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Southwest France on a Charm Offensive
By W. Blake Gray
Nov 12, 2013
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Southwest France is on a charm initiative across the US. It's a good reminder that at the price, these wines are pretty charming.

Here's a story we hear often from France lately:  The region has a lot of wine to sell.  In the area between Bordeaux and the Spanish border, there are nearly 40 million cases of wine made each year by more than 850 independent producers, plus 23 co-ops.

The most famous and popular libation from southwest France is made from grapes, but isn't actually wine:  It's Armagnac.

There's no trendy wine region here, and maybe there's never going to be.  Eric Asimov liked a single Irouléguy rosé so much in 2011 that he wrote about it twice in the New York Times, and maybe the area's vintners thought was the beginning of their 15 minutes of fame, but it turned out to be the entirety of it.

Tourist-wise, it's just about off the map, with the exception of Toulouse, France's fourth-largest city, known as "La Ville Rose" because of the hot-pink stone used in many of its buildings.  It's a city, though:  No wine is actually made there.  There is a Toulouse-Lautrec museum in Albi, inside the Gaillac wine region.  But people doing serious wine touring have plenty to see in Bordeaux to the north and the Rhône valley, not far to the east.

That's a key phrase:  "Serious wine."  These wines seem at their best when they're made with a lighter, lower-oak touch.  But the US market beckons with its love of riper, richer wines, and some succumb to the siren song.

I don't want to be too leftist-wine-looney here.  It's easy to see why Cahors in particular, but also Madiran, would want to pump up the power. 

Malbec, the trendiest red grape varietal in the US, is originally from Southwest France.  In the indispensable book "Wine Grapes," one of the authors writes that in the 18th century, "'the black wines of Cahors' were sometimes used to add colour and body to the more delicate products of the Bordeaux region."  Malbec, known as "Cot" locally and "Étranger" (stranger) when first planted in Bordeaux, has generally needed more warmth than Bordeaux could provide, though global warming is changing that.

The wines of Cahors must contain at least 70% Malbec by law anyway; make that 75% and the label can say "Malbec" in the US, which makes them suddenly attractive.

Just as from Argentina, there are marvelous examples like the ripe but also savory Château Croisille Cahors ($24, a steep price for a wine from this area), and overripe, over-oaked wines like Château de Gaudou Renaissance ($19), which Master Sommelier Eric Entrikin called "a crossover wine.  You can get somebody who's into Napa Cabs into this."

Malbec is a pleasant fellow in a bow tie compared to Tannat, the roughneck that is the principal red grape in Madiran and Saint Mont. Tannat is the reason micro-oxygenation was invented:  To tame ferocious tannins that made the wine almost undrinkable in its early years -- although with the often hidden benefit that Madiran ages as well as any wine in its price range.

The price of micro-oxygenation equipment is so low now that it's a challenge to find a Madiran wine where it wasn't used, and if you're drinking anytime soon, I'm not sure why you would want to.  This isn't Uruguay, where the Tannat gets riper naturally, although give global warming a couple more decades and maybe it will be.

Plaimont "Maestria" Madiran ($11), made by a big co-op, is terrific value for people seeking a big-bodied wine on a budget.  It's intense and dark, with plenty of cherry fruit, freshness and tannin.  That's a whole lot going on for $11.  For something lighter, try Château de Viella "Tradition" Madiran ($14), which is brambly and has more raspberry-like fruit with lighter body than you'd expect from the region.

I saved the best for last.  Looking at the map of France, knowing that the south is warmer than Bordeaux, you'd think the red wines would be the stars.  For the French, they are:  Madiran has a long cellaring tradition, and Cahors is popular in Paris.

But my favorite wines from the region are white, and they're some of the best white-wine values in the world.

These wines didn't really exist in their present form until modern technology -- notably, refrigeration and cool fermentation -- became widespread.

Plaimont, the co-op, makes one of my year-after-year favorite white bargain wines, Colombelle Côtes de Gascogne ($9), from the grapes used to make Armagnac.  And the idea for this very French wine came from California.

In 1979, co-op director André Dubosc discovered somebody in California making an artisanal wine with the Colombard grape, which is still widely planted all over the state, but mostly goes into bulk white wines, as it did in France.  He went back to Gascony invigorated to make a serious white wine instead of indifferent, oxidized bulk wine.  Within a decade his wine was served at a French state dinner at the Louvre.

Today the wine is made from Colombard and Ugni Blanc, but if you gave it to most people blind, they'd think it was Sauvignon Blanc.  It has some of Sauvignon Blanc's occasional funky side with very strong citrus fruit; this is not a shy wine. It's expressive, refrehsing, and reliable -- what more can you ask for for $9?

Colombelle would be a candidate for my "house white" if I had such a thing, but it's common enough that sommeliers look for alternatives, and they're out there, like the same co-op's more tropical-tasting Les Bastions Saint Mont ($11) and rounded, elegant Les Vignes Retrouvées Saint Mont ($11).  Charles Neal, whose email address includes "Armagnac Man," imports an earthy Domaine Chiroulet Terres Blanches Côtes de Gascogne ($14) that shows a different side of the style.

For Thanksgiving I prefer to drink American wine, but these whites would be great on the table, if you want to thank Heaven for little girls, or some similar French sentiment.