This summer the Grassa family celebrated 100 years of their family's ownership of this Gascon property, transformed over five generations from a small producer of Armagnac to France's largest independent viticultural estate
Many members will be familiar with the wines of Domaine Grassa, producers of several member favourites, not least The Society's Côtes de Gascogne (ref N-FC6481, £5.75). But what is less well-known is that until the 1980s the Grassas were recognised only as producers of fine Armagnac.
The brilliant and innovative Yves Grassa has been at the forefront of modernising his family business founded in 1912. It was his parents Pierre and Hélène who laid the foundations for what has become the largest independent viticultural estate in France, with more than 900 hectares. Yves' genius was to make table wine from grapes destined for distillation into Armagnac when sales of the latter had slumped, taking advantage of new vin de pays provisions to introduce a host of popular new grape varieties such as chardonnay, sauvignon and semillon.
Much to the bemusement of the locals, the dry whites took off and The Society was among the first to import them into the UK in the early 1980s. To meet the increased demand for their wines, Tariquet needed to expand and by the end of the 1980s the estate had quadrupled in size.
The innovative and moreish Côté Tariquet Chardonnay-Sauvignon (ref N-FC22961, £7.95), an unconventional combination of the world's two most popular grapes, which allegedly first came about after a mix-up in the winery, is just one of their success stories. The more traditional varieties also have their place. Petit manseng, more usually found in Jurançon to the south, is behind the late-harvest dessert wine Les Dernières Grives ('The Last Thrushes' – also fans of the late-harvest grapes!). Introduced by Yves in the 1990s, it was the first of its type in the region. We currently list the 2009 vintage (ref N-FC22261, £13.95) which is exquisitely balanced with fresh, lively fruit flavours to match perfectly a fresh fruit salad or crème brûlée.
A pioneering spirit
A pioneering, even maverick, spirit has been behind the success of the Grassa family and the latest generation, Yves' sons Rémy and Armin, who took over the reins in 2005, show no signs of bucking this trend. They continue to experiment with new grapes and winemaking techniques and continue to raise eyebrows locally with their ventures into red and rosé winemaking. But when you learn something of the history of this family and how they came about owning Château du Tariquet, you realise that such ingenuity is not surprising.
Bear-tamers and war veterans
The story starts in a small village in the Ariège, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, an area with a tradition of bear-taming. In the late 19th century, in the midst of mass-emigration from rural France, Pierre Artaud, a particularly successful tamer of bears, packed his bags and with his two beasts in tow, set off for America to find fame and fortune. He achieved this goal sufficiently to enable him to return to France in 1912 and buy, with the help of his son Jean-Pierre, a New York bartender, Château du Tariquet.
Come the first world war, Jean-Pierre returned to France to fight for his country. He was immediately sent to the front and badly wounded, losing so much blood that his memory was affected and it was seven years before he was able to return to New York. His wife Pauline, also from the Ariège, who had stayed in America, had met the boat from Le Havre every week in the hope of seeing her husband again. In 1925 they both returned to France where soon their daughter Hélène was born.
The Grassa connection
It was Hélène who was to meet and marry another Pierre in 1946. Pierre Grassa was also a mountain boy from Urdos, a small village in the Béarn region with family roots on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. Pierre started life as a cow-herd with very little formal education, but his curiosity, energy and ambition took him much further afield. Taken prisoner in the second world war, he found captivity unbearable and escaped and joined the Resistance in South-West France, in Eauze, home of Tariquet, where he was to meet and fall in love with Hélène.
Pierre and Hélène had ambitious plans for the family property and soon took over the running of it, buying more land and developing it, becoming virtually selfsufficient and increasing the land under vine to 50 hectares and laying the foundations for the future.
The tradition of Armagnac
Tariquet has been producing Armagnac, or more precisely, Bas-Armagnac, since 1683 and the current generation believes passionately in its future. Fittingly, for the 100th anniversary, the family has released a rare and exceptional Bas-Armagnac to celebrate. L'Armagnac du Centenaire is a blend of the four grapes traditionally found in the region and of different vintages with an average age of 20 years. Bottled at cask strength (53.5% alc) earlier this year, only 2,012 bottles of this exquisite nectar were produced. We have a limited number to offer to members (ref N-BY361, £160; one bottle only per member). This fine digestif is a fitting tribute to Pierre Grassa, who died earlier this summer at the fantastic age of 96, sadly just before the centenary celebrations were to begin.
Read more about Armagnac.