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Lusty, High-Value Red Wines from Southwest France
By Ed McCarthy
Dec 6, 2011
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The common stereotype that French wines are expensive is totally wrong.  Of course, the top-name Bordeaux and Burgundy wines can be prohibitively expensive, but they represent about two or three percent of French wines.  France’s largest region, Languedoc-Roussillon in southwest France, has far more high-value, under $20 wines than just about any other wine region in the world.  But it is not the only region of France offering great wine value.

On a recent trip to France, I visited the beautiful, quiet, southwest France region situated west of Languedoc-Roussillon.  It is an area unspoiled by tourists, just north of the Pyrénées Mountains, which separate Spain from France.  Most of the red wines from this area are made primarily from indigenous French grape varieties such as Tannat and Negrette, and until recently, were not commonly available in the U.S.  But the French, who dominated the world wine market for so many years, are feeling big time competition from other wine regions--Italy, Australia, Argentina, Chile--and are now actively promoting their inexpensive wines abroad to grab their share of the market.

My first stop was in Saint Mont, a tiny village of 350 inhabitants, which began as a Benedictine Monastery in 1050 (the monastery itself is still standing, and still making wine).  The area’s warm, sunny autumns insure a good vintage just about every year.  Ironically, although in this entire region red wine dominates (made primarily from the Tannat variety, which lives up to its name with its tannins), I was most impressed with the white wines from Saint Mont.  About 20 percent of its wines are white; they are made mainly from two indigenous varieties, Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng.  Saint Mont’s white wines have been available in the U.S. for the past two years, and retail for $15 or less.  The wines are un-oaked, have good acidity and length, and are terrific values.  Almost all of Saint Mont’s wines are made by a huge cooperative, the Producteurs Plaimont.

Next, I traveled a bit north to Madiran, in Gascony.  Madiran is an AOC wine district that is permitted to make only red wines, primarily from the Tannat variety.  Although much of the wine in the district is made by the Plaimont Cooperative, one of the leading producers is Alain Brumont, who owns Château Montus, a biodynamic winery.  Château Montus, Madiran’s  most renowned wine, retails in the $25 to $30 price range.  A ten-year vertical tasting of its vintages was most impressive; the wine ages quite well.

A very good sweet white wine, Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh AOC, is also made in this district, mainly from Petit Manseng. 

The Côtes de Gascogne district, although renowned for Armagnac, also produces a great deal of white and red wine, 75 percent of which is exported.  White wines are made from Columbard, Ugni Blanc, and Gros  Manseng, but Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are also allowed in the blend.  The reds are made primarily from Tannat, but with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot often showing up in the blends.  I found the red wines considerably more approachable here than in Madiran.

A highlight in the Côtes de Gascogne was a visit to Domaine Uby, which produces dry white and red wines as well as some great Armagnac.  Its white wines have only 11.5 and 12 percent alcohol, and retail in the U.S.  for around $10!  Even its red wines contain just 12 and 12.5 percent alcohol, a refreshing change in today’s high-alcohol wine climate.  Domaine Tariquet, imported into the U.S. by Bobby Kacher, also impressed me with its great-value white and red wines, most of which retail in the U.S.  for $10 and under.

The Fronton region, one of the oldest wine regions in France, produces red wines based mainly on the indigenous Negrette grape variety, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and sometimes Syrah and Gamay in the blend.  Fronton is a village of 5,000 in the Haut-Garonne region, about 15 miles north of the city of Toulouse.  I personally enjoyed the red wines made from Negrette more than the wines from other areas that were based on Tannat.  The Negrette wines are just easier to drink.  Look for wines from Château Bellevue La Forêt, Château La Colombière, Château Plaisance, and Le Roc from Fronton.

The wines of the Gaillac region also impressed me.  Gaillac, 30 miles east of Toulouse, was actually making wine as early as the first century, thanks to Roman colonization.  I was totally impressed with a sparkling wine made at La Bastide, from 100 percent Mauzac, an indigenous white variety.  La Bastide also makes other good-value whites from Len de L’El, another indigenous variety, plus Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.  Its reds are also made from indigenous varieties--Duras, Braucol (also called Fer Servadou)--plus Syrah and Gamay.   Three other very good Gaillac wines I tasted were Domaine du Moulin, Domine Rotier, and Domaine de la Chanade.

I am so happy to have “discovered” this region in southwest France.  Of course I always knew it existed, but visiting each region made me aware that really good wines are being made in France at very affordable prices.