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Cabernet Franc

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The Mighty South West

Photo credit: IVSO / P. Poupart
Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

From a Canadian’s perspective, France is a small country. 15 times smaller to be specific. A mere blip on the world map. Yet in terms of wine output, France is enormous. Not only in terms of sheer quantity, but also the diversity of wine styles, the number of producing regions and so on. Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne have become household names, even for you reasonable folks out there that don’t spend all of your waking moments thinking about wine. The oceans of wine coming out of the Languedoc have also assured this area pretty good visibility on the world stage. And the Loire and Rhône Valleys, with appellations like Sancerre and Châteauneuf-du-pape respectively, can hold their own quite nicely. But there is another vast wine producing area that often gets forgotten…

The South West of France is the 5th largest vineyard area in France with 47 000 hectares of vines. It cups Bordeaux to the south and east (of the right bank), extends to the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and continues south to the Spanish border and the Pyrénées mountains. The region is often a little too neatly summed up as being a cheaply priced Bordeaux alternative. While many good value Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends are to be had from places like Bergerac and the Côtes du Marmandais, there is a wealth of other grape varieties and wine styles out there.

There are 29 designated AOP (protected appellations) and 14 IGP (vin de pays) growing areas.  As well as the two mentionned above, the best known appellations, and easiest to find on most international markets, include: Madiran and Cahors (best known for their big, bold reds), AOP Fronton (lighter, violet scented reds), AOP Gaillac (where everything from still to sparkling to sweet white, rosé and red are crafted) and AOP Jurançon (where prized late harvest, sweet white wine is made). The largest territory however, is that of IGP Côtes du Gascogne, where crisp, lively, easy drinking white wines are the mainstay. Due to the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean, these wines often take on an intriguing saline note that adds to their refreshing appeal.

Given the size of the region and the diverse climate conditions and soil types, it is only natural that the grapes that grow well in one area are not suited to another.  Over 300 different varieties are grown here, with just over half native to the area. The majority of AOC wines, and many IGP wines are blends. I will give you a quick over view of some of the major players, and where to find them.

GAILLAC  COTES DU TARN                   Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

White Wine

Colombard – a major player in the production of IGP wines like Côtes de Gascogne and also in in the digéstif Armagnac. When over cropped it produces a fairly neutral white. The best examples have intense exotic fruit aromas, light body and moderate acidity.

Chenin Blanc – widespread in the eastern appellations and IGPs of the South West. Highly appreciated for its fruity, floral palate of aromas, medium body and bright acidity

Gros Manseng – a major blending component in many IGP Côtes de Gascogne, as well as dry Jurançon and Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl whites. Gros Manseng gives vibrancy and spicy notes.

Mauzac – adaptable to a wide variety of wine styles, it is used for sparkling, and still, dry and sweet wines, principally around the Gaillac area. It gives fresh orchard fruit in youth, and honeyed notes with age.

Petit Manseng – related to Gros Manseng, this grape has smaller berries with thicker skins, generally producing wines with greater aromatic complexity. The grape has the ability to produce high sugar levels while retaining fresh acidity; perfect for the sweet Jurançon dessert wines.

Sauvignon Blanc – used either as a single grape, notably in IGP designations, and as a blending element in several AOPs (Béarn, Tursan, Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl). The grape gives its characteristic citrus, gooseberry, cat pee notes as well as vibrant acidity.

Red Wine

Cabernet Franc (Bouchy, Acheria) – Though widely grown in Bordeaux and the Loire, this grape actually originated in Basque country. Slightly less tannic and more red fruit scented than its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, it nevertheless provides good structure to red blends from many AOP & IGP regions (notably Madiran, Fronton, Irouléguy)

Cabernet Sauvigon – A second stringer in the South West. It provides fragrant cassis notes, firm tannins and deep colour. It is found in the same appellations as Cabernet Franc.

Duras – One of the most oldest grapes grown in the Tarn Valley. It is a major player in Gaillac, giving finesse, deep colour, moderately firm tannins and a fruity, peppery perfume.

Fer Servadou (Fer, Pinenc, Braucol, Mansois) – Similar aromatics and structure to Cabernet Sauvignon. Blending component in many appellations, notably Marcillac, Béarn & Gaillac.

Gamay – Off spring of Pinot Noir, the Burgundian grape Gamay is bright, fresh and very red fruit driven. It is a blending component in Gaillac and many surrounding appellations.

Malbec (Cot) – Originally from the South West, Cot (as it is called there) is the principal grape in the Cahors appellation. It produces densely coloured, full bodied, structured wines with black fruit aromatics, moderately fresh acidity and firm, chewy tannins. Well crafted versions have great aging potential.

Merlot – Also offspring of Cabernet Franc (like Cabernet Sauvignon), Merlot makes an excellent blending component due to its fleshy mid-palate, rounded tannins and fragrant plum aromas. It is notably grown in Cahors as a minor blending component.

Négrette – The major grape of the Fronton appellation. It is a parent to Malbec. Négrette brings attractive violet notes, and sometimes animal and leather undertones. Fruity and medium bodied with moderate tannins, it is an ideal grape for rosé and easy drinking reds.

Syrah – A blending component in appellations like Fronton, Syrah brings elegance, fine tannins, black fruit and spiced notes.

Tannat – The principle red grape of Madiran. Named for its very firm tannic structure, the grape gives full-bodied, deeply coloured, raspberry scented reds that generally require a little time to unwind

1.ESTAING   CAHORS Photo credit: IVSO/ P. Poupart

Great Wines to Try

(What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out):

Chateau Montauriol Prestige AOP Fronton 2013 – 89pts. VW

This blend of 55% Negrette, 25% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Franc is just delicious. Attractive aromas of plum, kirsch and pepper on the nose. The palate is lively, medium bodied, showing moderate depth and complexity, with lingering dried fruit, floral and pepper flavours. Firm, yet ripe tannins frame the finish. The cedar oak imprint is quite subtle.

Where to Buy: SAQ (18.10$)

Château Montus AOP Madiran 2010 – 92pts. PW

Consistent high quality is a feature of this estate. A blend of 80% Tannat and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, this big, brooding red features complex aromatics of cherry, spice, prune and dark chocolate. Full bodied, densely structured yet velvetty on the palate, with chewy tannins and harmonious cedar oak. Long, layered finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (30.25$), LCBO (35.45$)

Château Montus AOP Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2011 – 91pts. PW

Made from 80% Petit Courbu, a little known grape from the obscure appellation of Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, this cuvée is absolutely worth discovering. Smoky citrus notes feature on the nose. Fresh, long and layered on the palate with lots of creamy lees character and well integrated toasty oak. Very stylish!

Where to Buy: SAQ (24.85$), LCBO (35.45$)

Odé d’Aydie AOP Madiran 2012 – 87pts. VW

Attractive aromas of fresh red cherries, with floral and spice undertones. Medium bodied, with lively, balanced acidity, firm tannins and subtle oak. No great aging potential, but pleasant every day drinking quality.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.35$)

Château de Gaudou “Renaissance” AOP Cahors 2012 – 87pts. PW

Pleasant earthy, animal notes on the nose, underscoring the fresh red and black fruit aromatics. Fresh acidity, full body, with attractive spiced, oak notes on the finish. This cuvée falls down a little on the finish due to the green, bitter edge on the tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.85$), LCBO (25.95$)

Domaine du Tariquet “Classic” IGP Côtes de Gascogne 2015 – 88pts VW

At only 10.5% alcohol, this is a great option for an every day house white. It is light, refreshing, crisp and lively, with lots of citrus and floral notes. Fairly simple, but nice for the price.

Where to buy: SAQ (12.95$)

South West Vineyard photos, courtesy of IVSO/ P. Poupart

Reviews Wines

There’s Something About Merlot

Comparative Merlot Tasting

Merlot was a favourite, in many countries, for many years.  There is really little not to love about it.  A common description would read: red berry and plum aromas, moderate acidity, smooth texture and soft tannins.  Sounds good, right? Then, in 2004, an Indie film about a (fairly annoying) anxiety-ridden wine snob who detests Merlot and lives for Pinot Noir hit the big screen.  The movie was called “Sideways”.  Since then Merlot sales have plummeted in North America while Pinot Noir has gone through the roof. It seemed like a fad at first, but 11 years later it is (sadly) still cool to say that you don’t drink Merlot.  This drives me crazy. I would like to take all the haters out there and make them blind taste a whole slew of Merlots…from Bordeaux, from California, from Chile.  I am convinced that they would change their tune after a couple of sips.

Merlot does not simply boil down to fruity, round and easy-drinking. The grape is planted around the world, from Bordeaux to Chile to California and beyond. It is the most planted red grape in France. Depending on where it is grown, the care taken in the vineyard and the vinification techniques employed, the wine can be very different.  In cooler climates like the right bank of Bordeaux, Merlot takes on earthy aromas, has fresh acidity, a weightier structure and more firm tannins.  It is often mistaken for Cabernet Sauvignon, though generally has riper fruit aromas and a fleshier, broader mid-palate. In warm climates, such as the Napa Valley, Sonoma or Paso Robles in California, Merlot is more voluptuous with rich, fruit flavours, a velvetty texture and soft tannins.  It is a grape that can handle oak (in measured doses); taking on a richer texture, more firm but well-rounded tannins.

Most people consider Cabernet Sauvignon to be the major grape of Bordeaux, but there is actually significantly more Merlot planted.  On the left bank, Merlot is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to act as “the flesh on Cabernet Sauvignon’s bones”. On the right bank, Merlot is the dominant player, usually with Cabernet Franc (Merlot’s father) in the supporting role.  The clay and limestone-rich soils of Pomerol and St. Emilion are what Merlot loves.  Pomerol is the smallest appellation in Bordeaux, with only 800 hectares under vine.  It is also home to the most sought-after, expensive Châteaux.  Its best wines are described as powerful, opulent, and even decadent. St. Emilion is one of the largest wine producing regions of Bordeaux. There is a diverse array of soil types, and consequently, a wide range of wine styles from elegant and light, to richer and more concentrated. Beautiful minerality is a feature of top St. Emilion estates planted on the limestone slopes.

Merlot is the third most planted red variety in Chile.  The Colchagua Valley, the South-Western half of the Rapel Valley region, is gaining increasing attention for the high quality of its Merlot. Cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean temper the warm Mediterranean climate and give the wines elegance, vibrant acidity and bright, red fruit flavours.  Apalta, which stands for “poor soils” in the local dialect, is one of the best vineyards in the area.  The low fertility soils force the vine roots to dig deep and produce wines with excellent depth of flavour and good tannic structure.

Despite waning interest for the grape, there are still substantial Merlot plantings throughout California.  In the Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon generally gets pride of place on the slopes. Merlot is often planted on the hot valley floor, where its intense red berry and plum aromatics, and smooth texture, make it the perfect blending partner to soften Cabernet lead blends.  There are however a number of serious producers making excellent Merlot dominant wines, with lush, hedonistic profiles.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose examples from the following producers (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

Casa Lapostolle “Canto de Apalta” Rapel Valley 2011 – 90pts. PW

Unfortunately it was impossible to find anything other than very entry level Chilean Merlot at our dear liquor boards (sigh…), so I had to settle for this blend.  Though settle is a poor word, as it is lovely. Inviting black cherry, cassis, menthol and spiced aromas, very fresh on the palate with a full, velvetty frame, marked but balanced oak and alcohol.  Only moderate length and complexity, but worth the price.

Grapes: Merlot, Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.25$)

Château Yon Figeac St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé 2011 – 89pts. PW

This sustainably farmed estate is hailed for its consistent quality even in mediocre vintages such as 2011. Restrained notes of tobacco, cedar, red berries and kirsch on the nose. Dry, medium-bodied though somewhat lean in structure with fine grained tannins, subtle oak and an attractive tobacco dominant finish.

Grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc

Where to Buy: Not currently available in Québec or Ontario

Château le Caillou Pomerol 2009 – 88pts. LW

Situated on the iron-rich clay soils of the plateau of Pomerol, this tiny 7 hectare estate is organically farmed. Understated yet complex palate of aromas including animal notes, plum, red berries, menthol and cedar. Vibrant acidity, full-bodied with moderate alcohol, firm but ripe tannins and well integrated oak.  Lacking some richness and fruit expression considering the vintage.

Grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc

Where to Buy: LCBO (52.95$), SAQ – 2010 vintage (43.00$)

Sterling Vineryards Napa Valley Merlot 2012 – 92pts. PW

Merlot is grown here on the valley floor, on deep rooting, volcanic stone soils.  Heady aromas of sweet cherry, baked plum, eucalyptus and floral notes.  Smooth, full bodied and velvetty, with toasty oak and a sweet, red berry finish.  Big and bold, with just enough acidity to maintain good balance.

Grapes: Merlot

Where to Buy: LCBO (24.95$)