|Magic in the vineyards of the Gers
||[Oct. 4th, 2015|06:04 pm]
We spent a wonderful day last week in the company of of our friend, wine-writer Helen Savage, as guests of the Producteurs de Plaimont wine co-operative.
It was a wonderful day and a half, strictly speaking, from Helen's joining us at the Relais du Bastidou the evening before to a last review of events over breakfast the following day. Certainly our first dinner together would have served as an introduction to the wines of south-west France, if I hadn't already been a fan. An aperitif of Floc de Gascogne was also good with a salad starter which included foie gras. We moved on to Faîte blanc, one of the two wines blended each year for Plaimont by invited experts - yes, it's a bit of a stunt, but it produced a distinctive wine, steely and mineral at first to see off the rest of that salad, softening and becoming rounded, almost creamy alongside the main course of chicken and lentils. We finished the meal with a glass of organic armagnac, just because we could, and because we were so pleased to be here together, sharing this adventure.
Next morning we presented ourselves at the offices of Plaimont, and placed ourselves in the hands of Diane Caillard. She took us to the village of Saint Mont:
and we climbed the steep streets to the old church, and the monastery (now a private house and bed & breakfast: it was the monks who first brought vines and winemaking to Saint Mont, so this is where the story begins.
The next step, obviously, was to taste some wine, so we returned to the tasting rooms at the Cave Co-op, where a sequence of wines had been put together for us. We started with Colombelle l'Originale, as described in this article, a lovely summer wine. I'd heard, long ago, the explanation that the Côtes de Gascogne wines were the result of declining armagnac sales, and the need to find another use for grapes no longer required for distillation; Diane confirmed that this was a true story, and filled in the detail that it was André Dubosc, then head of Producteurs Plaimont, who went to the Napa Valley in search of a solution and was offered a fruity white described as 'French Colombard'. We followed this with another white, Saint Mont Tesco Finest (yes, there may have been a desire to ensure that we tasted wines available in the UK, but that's really very sensible), an altogether more structured, more mineral piece of work, reminiscent of the previous night's La Faîte. Finally for the whites, L'Empreinte de Saint Mont was golden in colour, with honey and beeswax on the nose and even more complexity: "un vin de repas" said Diane, who may have been starting to think about lunch.
There was an agreeable rosé, called 'Chemin des Pélerins' - because the pilgrimage to Compostela had so many variant routes that you can always, in this region, claim to be on one or another of them. The red grapes are given a rapid pressing, resulting in a pale colour but plenty of fruit - a little too much for my taste, because I prefer my rosé dry. Then on to the reds, starting with two innovative creations, Moonseng and Béret Noir, which tell you a lot about the Plaimont approach, a combination of respect for tradition, modern science and very savvy marketing. The Beret Noir, the iconic headgear of the Gascon winemaker, sets the tone for a wine which brings together local grapes tannat and pinenc with the internationally known and popular cabernet sauvignon, resulting in complex fruit flavours and a smooth, rounded wine, capable of appealing to people who don't enjoy the tannins of the region's traditional wines. Not being one of those people, I liked it well enough, but was more impressed by the Moonseng, a careful blending of the international merlot with an almost forgotten local variety. Gros manseng and petit manseng are the traditional white grapes of the region, but the black, manseng noir, has been identified and revived by Plaimont in its Ampelographic Conservatory (interesting article, in French, about its planting in 2012). The result is surprising, fruity and fresh, with plenty of tannin, and I'd like to taste it again, with a leisurely meal, to decide what I think about it (and we called at the Cave Co-op the following morning and bought some, so I shall have a chance to do just that).
We had been pretty leisurely about tasting and discussing all these good things, and Diane declared that it was now time for lunch. Gathering up all the bottles, she swept us off to a ferme auberge, where a table was set for us: one huge platter of salad, lettuce and the most delicious tomatoes in a vinaigrette flavoured with mint, and another platter carrying what Helen described as "a feast of ducky wonderfulness". Duck and madiran is a traditional pairing, and the Réserve des Tuguets (again, a Tesco exclusive) was classic madiran. We were tasting so many new and wonderful things that it was a bit overshadowed, but I liked it very much, and felt bad on its behalf. Nonetheless, the star of this particular show was the Monastère de Saint Mont, perfumed and impeccably balanced: it had, I wrote down, 'the strong points of both of the other reds'. Our hostess returned to clear the plates, and reproached us: 'you haven't touched the cheese!' It was a dry mellow ewes' milk cheese, and with it we drank Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, which is the white wine from the same territory as madiran (something else that was completely new to me): it's a late-harvested sweet wine: this one was the Saint Albert, because the grapes are picked on the feast day of Saint Albert, which is the 15th November (reading about this later, I learned that one vineyard traditionally harvests its grapes on New Year's Eve, but 15th November is quite amazing enough). It is sweet but not cloying, excellent with the cheese, pleasant but less impressive with the apple pastry which followed: the fruity acidity of the apples muted the same qualities in the wine. Madame brought us coffee, and then a big jar of greengages preserved in an alcoholic syrup: 'oh, it's very light! Just spoon one into your cup when you have drained your coffee...' So I did, and it was wonderful. I do love greengages.
Time to lever ourselves away from the table and visit some vineyards. Our first stop was somewhere quite unique, a vineyard which has been registered by the state as a historic monument:
No-one knows exactly when these vines were planted: if I have this right, M. Pédebernade, its late proprietor, used to tell people that his great-grandmother said it was old when she was a girl. These vines are among the oldest in France, grown on their own root stocks (having survived the phylloxera epidemic which caused all modern vines to be grafted onto resistant roots). 600 vines are arranged in rows, but spaced so that it's possible to plough between the vines either lengthwise or crosswise. The vines are of a number of different varieties: this Wikipedia article lists some of them, but even more exciting is that some of them have still not been identified. These are known as Pédebernade 1, 2, 3 etc, and the hope is that among them is a grape with some sought-after quality like the ability to achieve ripe flavours with less sugar, so that the resultant wine can be vinified at a lower alcohol content than today's 15° monsters. If Pédebernade 5 could do that, it would be 'like Chanel n°5, only better,' says Diane.
Next stop was another vineyard, only slightly younger. At the top of a hill we drove through a fourteenth century stone arch (pictured at the head of this article), parked by the side of the road so that as I stepped out of the car, the air was filled with the scent of mint, and scrambled up into the vineyyard of la Madeleine, where we were joined by vigneron Gilles Bornazel (durham_rambler's photo).
La Madeleine was among the earliest post-phylloxera replantings, in the late nineteenth century. The vines are mostly tannat, with some fer servadou - but there are also some white grapes, grafted onto a vine stock of a variety called Noah, which, Diane told us, is now illegal because it produces wine which makes you mad: could this wonderful story really be true? Apparently so: since 1930 it has been illegal to plant on Noah vine stocks, and all existing plants were supposed to have been ripped out, because the wine which it produces contains methanol (though I've seen the suggestion that the ban on this and a list of other varieties was also a response to a crisis of overproduction). And we were not only allowed to wander among these ancient vines, we actually had permission to taste whatever grapes we fancied. The whites were quite unlike any grapes I've ever tasted, heady and perfumed, with curiously solid flesh, like a little globule floating within its skin. Gilles encouraged us to taste some black grapes which were shrivelled almost to raisins; they looked sad and unappetising, but the flavour was wonderful, the juice concentrated to an intense sweetness but with a balancing acidity. Some of the Saint Mont vineyards had already harvested their grapes, but La Madeleine would wait another week, maybe more.
One last visit, to the Château de Sabazan, where the harvest had already taken place: but by now it was the end of the working day, and there was no activity to be seen. We admired the elegance of the château, and the fruitfulness of the quince tree, then sloped off back to the tasting rooms to catch up with what we had seen. The Château de Sabazan 2011 is, like its home, all elegance, dry tannins holding the black fruit in equilibrium, brambles and damsons - and liquorice, says Helen. We also tasted La Madeleine 2012; I didn't realise at the time that this was a first: prior to 2012 the grapes from La Madeleine were not vinified separately. But how could you resist the thrill of drinking wine from 130 year-old vines? The result is very intense, with an almost meaty aroma. It really needed to breathe after opening, and Diane very generously gave us the open bottle to take back to accompany our dinner. Dinner, after all this? I was completely overwhelmed. But that evening, with a daube de boeuf, a glass of La Madeleine was indeed like drinking liquid happiness.
It was a perfect, magical day. I am very grateful to Helen, and to everyone we encountered at Plaimont, for whom nothing was too much trouble. We were made to feel very special and very privileged, prizewinners indeed. I made some discoveries and learned a lot, and the following morning we stocked up on some of the wines we had tasted, before heading north into the Lot département to enjoy yet more of the wines of southwest France.