Society buyer Marcel Orford-Williams' love affair with these wines began a good few years ago when he came across Pichard wines in a shop near the Place des Vosges in Paris. The bottles looked rustic with old-fashioned labels and a red wax top and he bought several vintages going back to 1971.
He didn't know it at the time but he had just uncovered one of the most important wines from what was, at that time, a very little-known backwater of south-western France.
The story of Madiran is long and goes back to the 12th century when Benedictine monks founded a nearby abbey. The grape varieties were local and may have originated from the Basque Country. The wines were full and generous and must have delighted the countless pilgrims that stopped here at the river Adour on their way to the Pyrenees and on to Compostela. Later, the south-west was generally ravaged by phylloxera and recovery was long so that when the appellation was granted in 1948, there were practically no vines.
At the centre of this recovery was a vigneron called Auguste Vigneau who in 1955 created Domaine Pichard. He made hand-crafted wines from a patch of land at the southernmost tip of the Madiran appellation. The view from the estate can be breathtaking with the Pyrenees there in all their snow-capped splendour. The estate was mostly planted with black varieties, with a tiny plot of whites for the estate's even rarer white pacherenc. One curiosity at Pichard is the importance of cabernet franc which plays a big part in most vintages.
Auguste Vigneau retired just before Marcel Orford-Williams made his first visit there and our early purchases included the1981 and 1982 vintages (both outstanding). The estate was left to a nephew who carried on for a few more years but maybe not to quite at the same level as before. He in turn, having no obvious succession sold to a young and very dynamic lawyer, Jean Sentilles and his Lancastrian brother-in-law, Rod Cork.
Things have since changed and all of it to the good. Pichard was in need of investment and that is what it got with cleaned-up cellars and more importantly still, massive work in the vineyard. Vines needed retraining and dead vines were removed and replanted. Cabernet sauvignon, of which there had been a little, was grubbed up and replaced with cabernet franc and of course more tannat and the more whites were planted for the future.
Most estates in Madiran still construct their wines on tannat, often 100%. But here, the feeling is that cabernet franc is an important element and provides more finesse and fruitiness to the wines. Generally these wines are made from 60% tannat and 40 of cabernet franc though the exact proportions may vary a little with each vintage. The feel of hand-crafted wines is still there, if anything stronger than before. These are wines with strong personality reflected in every vintage.