If you’re very familiar with the red wines of Uruguay, then you’ve probably downed a few liters made from the tannat grape.
Not bloody likely, you say?
Then you’ve got a world of discovery ahead of you when you start tasting the very good wines that are trickling into a steady stream out of the little-known French region that goes by the simple name of South West — always two words and never an adjective — or Sud Ouest. That’s because it’s safe to say that no other winegrowing region — from Temecula to Tasmania — produces as many table wines made from down-home gapes that are seldom grown elsewhere.
Recently, I visited five of the major appellations of the South West — Saint Mont, Madiran, Côtes de Gascogne, Fronton, and Gaillac — enjoying wines made from grapes varieties that constantly sent me Googling for more info. And while other regions may revel in their importing of “international” varietals from more famous regions, South Westerners generally prefer making wines from grapes that became big deals locally centuries ago.
Let’s start with the region of Saint Mont, where the prevailing red grape is tannat with a little pinenc thrown in for good measure. And while Saint Mont is pushing reds these days, it traditionally is better known for its whites, using such historic grapes as arrufiac, petit courbu, petit manseng, and gros manseng. You will not be quizzed on the relative properties of petit and gros.
On to Madiran, the most famous region for growing tannat with a little fer servadou (as pinenc is known here). But Madiran also makes white wine under the name of Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, a wine every bit as substantial as its name. However, no new grape names to memorize here, as the petits and groses are the same as in Saint Mont.
A few decades ago, Côtes de Gascogne barely made table wines, selling all its grapes to the distillers producing that wonderful brandy, armagnac. But once committed to winemaking, the Gascons went up the learning curve faster than a runaway fermentation and today make a delightful variety of wines — the surprise stop of my visit. The reds are based around tannat plus Bordeaux varieties, while the whites are built around colombard, the delightfully named ugni blanc, and gros manseng. All these grapes are also used to produce armagnac. Another oddity grape tailored for the brandy but not used for table wines is baco blanc — the only French-American hybrid allowed in France, but banned from wine production.
The Fronton appellation produces some delicious sparkling wines from an old local grape named bouysselet, and sturdy reds wines from négrette, both 100 percent and in blends.
Finally, wines from Gaillac, near Toulouse, get the award for best-named grapes, including a white grape variety named loin de l’oeil, literally translated as “far from the eye.” Go figure. Pinenc, or fer servadou, pops up again here, but now has changed its name to braucol. Oh, yes — mauzac and duras are big deals here.
Is the South West and its wild viticultural menagerie of grapes worth the effort? Definitely yes. Wines from the region are very good and getting better, are reasonably priced, and are quite delightful in their old-fashioned newness — even if you may not be able to pronounce what you’re drinking.