In France, they use the phrase, Sud-Ouest, not unlike we use the phrase, Gach Treo Eile on road signs, it is the shorthand for, everywhere else, or perhaps, all the rest of it.
In simple geographic terms, the Sud-Ouest, or South West is all the land, south of Bordeaux, west of the Rhone that runs along the Atlantic Coast and hits into the giant wall of the Pyrenees Mountains, the border with Spain. However, crucially not including the Languedoc and its sliver of Mediterranean coast.
The South West is green, Atlantic France, it is the mystical heart of France’s past, filled with castles on mountain tops, Romanesque cathedrals, walled towns, wild rivers, gorges, mountain passes and the echoes of 2000 years of battles, schisms and swordplay.
This is musketeer country, from Cyrano de Bergerac in the northern part, to D’Artagnan in the Gascon south. This is also the home of Armagnac, the other great French brandy made from distilled grapes, a close rival to Cognac.
In wine books, after running through Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, Languedoc and the Loire, there is often a very big catch all section into which the Sud-Ouest, or South West is poured.
This literary snub continues centuries of treating the South West poorly and has resulted in the region being poorly explored, badly imported even by nations like our own that have had a 300 year love affair with French wine and above all very slightly known by even the most enthusiastic wine lover.
The reason for this lack of profile can be summed up in two words, political prejudice.
The whole region, almost from the Loire down to the Pyrenees to the west of the Massif Central, France’s vast high, almost empty interior was once all the Roman region of Gallia Aquitania. The Romans loved the region because it was criss-crossed by the pre-built superhighways of the Ancient world, massive navigable rivers.
The Garonne river, the Gironde, the Lot and the massive Dordogne River all allow fast military and trade movement right into the heart of France. In the case of the River Garonne, it allowed huge vessels to navigate from the Atlantic right through the breadbasket of ancient France, past Bordeaux, then known as Burdigala inland to Toulouse and to the very foothills of the Pyrenees.
Much of the green fertile land here is rich alluvial soil, filled with complex geology and minerals leeched out from the high Pyrenees and swept downstream.
These lands along the rivers were often 100 to 200km inland from the Atlantic and enjoyed a temperate continental climate. Warm, not infrequently hot summers, dry warm autumns and cold, snowy but short winters.
The south west is the very median point between the cold wet north and the baking Mediterranean heat.
After the Romans, the Visigoths made Toulouse their capital, then in the 5th century came the Merovingian Kings, who built many of the castles.
Of course during all this Roman and post Roman regal occupation, castle building and nation founding. there was vineyard planting.
So it is that this ancient South West region contains some of the oldest vineyards in the world, with wines that run through every style from sparkling to Beaujolais like, to beefy reds and zesty white wines, yet three quarters of its appellations are essentially unknown outside their own region and the most famous often evoke a vaguely interested shrug when seen on a shelf.
While most wine lovers will have heard of Bergerac, Cahors, Jurancon and Madiran, the wines of Fronton, Duras, Gaillac, Lavilledieu, Tursan, Irouleguy, Rosette and Marmandais are very much less well known, while with Parcherenc du Vic Bilh, Vins d’Entraygues and Marcillac we begin to enter pretty obscure ground.
With 1000 years of royal patronage, political and strategic importance, it is at first almost inexplicable that the wines of this region have not become associated with this luxurious and powerful image.
The answer then is tragically simple.
The royal lines that made the South West their base, culminated in Eleanor of Aquitaine and her off spring, the Plantagenet Kings of France and England who, after ruling both Kingdoms for 300 years lost it all at the end of the 1000 Year War, in the South West at the Battle of Castillon, just to the east of AC Bergerac.
The House of Valois and all subsequent French Monarchs made the North their base, beginning in the Loire and eventually making Paris, the far from obvious choice, their capital.
The South West became a deliberate, cultural backwater. A backward, wild, distant, rough and rustic place.
Over centuries of neglect and marginalisation the wines of the South West were seen as rustic imitations of Bordeaux wines, an outrageous and largely inaccurate piece of defamation. While the wines of the Dordogne River like AC Bergerac, AC Saussignac, AC Montravel or AC Monbazillac could be regarded as echoing Bordeaux wines, the wines of Cahors or Jurancon are on a different plane altogether.
The Grapes of Wrath and Prejudice
AC Bergerac And Its Satellites
In AC Bergerac, and its high quality tenderloin, AC Pecharmant and its sweet wine cousins, AC Monbazillac and AC Saussignac we see, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc respectively as the main ingredients and they are indeed the grapes we find in classical Bordeaux. They share climates and in many cases owners and contiguous soils so this is entirely to be expected.
Indeed it is these characteristics that make these wines and wine regions so interesting to wine lovers, for here is a way to buy and drink wines of good quality without the celebrity premium of better known Bordeaux appellations like Pomerol, St.Emilion or Sauternes.
No one is suggesting that Monbazillac sweet wines are a match for the best of Sauternes but, in good vintages Noble Rot driven Monbazillac wines like those from Chateau Belingard and Chateau Vari can be delicious echoes of Sauternes at a fraction of the price and well worth seeking out.
The same is true of AC Saussignac delights like new Irish wine geese Chateau Haut Garrigue, which as of St. Patrick’s Day this year is now legally known as Chateau Feely, carrying on a proud Irish owner tradition of placing the Irish surname into the Chateau name.
However 90km south east of Bergerac, we find the fortress city of Cahors, epicentre of the AC Cahors wine region. Cahors is surrounded on three sides by the River Lot and with its medieval fortified bridges feels like a castellated island.
On almost every steep hill, vineyards flow out in every direction. The grape dominating here is Cot, better known to us today as the national grape of Argentina, Malbec.
If for once, French wineries could be persuaded by any argument of modern marketing, they would paint in large letters the world Malbec on the front of every Cahors wine and see the money roll in as Malbec lovers around the world try the original source for the wines they love in South America.
I would not hold our breath on this and indeed since they also like to call Malbec variously, Auxerrois, Pressac and Cot Noir in Cahors, the chances of getting unity or change at all are, nil.
Of course plenty of wineries are business minded and while they have not engraved the words, Cahors Malbec on the front label, they have begun to mention Malbec on the back.
and let wine writers know as often as they can during visits that this is the source of Argentine wine’s star, Malbec.
In fact Cahors wines have improved dramatically over the last 20 years moving away from the famous Black Wines, which were in fact hefty and tannic rather than the Blockbuster fruit style we might think Black Wine meant to evoke.
In other words, AC Cahors wines have become more like Argentine Malbec over the last decade, so that rather than Argentina’s Malbec being a descendant or pupil of Cahors, Cahors is a disciple of New World practice and taste profiles in its most modern wines.
As we travel further south from Bergerac and Cahors we reach the northern outskirts of Toulouse which is surrounded by a semi circle of wine appellations, from west to east, Saint-Sardos, Fronton and Gaillac.
AC Fronton and AC Gaillac
Administratively this is the heart of the Midi-Pyrenees, which is the more southern and indeed quasi-Mediterranean section of the South West.
This is rugby country, there has been substantial industry here for three hundred years, it is in many ways, France’s Yorkshire, maybe even its Newcastle. Vast infrastructure projects like the Canal du Midi link it with both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Mills, cloth, bulk agriculture and latterly aeronautics in the form of Airbus and the European Space Agency are all here.
The wines here reflect this muscular, plain speaking persona.
The grapes here include Rhone and Midi stalwarts like Syrah, which is a dominant wine in Sardos and Gaillac, and Negrette the main grape in Fronton. These wine regions are so inward looking and self sufficient that they evolved to produce all the wine styles that the city of Toulouse and surrounding towns might want.
So in AC Fronton we see, medium bodied red wines that foreground acidity, aromas of violets and raspberry and which can be quite harsh in youth. This is wine that was almost built for Toulouse sausage.
In AC Gaillac the very much larger region to the east of Toulouse we find a wine appellation that straddles the Tarn River and finds itself located in both flat alluvial plains and rough, gorges filled terrain leading up to the ancient city of Albi. This region contains the awe inspiring Gorges du Tarn, where the walls of the Tarn Bank can reach 1800 feet in height on either side, it can be a claustrophobic and exhilarating experience.
This is where the tallest bridge in the world, the epic, Norman Foster bridge, the Millau Viaduct is situated.
The wines of Gaillac reflect this rapidly and significantly changing landscape. Under the AC Gaillac they produce a Beaujolais nouveau style wine, 3 different types of sparkling wine, two different styles of sweet wine as well as almost half a dozens dry styles.
About 100km to the west of Toulouse, towards the Atlantic coast sits AC Madiran. This small wine region sits on the old route to Santiago de Compostela and you can draw a nearly straight line down from St.Emilion the previous wine stop on the Way of St. James for pilgrims. The religious centres of Pau and Lourdes in the foothills of the Pyrenees are just to the south of AC Madiran.
The grape here is Tannat and it is an exclusively red wine commune. Until the 1980s it was considered a, vin du garde , a monolithic, blocky, nearly immortal wine that needed decades of cellaring to soften up.
What this meant to our ancestors, especially pilgrims, was that it was a very stable wine that was not going to change any time soon. Ideal to put in skins and barrels for the march over the mountains to Spain, or have in the castle cellar for the long winter.
We are less enamoured of brutalism these days and the wine lover used words like unapproachable, profoundly tannic and lacking fruit. Then somehow the grape, Tannat, found its way to Uruguay and northern Argentina, where it was found to be capable of producing intensely concentrated, dark fruited and joyous wines with a bit of leather and spice.
Back in Madiran, in 1980 Alain Brumont, the saviour of Madiran purchased its most famous Chateau, Chateau Montus. Along with a new generation of winemakers and an influx of owners from outside the South West in the 1980s, they pioneered a softening up, to some critics, a Napa-isation of Madiran.
To which we could really say, they should be so lucky. It is certainly not Napa, either in style or ambiance, but the wines with micro-oxygenation have been softened up, and with judicious use of new winemaking have been made fruitier. They are still big wines, but now in an enjoyable style.
AC Jurancon and AC Irouleguy
At the very southern most tip of the South West region are the potential stars of the region Jurancon and Irouleguy, though so far only Jurancon has broken through, in modern times, with Chateau Jolys and Domaine Caulhape. Although most Jurancon winemakers would have you ear off you for saying such heresy for a wine that was used in its brilliant crystalline sweet form from the Petit Manseng grape, for the christening of King Henri de Navarre in 1553.
Irouleguy is up in the Pyrenees in the heart of Basque country, it has yet to make a breakthrough, though it has a very powerful champion in Jean-Claude Berrouet, until his retirement in 2007, the winemaker at Chateau Petrus and in Napa Valley at Dominus. He has his own winery down in Irouleguy making a hard to find white wine called Herri Mina from Gros Manseng that has brought considerable US media attention. So far this has yet to see any serious impact on its general profile however in the rest of the world.
As I hope you can see there is huge diversity and antiquity in the wines of the South West and far from being Bordeaux clones looking to trade on their proximity to that region, these are proud, distinct and vital wines with ancient claims to any open minded wine lovers heart and palate. It is a glorious hidden treasure to be explored.
The Wines of the South West
Chateau Montus, AC Madiran 2007, €27.95 (90)
Chateau Montus, AC Madiran 2004, €28.95 (91)
Domaine Arretxea, AC Irouleguy 2010, €29.95 (91)
Chateau Bellevue La Foret, AC Fronton 2009, €16.99 (89)
Chateau Bellevue La Foret, Le Foret Royale, AC Fronton 2008, €26 (91)
Chateau Haut Garrigue, La Source, AC Bergerac 2008, €18 (91)
Chateau Des Eyssards Cuvee Prestige, AC Cahors 2010, €14.30 (90)
Chateau de Chambert, AC Cahors 2008, €17.19 (91)
Chateau de Cedre, AC Cahors 2009, €22.80 (90)
Chateau de Cedre, Cuvee Heritage, AC Cahors 2010, €14.95 (89)
Chateau de Gaudou Tradition, AC Cahors 2012, €13.55 (90)
Chateau de Navailles, Grain Sauvage, AC Jurancon Sec 2012, €16.49 (90)
Chateau la Brie, Blanc, AC Bergerac 2010, €11.59 (88)
Chateau Haut Garrigue, Semillon-Sauvignon, AC Bergerac 2009, €13 (89)
Chateau Des Eyssards Blanc, AC Cahors 2012, €12.15 (89)