Southwest France is defined by a wide range of geographical distinctions yielding diverse landscapes ranging from river plains, gently sloping hillsides, and mountain foothills to sandy heaths — each with their own unique microclimates producing a total of 300 grape varieties, 120 of which are native to the area.
For much of Europe, the wine trade had its origins in 1189 when Santiago de Compostela was consecrated as a holy town by Pope Alexander III, encouraging waves of pilgrims over the ensuing centuries to make the ritualistic passage between Northern Europe and Spain, taking them right through southwest France.
Just like fast food restaurants and truck stops cluster around today's highways, abbeys and monasteries flourished along this pilgrimage route, welcoming travelers while also cultivating vines and developing vineyards. This road gradually evolved into an essential trade route for exporting native Southwest grape varietals to the rest of the world.
But like many winegrowing regions, Southwest France's difficult growing conditions went hand-in-hand with signature terroirs that yield distinctive flavors which can't be duplicated elsewhere. Historic integrity and ancient winemaking traditions were preserved for quite some time due to geographical isolation. In the days before bulldozers and bucket loaders, retaining walls needed to be built by hand from stone, terracing very steep slopes for planting vines.
The passage of time and technological advancements increasingly made easier and more affordable grapes imported from elsewhere more attractive. For a time, it seemed that the aromatic richness and distinct flavors resulting from centuries of careful selection and cultivation along this stretch of the Camino de Santiago would fade into obscurity.
But starting in the 1980s, the French government realized that they had to do their part to preserve village economies based on reviving these indigenous grapes and invested in small vineyards committed to cultivating and restoring these hard- to-farm ancient terraces. Thanks to these efforts and increasingly sophisticated palates across the globe driving demand, "the last 30 years have seen appellations like Côtes de Gascognes, Madiran, and Cahors getting more strongly export-oriented," says Christophe Logeais, Les Vins Sud Ouest France communications director.
The following wines are a great taste of what's now available from Southwest France at reasonable prices:
A triple blend of 50 percent Negrette, 35 percent Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, and 15 percent Syrah, this wine has the distinction of receiving more awards than any other wine from Southwest France — including from the prestigious Concours General Agricole Paris. And it's easy to see why, starting with its smooth, velvety mouthfeel with well-balanced minerality. Fruitiness blossoms from the heft of ruby red grapefruit and watermelon with a slight citrus bite receding into a more refined touch of strawberry and kiwi. It finishes to a fine point of cherry and a hint of cloves lingering on the palate for some reflective tingling.
A distinctive golden straw hue belies soft fruitiness on the palate with a smooth mouthfeel. With enough tannin to play well with ripe cheeses as well as meats like pork, lamb, and seafood, this fresh aromatic wine has a touch of effervescence accentuating its silky mouthfeel. Ripe greens and sweet peach with the slight acidity of lemons linger on the palate. Made from 80 percent Petit Courbu and 20 percent Petit Manseng, you get a refreshing biting citrus tempered by a slight fruitiness. A tightly bound minerality locks in the broader flavors.
This rich red is made with a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend that's traditionally the foundation of many Bordeaux wines. A dry mouthfeel with rich ripe fruit, its rougher feeling evokes just-picked garden-fresh green pepper. Strong yet finely tuned tannins give way to cinnamon on the nose with a bite of cherry on the finish.
Coverage made possible by participating in a sponsored tasting.