Rediscovering Authentic France: the Southwest

Wine tasting - Vins des Côtes de Gascogne. Ghent, Belgium, 2018. Photo credit: mdmedia & partners.
Le Bonheur est dans le Vin – Vins des Côtes de Gascogne. Ghent, Belgium. Photo credit: mdmedia & partners, 2018.

A few months ago, I spent some time in the southwest of France, in Gascony, just south of Bordeaux. It was a trip full of wonderful surprises: it’s a beautiful part of the world, not crowded (yet) with tourists, and here the French are still genuinely warm, hospitable and unapologetically French. The perfect place to relax, and on top of that it’s a paradise for lovers of authentic French cooking, both the gastronomic and the more rustic kind. There’s something for everyone in the Southwest, even more so when it comes to wine.

Photo credit: Vins des Côtes de Gascogne / Vins du Sud-Ouest.

A few suggestions for regions and denominations to look into:

IGP Côtes de Gascogne

This area stretches out over 13,000 hectares between the Garonne river in the north, the Landes Forest in the west, and the Pyrenees to the south. Contrary to what one would expect in more southern wine regions, 85% of the wines produced here are white, from the grape varieties Colombard, Ugni Blanc, Gros and Petit Manseng, but also from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Here you find lively and food-friendly dry, off-dry and sweet white wines, with zippy acidity and often showing a lovely aromatic complexity. And what surprised me most of all: these whites are comparatively low in alcohol (often around 11.5%), and present amazing value.

“Sables fauves” – the ochre-hued sandy soils of the PDO Saint-Mont. Here in the iconic vineyard of Château de Sabazan. October 2018.

AOC Saint-Mont

Further south we arrive at the 1200 hectares of the denomination Saint-Mont, where thanks to the ochre-hued sables fauves, one of the rare pre-phylloxera vineyards has been preserved. This half an acre plot is populated with coiled, gnarly vines that are most likely over 200 years old. No less than 21 different grape varieties have been identified here, of which 7 are unique to the vineyard. A must-see for wine lovers and plant nerds alike!
Saint-Mont produces a wide range of multi-faceted red, rosé and white wines of local grape varieties; each with a great price-quality ratio, even in the higher-end range. For the iconic red wines of Château de Sabazan, for instance, you’ll pay just under 20 euros here in Belgium. And Colruyt supermarkets sell the fun “Diable Rose” (Pink Devil), a fresh and fruity rosé blend of Tannat, Pinenc (= Fer Servadou) and Cabernet Sauvignon for around 5 euros. Ideal serving temperature: 6.66°C!

The prephylloxera vineyard in Saint-Mont is the only non-building kind of structure that’s registered as a Historical Monument in France. It is home to 21 different grape varieties, of which 7 are unique to this location.
Eric Fitan, president of the AOC Saint-Mont, showcasing the ancient and unique ungrafted vines.

AOC Madiran & Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh

South of Saint-Mont, we come to the idyllic village of Madiran, surrounded by a sloping vineyard landscape. The red wines are produced under the denomination Madiran, while the dry or sweet white wines from the same territory are labelled Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh.
In Madiran, the Tannat grape is king. It delivers on the one hand the classic, long-lived, spicy and powerful reds we expect, but in recent years it is also vinified in a newer, more modern style. Several younger winemakers, many of them women, make suppler and fruitier red wines here, still full of character, but more accessible than their sturdier ancestors.
Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh is another denomination to watch. Only 300 hectares in size, but just like its neighbour Jurançon, it produces delicious aromatic white wines from i.a. Gros and Petit Manseng. They are better known for dessert wines, but under the label “Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec”, very interesting dry wines are created, suitable as an aperitif or for inspired meal or cheese pairings.

Tasting of Madiran and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh wines at Château de Crouseilles. October 2018.

More Information

Event: “Le Bonheur est dans le Vin”, by Alice Bown and Les Vins du Sud-Ouest. Ghent, Belgium. Photo credit: mdmedia & partners, 2018.

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