South of France Wines
There is an amazing number of extraordinary wines
coming from the relatively undiscovered appellations along the Southern tier of France.
The Midi, for example, has awoken from a long, sleepy period of cranking out massive
quantities of wine of a quality which wasn't worthy of, as some European friends would
say, "isn't good enough for even washing your feet."
I can recall tasting wines of the Minervois and Fitou appellations in the late 1970s and
thinking what horrid wines these were! "How could anybody drink this
crap?" I wondered.
The French government began encouraging growers to produce less fruit! They had such
a wine lake at that time. The predominant varieties were grapes which produced
prolific quantities of "vin ordinaire." Combine ordinary grapes with poor
winemaking and you have a lot of distilling material. Unfortunately, Peugeots and
Citroens run on gasoline! Some of the wines were not much different, sadly.
Growers began to replant high-yielding vines with finer varieties. These premium
grapes, coincidentally, tend to produce smaller crops. Improved winemaking
techniques have revitalized what may be some of Europe's oldest vineyard territory.
Value-conscious consumers should also be paying attention to the wines of this sunny and
warm region. It can, fairly consistently, produce the sort of wines those of us who
appreciate good quality can afford. California's Central Valley growers might take
note of this region, because the quality of wine from the southern part of France can be
so far superior to the over-cropped, insipid "plonk" coming from Fresno, Lodi
The Southwest of France, a short drive from Bordeaux,
offers a sensational array of good quality wines.
Starting from the extreme southwest corner on the above map...
This is Basque country and its a rugged terrain covering
approximately 215 hectares of vineyards. In the 1600s, records
show some 500 hectares being cultivated and the low point bottomed out in the
1980s when a mere 70 hectares comprised the Irouleguy appellation.
The red grapes are: Bordelesa Beltza (which is the Tannat), Axeria
(Cabernet Franc) and Axeria Handia (Cabernet Sauvignon).
White grapes: Izkiriota Ttipia (Petit Manseng), Ixkiriota
(Gros Manseng) and Xuri Zerratia (Courbu).
There's a tiny bit of pink wine made in the Irouleguy appellation, but, for the
most part, this is red wine country. Most of the wine made is produced by
a grower's cooperative, but we typically have a splendid red from a small,
One of the great claims to fame for the wine of Jurancon is that is was
used to christen Henry IV. Hank is long gone, but the wines of the
region (don't confuse this with the "Jura") are much appreciated here
in far away San Francisco!
There's Jurancon and Jurancon Sec (dry)...These are white wines and made of Gros
Manseng, Petit Manseng and Courbu. The vineyards are typically up in the
hills on terraced sites, with the harvest sometimes being prolonged into the
time of the first snows of winter.
The dry wines, accounting for 75% of the production of the Jurancon
appellation, are typically austere and steely-sharp. They are not
wines easily appreciated by fans of fat, flaccid California wines.
Jurancon Sec is a wine for seafood, though a plate of some sort of slightly
sweet and salty ham & melon is a delightful combination. The aromatics
are, typically, lightly citrusy and appley with a nuance of honey.
Sweet Jurancon wines range the gamut from slightly sweet to grandiose.
These can displays notes of tropical fruits such as pineapple, mango and guava,
along with some honeyed and spice elements. The region caught the eye of
the late Bad Boy of Pouilly-Fume, Didier Daguenau, who purchased a property and
who made unctuous sweet wine. The locals often pair the sweet Jurancon
wines with foie gras.
This obscure appellation finds fame for the "Sauce Bearnaise"
more than for its wines. Vineyards comprise about 250-something hectares
and almost all the wine there is made by grower's cooperative cellars.
Only one grower, Pascal Lapeyre, vinifies his own grapes and bottles his own
wine. We periodically have some of Pascal's wines...
MADIRAN and PACHERNC du VIC-BIHL
Madiran is a wonderful deep, dark red wine based on the Tannat
grape. Amongst the 1260 hectares of Madiran vineyards, you'll find a bit
of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc (known to some here as Bouchy) and
Fer-Servadou (the Mansois or Pinenc in some circles).
Madiran can be a really good, deep, dark, showy wine. They can also be
fairly tannic, so Madiran pairs handsomely with duck, a local specialty.
An Italian friend who interned at a famous Bordeaux property told us they'd
often include a Madiran as the "mystery" wine against famous names in
Bordeaux and the Madiran often won the tasting. Chateau Montus is the most
famous producer, but we've found a few of his neighbors offer exceptionally good
wine at more sensible pricing.
Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl is a white wine covering the same area. White grapes
account for approximately 267 hectares. The appellation produces both dry
and sweet wine. The indigenous local varieties are Arrufiac, Manseng and
Courbu, while the "outsiders" are Bordeaux's Sauvignon and
Semillon. We've periodically had wonderful dry whites to pair with seafood
and sweet examples for desserts or foie gras.
COTES DE GASCOGNE
This is a fairly large appellation and there are some great little
treasures in this region. There's a lot of white wine produced in
this region, using varieties such as Colombard and Ugni Blanc (Italy's
Trebbiano). But some producers use Gros Manseng and, perhaps Sauvignon
Blanc or Chardonnay to create really flavorful wines that rise above the crowd.
Reds can be made of Bordeaux varieties and, perhaps, with Tannat.
There's another interesting product in Gascony, apart from their famous brandy
called Armagnac (we have a bunch of these, by the way)...it's an aperitif wine
called Floc de Gascogne, the local version of Pineau des Charentes or Ratafia.
We typically have Chiroulet's Floc de Gascogne...
The wines made of the Malbec grape and cultivated in this region were
known, once-upon-a-time, as "the black wines of Cahors." Not
that they were necessarily exceptionally dark-colored wines, but compared to the
relatively light-colored wines from Bordeaux (called by the British
"claret" after the French term "clairette"), Cahors wines
were dark and inky.
The region today comprises approximately 4000+ hectares of vineyards, mostly
Malbec (or it may be called "Cot") along with Merlot. There is a
tiny amount of Tannat planted in the Cahors region, too.
Vintners in this region have been upset that their local grape, Malbec, gets so
much attention from wine writers, merchants and wine drinkers when it comes from
Argentina. Of course, most French wines are labeled simply with the
appellation and one must know which-grapes-grow-where to know where in France
Malbec is king. The growers consortium lobbied the French government and,
today, you will find (unusually) the Malbec variety mentioned on the
But Malbec from Argentina is usually made in New World styles, aiming at big,
deep, fruity, low acidity, low tannin and high alcohol. Cahors wines, for
the most part, are a bit tannic, moderately acidic and a bit edgy. They
are, after all, French wines. We've tasted a few bottlings which aim to be
trophy wines and seek high numerical scores, having oxygen bubbled into the
fermentation tank, so there are some "new world"-styled Cahors wines.
The Fronton region is located just north of Toulouse and it's the home
of the Negrette grape. What they call Negrette, California winemakers
might know as Pinot Saint George. Perhaps the grape has its origins
in Greece, as "Mavro" would equate to the French "Negrette"
(black). The name Pinot Saint George is no longer used in California, but
we recall bottlings from both Inglenook and Christian Brothers
We've found good Rose and Red wine under the Fronton banners...The wines are not
expensive and ten bucks goes a long way.
This off-the-beaten path appellation used to be a far more sizeable wine
region, but from 4,000 hectares of vineyards a century ago, they're down to
something close to 150 today.
The bulk of the production in this region, close to Rodez, is made by the
grower's cooperative winery. Red wine is king and the regal grape is
called Mansois (known as Fer Servadou or Braucol in other
parts of the southwest).
Marcillac wines must be at least 80% Mansois. Other varieties one might
find include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Gamay and Jurancon
Noir. There might still be a vine, or two, of Mouyssague in the region.
Our favorite producer of Marcillac tends to make a medium-bodied wine
with some spice and pepper (paprika) notes.
This was an old Roman outpost and around the 1300s it was known for its
lightly sparkling wine, well before those made in the region of Champagne.
Today Gaillac is producing table wines, about two-thirds red and rose and
one-third in white wine.
Chalky soils in the Gaillac appellation allow the white grapes of Mauzac, Le
Len-de-l'el, Ondenc, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle to flourish. Stony
soils seem to do best with red grapes and one finds a broad spectrum,
including Duras, Braucol (or Fer Servadou/Mansois), Gamay, Negrette, Syrah
as well as Cabernet and Merlot.
Both sweet and dry whites are made in Gaillac and the small amount of bubbly
still produced is made from a singular fermentation as we understand it, with
the yeast sediment remaining in the bottle until you, the consumer, choose to
open and enjoy the wine.
For sweet white wines, they employ a curious system of pinching the stems of the
grape bunches while still on the vine. This cuts off further maturation
from the vine and causes the berries to shrivel or dehydrate, elevating the
The Bergerac region competes nicely with Bordeaux, but it's far less
famous and virtually unheralded these days. The landscape is quite varied
and there are some 90 towns comprising Bergerac. Close to 10,000 hectares
are devoted to red grapes, usually Merlot and the Cabernets. Approximately
3000 hectares are cultivated with white grapes, principally Sauvignon Blanc and
Long known as "poor man's Sauternes," Monbazillac can produce
a very interesting sweet wine. Less well-known is the Saussignac
SOUTH WEST ETC.
Other appellations in the Southwest include:
Coteaux-du-Quercy, Lavilledieu, Cotes-du-Brulhois, Buzet, Saint Sardos, Cotes du
Marmandais, Montravel, Pecharmant, Rosette, Cotes de Duras, Tursan and
There's a marvelous aperitif wine made in the Southwest: Floc de
Gascogne. This is Armagnac's version of Pineau de Charentes or Champagne's
Ratafia. We usually have a few bottles in the shop...
LANGUEDOC and ROUSSILLON
The Languedoc has a long and storied
viticultural history, but it's really only in the past decade, or so, that this
part of the "South of France" has been making seriously good
wine. For so many years, the Languedoc was more noted for its rather
industrial wines; wines from vineyards cultivated for high yields rather
than high quality. With diminishing consumption in France, the government
has encouraged growers to replant with less-vigorous grape varieties which, as
it turns out, can often make better quality wine.
The Roussillon became part of France in the mid-17th century and it was linked
to the Languedoc in the mid-1980s as "one" governmental region.
Given that the wines of this area tended to be made from over-cropped vines, it
was quite common practice to "fortify" them with wine made in a nearby
French colony, Algeria. When Algeria gained its independence, blending
"foreign" wine was frowned upon, apparently. Who
The Languedoc-Roussillon has numerous interesting wine areas with varied soil
types, varied altitudes, various levels of influences from the sea and all sorts
of people and companies making wine.
The phylloxera root louse scourge in the late 1800s devastated the region.
It was shortly after this mess that growers tried to graft American root stocks
onto French wine grape varieties, with varying levels of success. Economic
pressures encouraged the planting of prolifically-producing vines and, as a
result, lots of Carignane was planted. This may not have been a good idea
at the time when one was searching for good quality wine, but today, some wines
made from rather elderly Carignane vineyards can be remarkably good. Of
course, old vines tend to produce less bountiful crops which accounts for the
increase in quality of Carignane from aged vineyards.
Here are some highlights of this vast region:
COTEAUX DU LANGUEDOC
This is an appellation which will be terminated as of 2012 in favor of
either the more general "Languedoc" designation or more site-specific
Languedoc is today's general appellation for virtually the entire
Languedoc and Roussillon regions.
La Clape is a moderately well-known sub-region, with
Grenache being mandated as providing 20% of the blend and the trio of Grenache,
Syrah and Mourvedre needing to make up at least 70% of the red wine. If
it's a pink wine, Grenache must account for 60% of the blend. Whites must
feature a minimum of 40% Bourboulenc, with Grenache Blanc, Picpoul and Clairette
making up the balance.
Quatorze is a very obscure sub-region...
Pic Saint Loup is a region with numerous fine estates (in our
view). It's about 20 kilometers north of Montpellier and we've found good
reds, whites and roses of this region. Reds must be at least 90% Syrah,
Grenache and/or Mourvedre and there's even a requirement the vines be six years
of age or older.
Gres de Montpellier can produce some interesting red
Montpeyroux seems to be a good source of interesting reds, too.
Picpoul de Pinet is a curious wine from the Languedoc...it's white
wine made from a grape called "Picpoul," which translates to "lip
stinger." It's a crisp, acidic wine that's perfect with seafood from
the nearby Mediterranean.
BLANQUETTE DE LIMOUX
This region is where one finds significant plantings of a white grape
called Mauzac. It accounts for a minimum of 90% of the wine in a bottle of
Blanquette de Limoux, a bottle-fermented sparkling wine which ranges from Brut
to Demi-sec to Doux (sweet). There is a bit of Chenin Blanc in the area
along with some Chardonnay, these grapes seeming to be favored in lieu of a
variety called Clairette.
There's also Cremant de Limoux and Limoux table wine.
This appellation gained a bit of prominence in1985 when it received AOC
status. It comprises more than 13,000 hectares of vineyards and Carignane
is the major red grape. In fact, there's a ceiling on the percentage of
Carignane permitted in a Corbieres red: 60% presently. Grenache
Noir, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsaut fill out the roster of red grapes.
White wines in this region tend to be made of Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache
Blanc, Maccabeo, Bourboulenc and Rolle (known as Vermentino to some folks).
Most of the Faugeres appellation is about 250 meters above sea level and
it covers just a tad more than 2000 hectares presently. Virtually all the
production is in Rose and red wine with a mere one percent of the region
producing white wine.
The Fitou appellation, something like 2600 hectares, is the oldest
in the Languedoc-Roussillon, dating back to 1948. Carignane is often blended
here with Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah, though you might encounter Cinsaut and
Lledoner Pelut. There's an unusual 'recipe' for vintners to follow...I
don't know if this is still the case, but Carignane needed to comprise at least
30% of the blend with Carignane, Grenache and Lledoner making up at least 70% of
the wine...They're recently decided to insist on a minimum of 10% of Syrah and
Located just to the north of the Corbieres appellation, Minervois
is another red wine-dominated region. It comprises nearly 4200 hectares,
with Carignane being an important variety. However, these days Grenache,
Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsaut and Lledoner Pelut are becoming more
important. Syrah and Mourvedre are required to make up at
least 10% of the blend.
There's even a "cru" within the appellation, so you might find a wine
with the La Liviniere appellation. The Minervois La Liviniere must have a
minimum of 60% of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah, with a maximum of 40% of
Carignane and Cinsaut.
Sandwiched in between Minervois and Faugeres, this 3,200 hectare
appellation features Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignane and Cinsaut.
Some of the wines made here are well-structured and capable of 5-10 years of
MALPERE and CABARDES
Bordeaux has its influence on Malpere, with Merlot being an important
grape, followed by Cabernet Franc for the red wines. The Cabernet Franc
plays a more major role in roses from Malpere. Grenache and Cinsaut are
found in this 384 hectare appellation.
Cabardes is a 400 hectare wine region with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon
being important and supported by Grenache and Syrah.
White wines from the Roussillon are typically dominated by Macabeu and Grenache
Blanc with contribution from the Malvoisie du Roussillon, Vermentino, Marsanne
Reds from the Roussillon are often dominated by Carignane, though there's a
ceiling of 60%, with others including Grenache Noir, Syrah and
Collioure is an important red and rose of the region. Grenache Noir is the
main player in Collioure with Mourvedre, Syrah, Cinsaut and Carignane.
There's a bit of white wine from Collioure and this is made from Grenache Blanc
and/or Grenache Gris.
SWEET WINES FROM LANGUEDOC and ROUSSILLON
BANYULS and BANYULS GRAND CRU
We've been impressed that virtually all French people know the wine of
Banyuls, even though it amounts to a land mass of less than 1200 hectares.
The French, you see, are big fans of Port wines.
And the French version of Port, for the most part, is Banyuls. And stop
the average French citizen in most major cities and ask what wine pairs best
with chocolate and the response will usually be "Banyuls, mais oui!"
Not all Banyuls, though, is sweet...some vintners offer dry wines
The vineyards are on terraced hills, usually overlooking the
Mediterranean. Grenache is the main grape. Banyuls must be, at
least, 50% Grenache Noir. Banyuls Grand Cru wines must be a minimum of 75%
Grenache. They also grow Grenache Gris and Grenache Blanc...
Carignane, Cinsaut and Syrah may be included. Macabeo, Muscat and a grape
known as Tourbat are white varieties which may be a small part of the
White Banyuls is still required to be predominantly Grenache Noir, but vinified
as a white wine...
Banyuls must be aged a minimum of 10 months and Banyuls Grand Cru takes 30
months...we've seen some recently-labeled, old "vintages" of
Banyuls...these have been lovely dessert wines, but we wonder, frankly, how
authentic they are in terms of age.
Banyuls is made using a "mutage." This is a procedure where they
add alcohol at some point to stop the fermentation...or, if making a dry wine,
they add or "fortify" the wine post-fermentation. Alcohol levels
in Banyuls is usually a bit less than in Ports and Sherries.
This appellation is much larger than that of Banyuls, yet it's a bit of
a rarity here in the U.S. market.
Four grape varieties : Grenache, Macabeo, Malvoisie and Muscat, with the
first two on the list dominating. Mostly 'red' Rivesaltes coming from the
Grenache, usually. The wines vary in style, some a bit oxidized and others
quite oxidized. We purchased a bottle for a friend's birthday and it
was branded as being from the 1950 vintage. Clearly it was labeled
recently - I looked on the winery web site and, curiously, their price list and
site do not mention any sort of "ancient" vintages. However, a
search on this very internet turned up all sorts of offers for elderly
bottles. The wine, happily, was good, whatever it was.
Ad you might surmise, these are made of Muscat. Two types of
Muscat are cultivated in this region, comprising some 5,200 hectares:
Muscat a petits grains and Muscat d'Alexandrie. The former is also known
as Muscat Blanc, while the latter, Muscat Alexandria, might also go by the name
Muscat Romain. These wines tend to be consumed in their youth...these pair
wonderfully with fruit desserts and, even, blue cheeses such as Roquefort.
This small appellation, a mere 280 hectares, is well in the shadows of
Banyuls. Red wines are predominantly Grenache Noir, while the exceedingly
rare whites might be Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and/or Macabeo.
Muscat a petits grains is grown in this small, 321 hectare,
zone...the wines must have at least 110 grams-per-liter of sugar....
This is an old appellation and the wine is also made of Muscat a
petits grains, though it was known as "Muscat dore de
Frontignan." A few California wineries used to produce a wine they'd
call Muscat de Frontignan...the last to use that designation, if I recall
correctly, was Napa's Beaulieu Vineyards.
These have to have at least 125 grams-per-liter of residual sugar.
Coming from an area just west of Frontignan, these must contain, at
least, 110 grams per liter of residual sugar.
At a somewhat higher elevation than the preceding appellations of Muscat
wines, this region typically harvests its crop several weeks after the
others. Muscat a petits grains, as with the others and the minimum sugar
content is 125 grams-per-liter.
FRENCH DESSERT WINES,
SOUTH-WEST AND SOUTH-OF-FRANCE