The road less travelled

Rediscovering lost vines: The story of Gascony’s Saint-Mont

I know some people just think of wine as a pleasant drink, but for me it’s often the stories behind the bottles that intrigue as much as the liquid inside. I have a particular soft spot for those wines eked out in the harshest of environments, or those that have overcome adversity and survived against all odds; the underdogs of the wine world.

Rediscovering Lost Vines: The Story of Gascony’s Saint-Mont

And if there’s one wine that could legitimately call itself the card-carrier for such vinous endeavours, it has to be Saint-Mont, Les Vignes Retrouvées from Producteurs Plaimont, the excellent co-operative in south-west France. ‘Les vignes retrouvées’ translates as ‘rediscovered vines’ and this is the tale of how this ancient grape-growing region, situated well off the beaten track in the Gers region, revived its old vineyards after the dual ravages of phylloxera and war. Clinging onto their agricultural heritage, veterans returning from the war banded together into co-operatives to help commercialise their crops better; for grape growers in this part of France that meant sending your produce off to be distilled into Armagnac.

Following the oil crisis of the seventies and the prospect of a decline in the spirits’ market, the future of the vine growers of Gascony was looking uncertain. It was at this time that a young man called André Dubosc took over as president of his local co-op. A native of the region and a man full of energy, vision and charisma, he set about persuading his fellow growers that they needed to re-evaluate their native grapes and terroir.

Old, long-forgotten bottles revealed the former glory of this region’s wines and Dubosc was quick to recognise the rich diversity of his region’s vine stocks and how precious few were remaining. He convinced the growers to nurture their old vines and to reduce yields; he rightly predicted that the survival of his region’s wines depended on marketing their unusual indigenous grapes. He also recognised that in a global market awash with cheap foreign wines, often from the same ubiquitous grapes, those of his native land needed to wear their eccentricity with pride – something, luckily the Gascons are renowned for!

Vins de Saint-Mont
Vins de Saint-Mont

Security in numbers

In order to become more commercially assertive, Dubosc persuaded three local co-ops (Plaisance, Aignan and Saint-Mont – hence PL-AI-MONT) to join forces, allowing for a greater professionalism and a fairer deal for all. He invested in new equipment and travelled the world promoting the group’s wines and emphasising their individuality and value for money. He also invited scholars to analyse the region’s grapes; the grape detective work revealed more than forty varieties, including some ungrafted pre-phylloxera vines in someone’s garden!

The introduction of the Vin de Pays category in the seventies couldn’t have come at a better time for Plaimont. Dubosc seized on the opportunity and worked tirelessly to regain recognition for ‘Côtes de Saint-Mont’ wines (now Saint-Mont and an AOP – appellation d’origine protégée) allowing blends to be made from the quirky old vines in the region which hadn’t been grown commercially for generations. The old varieties – gros manseng, courbu and arrufiac, for whites and tannat, pinenc (fer servadou) and both cabernets – were lovingly brought back from the brink and also carefully replanted on suitable slopes, chosen much more selectively than in the past. It was a huge task, encompassing 42 villages and over 1,000 hectares.

Without Dubosc’s determination, this ancient wine would undoubtedly have died and along with it the region’s precious old vines. Today Plaimont is made up of more than 1,000 growers and has five wineries as well as iconic historic châteaux across the region. It is a main player in Gascony accounting for 98% of the Saint-Mont appellation which it revived single-handedly, and half of Côtes de Gascogne, Madiran and the once obscure Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh appellation.

Preserving the past for the future

Making the most of all the investigative work in their vineyards over the past three decades, Plaimont have created a ‘living library’ to conserve and protect their ancient vines, some of which are yet to be identified. And those pre-phylloxera vines discovered in a back garden have now been officially dated back to 1871, before The Wine Society began! In 2012 these were recognised as a ‘monument historique’ by the French government, the only vines in France to receive such an accolade!

Joanna Goodman

Senior Editor

Joanna Goodman

Part of our Marketing Team for over 30 years, Jo has been editor of Society News for much of that time as well as contributing to our many other communications.

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