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Andrew Jefford: Why Southern France is a Wine Lovers' Treasure Trove

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Andrew Jefford Andrew Jefford / 27 September 2018

Andrew Jefford hits the heights explaining why southern france's natural attributes make it such a treasure trove for wine lovers

Ask the French about terroir, the way in which distinctive agricultural products contrive to express a sense of place via aroma and flavour, and you'll usually get a geology lesson. There is, though, a bigger picture.

I have, hanging on the wall in front of me, a raised relief map, moulded in plastic, showing the whole of France. A quick glance reveals that almost all of France's uplands lie in the southern half of the country, while the vast majority of its lowlands lie in the north. This, together with France's latitudinal position on the face of the earth (between 43° and 50° north), adds up to an overwhelming wineproducing advantage.

Why? if the lowlands lay in the south and the uplands in the north, France would be a dismal wine prospect: the north would be far too cold, and the south too warm, too dully productive. Happily, the low hills of the north can tease early-ripening vines like pinot and chardonnay towards ripeness in a few felicitous zones like Champagne, Sancerre and Burgundy, while in the warmer south there is always enough relief to mitigate the intense heat found along the strip of coastal plains in Languedoc (there are no coastal plains at all in Provence beyond the marshy Camargue) and around Perpignan. Continental drift and orography couldn't have arranged things any more choicely.

Vineyards in Champagne
Vineyards in Champagne

The Pyrenees, the Massif Central and the Alps account for most of the land in southern France. It's on the lower edges of these gigantic uplands that vines destined to make higher-quality AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée) wines generally grow, in particular at the 'goldilocks' altitude between 100 and 400 metres. Moreover the corridors between the three uplands encourage cool winds to run from the north to the south (the Mistral down the Rhône Valley, and the Tramontane and the Cers between the Pyrenees and the Massif Central): an air-conditioning effect.

Provence's vineyards are found on the last relief of the southern Alps; Languedoc's best vineyards are found on the south-facing foothills of the Massif Central; and Roussillon's best vineyards grow on the south and east-facing hills and sheltered valleys of the eastern Pyrenees. The wines of the regions generally gathered together as the 'South West', meanwhile, either grow on hills to the north of the Pyrenees, or on hill slopes associated with the west side of the Massif Central. That's more of a challenge, which is why viticulture here is intermittent.

Views from the Pyrenees
Views from the Pyrenees

Bordeaux itself is the only exception to these tales of the hills – and heat mitigation here comes from the great ocean beyond. Yes, geology and soils are important, at a local scale, but it's this big picture which makes highquality wine-growing possible in the first place.

Where will you find the best wines in this vast zone? Bordeaux, of course – but we've known about that for a long time. after that, the picture is a deliciously complex and diverse one. the pleasure lies principally in that diversity. Here are a few of my favourites.

Madiran is the southern French zone whose wines I treasure most. they are wines of absolute Gascon generosity: dark, tannic, structured, heroic. (And, I'm convinced by long experiment, tonic.) You can cellar them effortlessly; they even put up with the dreadful storage conditions of my garage uncomplainingly. The region's small scale precludes popular acclaim, so they always offer superb value for money. it's not difficult to track down the best names; this far south, vintage variations are minimal. If my last bottle is a Madiran, i'll die happy. (Or perhaps recover.)

Wines made from the tannat grape can be cellared effortlessly
Wines made from the tannat grape can be cellared effortlessly

Cahors is a passion for many of the same reasons – but the region is a much bigger one, so there are more variations in style and growing conditions. Cahors' malbec, too, is a different beast to Madiran's tannat: less innately grippy, more perfumed. There's a long, noble history of wine production here (Cahors preceded Médoc as an English courtly favourite); you'll find a grain and finesse in the best Cahors which even I have to admit eludes Madiran.

The two manseng varieties (gros and petit) grown in Jurançon (and used for white Madiran, too: it's called Pacherenc du Vic Bilh) can produce white wines, both dry and sweet, of astonishing complexity. Don't forget, though, that those varieties are also grown in nearby Saint-Mont, and if you could measure wines by a 'complexity per penny' index, you'd find Saint-Mont unbeatable anywhere in France.

Cross the Pyrenees, and it's somewhere along the Agly Valley, between the high Fenouillèdes and Estagel, that you'll find what may prove with time to be the south of France's greatest red wines, growing under the eyeless gaze of long-abandoned Cathar fortresses: wines of density, stone and sunlight. The new appellation of Maury Sec is one to look out for, but many of the best will continue to go to market under one of the various Côtes du Roussillon or - Villages appellations. They're best seen as a northern Catalan echo of Priorat: just as 'mineral'; no less overwhelming; often fresher.

A view overlooking Saint Chinian
A view overlooking Saint Chinian

My favourite Languedoc appellation is Terrasses du Larzac, a zone of huge potential and wide variety, too, especially the almost Napa-like, beautifully drained benchlands in the central part of the appellation. any well-chosen wine from here is worth trying. Saint-Chinian is another name to look out for: it has a schist-soiled part and a limestone-soiled part, and both can be excellent. if you find you like Saint-Chinian's schist-grown wines, experiment with the pure-schist wines of Faugères, too. Pic Saint-Loup, finally, is where you'll find some of Languedoc's brightest, most-scented red wines: it's wetter, cooler and (in winter) frostier than elsewhere. Syrah in particular loves the growing conditions around this upended limestone slab to the north of Montpellier.

This is a happy moment to dabble with the south of France: 2015, 2016 and 2017 have all been very good vintages there, though drought in 2016 cut quantities by 10%, and unusual spring frosts in 2017 by much more than that (the plains were worst affected, not the hills). Having a President who has said (on february 22nd this year) that he drinks wine for both lunch and dinner has also raised spirits among southern France's wine-producing community, one that has felt beleaguered ever since the strictures of the Loi Evin first came into force back in 1991. Macron, who proved himself an accomplished blind taster during his election campaign, has also dared to suggest that it is drinks other than wine that cause most alcohol-related health problems in France. My informal observations at supermarket tills over eight years of permanent residency in France bear him out.

We are delighted to say that we've persuaded Andrew Jefford, an award-winning writer and broadcaster with a regular blog and column in decanter magazine and contributing editor for the World of fine Wine magazine, to write for us more regularly. Look out for his first 'The View from Here' in the next edition of Societynews or online.


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