Southwest France, Riesling & the Best of the Rest
By John Szabo MS with notes from Sara d’Amato
The deep southwest remains one of those lost and misunderstood corners of France, as seemingly impenetrable as the local accent. I’ll never forget watching a news report in Paris in which a farmer from the Gers, a region to the west of Toulouse, was being interviewed. His accent was so thick the TV station posted subtitles so the rest of France could understand.
The region’s two marquee appellations, Cahors and Madiran, featured in the March 21st release, could likewise use some subtitles to help consumers understand them a little better. I was also inspired by a quartet of rieslings from three classic regions, and Sara and I have a handful of additional smart buys for you, filling in the gaps while David continues his peripatetic wine research.
Buyers’ Guide March 21st:
Southwest France, Cahors, Madiran & Fronton: Lost in Translation
Considering Argentina’s success with malbec, a grape that originates in southwest France on either side of the Lot River near the town of Cahors, you’d have thought that some reflected spotlight would have shone back home. But I’d wager that most enthusiastic drinkers of deeply fruity malbec from Mendoza would have little inkling of the grape’s true origins, a perfectly understandable knowledge gap considering for one that the French original is rarely labeled with the name of the grape, but more importantly, how radically different the two styles are.
Ironically, these days it’s Argentina that has a more clearly defined style for the variety, and the old world is busy reinventing itself. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve been to that corner of France, so I asked local writer and wine importer Alain Laliberté for his most recent impressions of the region – Laliberté is somewhat of a specialist and has travelled there on many occasions over the last decade for his importing business.
“A generation of young producers have picked up the baton since the turn of the century, with a far more rigorous approach to quality than the previous generation. And they’ve already had a big impact”, he reveals [my translation]. “The rustic, bony wines of the ‘70s, ’80s and even ‘90s, with their drying tannins, have ceded place to structured wines that are more like an iron fist in a velvet glove.”
Cahors has indeed improved a great deal, and the top examples highlight malbec’s floral character, like a field of violets, and bring graceful natural acidity to bear on chiseled tannins, lifting and framing the wine. It was in fact that naturally high acid working with green tannins in the past that made the old “black wine” of Cahors so unruly.
There are also notable style differences depending on precisely where the grapes are grown, as the Cahors appellation has three distinct areas. “Malbec from the low-lying, gently inclined parcels facing the Lot River are less dense”, Laliberté confirms, “while the elevated inclines above produce more structured wines.” The Cahors most suitable for long ageing, however, are those grown on the iron-rich limestone plateau that sits above the river and the other two areas, which yields the most firm and dense wines, according to Laliberté, but also the most finessed. Clos Troteligotte, one of the producers Laliberté represents, has vines on the plateau and produces no fewer than six malbec cuvées according to the concentration of iron in each micro-parcel. (Clos Troteligotte K-Or Cahors 2012 is set to be released in April or May).
For more immediate gratification, try the Château Pineraie 2011 l’Authentique ($39.95) from this release. It’s a bold and seriously pure malbec from the plateau. Sixty year-old vines are harvested very ripe and grapes are fermented in wooden vats (more oxygen, softer tannins) before ageing in barriques, 2/3rds of which are new, for a year and a half. The net result is a dense and supple wine with excellent quality tannins: ripe but firm, fine-grained and neatly woven. Even at the premium price this over-delivers. Best 2015-2026.
Tannat, the principal variety in the appellation of Madiran even further southwest of Cahors in Basque country, has yet to really garner any significant international attention. Unlikely Uruguay has made it somewhat of a signature variety, and I’ve seen it pop up in regions as far-flung as Greece and Australia, but its wiry, impermeable character make even malbec look like a plush and cuddly stuffed animal, and has limited its appeal in a new world looking above all for soft, fruity wines. During my first visit to Madiran in 2000, my palate was stripped of all flesh and saliva after a barrel tasting of just four wines, needing a full afternoon to recover from the blitzkrieg of tannin.
It’s not tough to imagine why micro-oxidation (or “micro-ox”), a technique of gently dosing wine with oxygen bubbles to soften tannins, would have been invented here to deal with tannat. But as in Cahors, more attentive viticulture, lower yields, and riper grapes have altered the style landscape. Also, in theory tannat need only represent 40% of a Madiran final blend, even if in practice the percentage is much higher, and producers have the option of adding cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon or fer to complement (it’s telling that cabernet sauvignon would be considered a softening variety here).
Most take advantage of the rules and blend 20%-30% of other grapes, as in Château Peyros 2009 Vieilles Vignes Madiran ($18.95). For this old vines cuvée, average 50 year-old Tannat is blended with 20% of cabernet franc to great effect yielding a very pretty, violet-scented example with an engaging medicinal note, like walking into an herbalist’s shop. For the money you’d be hard pressed to find more complexity; this is a flavour trip into wonderland. Now five years on it’s drinking very well, though it’s still Tannat, and tight tannins call for salty protein. Best 2015-2021.
It seems only one estate waves the flag internationally for the small AOC of Fronton north of Toulouse and its unique specialty, négrette. Sara d’Amato recommends it: “Château Bellevue La Forêt 2011 ($13.95). The blend is primarily made up of négrette, a grape found in very few places outside of Fronton or the southwest. As the name suggests, it produces deeply coloured wines, spicy with medium tannins but short on acids. In this case it is blended with syrah (adding appealing notes of black pepper and purple flower), cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. Impactful and memorable.”
Buyers’ Guide March 21st: Riesling Rules!
A quartet of excellent rieslings from regions with proven track records of success – Germany, Alsace and Ontario – inspired this mini-thematic. Gather your tasting group and line these up for a thorough schooling in riesling styles. Lovers of classic Mosel will find happiness in the Dr. Hermann 2010 Erdener Treppchen Kabinett Riesling ($17.95). It would be hard to imagine stuffing more regionally distinctive character, and just plain lots of wine, into a bottle for less. And if you saw how steep and difficult to farm the Treppchen vineyard is, you’d almost feel guilty. Almost. This wine will live on until the early ‘30s no doubt.
Ontario is by now internationally recognized for the quality of its riesling, and March 21st sees two of the finest examples offered. Since the first vintage in 2002, Flat Rock Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling ($19.95) has turned heads. The 2013 is yet another lean, tightly wound, sharp riesling the way we like them, finely woven and very nicely balanced. Drink or hold until the early ‘20s.
And with an even longer track record, and some of the oldest riesling vines in Canada panted in the late 1970s, Vineland Estates 2012 Elevation St. Urban Vineyard Riesling ($19.95) continues on in the Germanic tradition, carrying amazing flavour intensity on a featherweight, 9% alcohol frame. I like the off-dry, crisp-balanced, spiced apple flavours and the lingering apple blossom finish. Drink through 2022.
If you prefer your riesling fully dry and upright, you need only knock on the centuries old house of Trimbach, where dry riesling has been a specialty since 1626. The 2012 Trimbach Riesling ($21.95) is a terrific, arch-classic dry Alsatian style with deceptive intensity and length on a seemingly light frame. This quivers and reverberates on and on. Best 2015-2022.
Buyers’ Guide March 21st: More Smart Buys
Force Majeure 2011 Collaboration Series VI Red Mountain, Columbia Valley ($64.95)
John Szabo - In a short time Red Mountain has become Washington State’s premium red wine AVA, and Force Majeure one of its maximum interpreters. Paul McBride planted his first vines in 2006, but while waiting for them to mature, embarked on a series of collaborative wines with Ciel du Cheval vineyard. The series is being phased out as estate fruit comes into production, so it’s unlikely we’ll see this again, a sturdy and well-structured blend of mourvèdre and syrah with a splash of grenache offering plenty of dark fruit and spice, integrated wood, and liqueur-like concentration. Best 2017-2026.
Tinto Pesquera 2010 Reserva, DO Ribera del Duero, Spain ($44.95)
John Szabo - One of my first great wine moments involved a bottle of Pesquera, and happily, some years later, the wine is still as memorable. There are few places, and indeed fewer wines on earth that can pull off such a fine balance of fruit and oak, structure and suppleness. This wine also ages magnificently, and I recommend cellaring another three years or so before making your own memories. Best 2018-2030.
Sara d’Amato – An iconic, generous wine sure to etch itself in your memory. Drink selfishly or please, give a taste to a first time wine drinker and you may just be responsible for the birth of a new oenophile.
Domaine J. Laurens Le Moulin Brut Blanquette De Limoux, Languedoc, France ($18.95)
Sara d’Amato - Limoux is known as the “original Champagne” as the bubbly was thought to have come about in the 16th century, close to 200 years before Champagne became prominent. With lots of depth, succulence and creaminess, this appealing and frothy example has me wanting to celebrate.
E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2012, Rhône, France ($18.95)
Sara d’Amato - White Rhône floats my boat and it is a shame we see it so infrequently on our shelves. This is a fine, well-priced southern example, very characteristic and easy to appreciate. Notes of lush apricot, lavender and crunchy sea salt will have you salivating. Try with white fish in a peppery lemon butter sauce.
John Szabo MS
From VINTAGES March 21, 2015:
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