration."
Corder says long fermentation and maceration are important wherever the wine is grown, and wine from grapes grown at high altitude and with low yields also score highly.
"The basic, mass-produced, branded wines generally don't conform to these criteria and have disappointingly low levels of procyanidins," Corder adds. "I believe the types of wine that are best for health are those designed to be sipped as an accompaniment to food, not those made for casual quaffing.
Madiran is a genuine heart-protecting wine and this is the real French paradox. One small glass of this wine can provide more benefit than two bottles of most Australian wine."
In a world where wines taste increasingly alike, wines such as Madiran that dare to be different lift the soul and could well be protecting your heart into the bargain.