The scattered band of appellations nestled in the far south west corner of France is known locally as the “high country”. Rarely explored by wine lovers, it is not only outstandingly beautiful with a fascinating array of terroirs, but it has unusual grapes to try, from white petit manseng and arrufiac to red negrette and duras.
Unlike the major regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, which managed to revive themselves quickly after the devastating phylloxera louse attack in the 19th century – it took south west France more than a century to get back on its feet. Now with a combination of passionate young winemakers, one of France’s most go-ahead co-operatives (Plaimont), improved wine quality, revived native grapes and a fascinating array of terroirs, south west France is showing the world what it can achieve.
One of the main problems to overcome is the amazing diversity on offer. South west France is made up of a hotpotch of very different appellations offering a range of styles. Gaillac has sparkling wines, Gascony offers light, inexpensive dry whites, Fronton and Saint Mont make deliciously juicy soft reds and Madiran and Cahors give us full-bodied reds, while Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh and Jurancon offer outstandingly good sweet wines. All are widely dispersed and all use different grapes, but they have now cleverly formed an association to help jointly promote themselves.
I tasted my way through 20 wines from the vineyards stretching from the Lot river down to the vineyards in the foothills of the Pyrenees. I was impressed by the improved quality of these wines, particularly the dry whites, juicy reds and sweet wines. I used to think of the wines of St Mont, Madiran, Gaillac and Irouleguy as rustic country cousins. Now their wines are as sleek and polished as those you find in Bordeaux or Languedoc. This is an area that can offer something really different from these forgotten terroirs. Happy hunting.
Gems from France’s forgotten south west
‘Le Perle’ Esprit De Labastide Blanc Sec 2013
£5.95; alcohol 12 per cent
If you have ever been to the Tarn or north east of Toulouse you will have encountered Gaillac’s wines. Limp reds and unexciting whites are made here, but there are also some good quality wines – I like Gaillac’s fizz made from the mauzac grape. This is an enchanting, spritzy wine.
LIGHT DRY WHITE
Domus Cotes De Gascogne 2013
£8.95; alcohol 11.5 per cent
Colombard is not a very exciting grape, but here jazzed up with sauvignon blanc it has very pleasant green fruits, peachy flavours and a lively natural acidity. If you want a cheaper version try Tesco Finest Cotes de Gascogne white (£7.99) but it is not as good as this wine.
FULL-BODIED DRY WHITE
Chateau Montus Blanc 2010
£20; alcohol: 14.5 per cent
Alain Brumont is now famous both for his intense white and red wines and for his reputation as a fanatic for oak, compost and anything to improve the quality of his wines. He blends petit manseng with petit courbu to make a vibrant citric white.
Chateau Bellevue La Foret Royale Rosé 2013
£8.95; alcohol: 12.5 per cent
Fronton are the wines you are most likely to encounter in Toulouse restaurants. This appellation just north of the city is not well known, neither is its favourite local red grape, negrette. It makes enchanting, pretty, fruity rosé.
SOFT JUICY RED
St Mont l’Empreinte 2010
£11.50; alcohol: 14 per cent
You usually find the tannat grape in Uruguay today, but this French grape originates from south west France; here blended with pinenc and cabernet sauvignon. St Mont is a new appellation with just over 1,000 hectares between Madiran and Gascony, producing plump juicy reds and very stylish whites: also try L’Empreinte white (£13.99) both extremely well made wines from one of France’s best co-operatives.
Madriran 2010 Domaine du Lourou
£11.99; alcohol: 13.5 per cent
Of all south west France appellations, Madiran is perhaps best known for its famously rich tannic reds. If you want a blockbuster big red, try this. This is another example of what the tannat grape can do, this time combined with the leafy cabernet franc. Very minerally, savoury, rather unusual with plenty of grip. Quite challenging to drink.
Malbec Gouleyant 2012 Georges Vigouroux
£9.99; alcohol: 12.5 per cent
This French grape has been growing hidden away in Cahors for centuries. It might not have the lush damson succulence from the Andean vineyards, but the quality of Cahors has improved immeasurably in the last ten years. Once a rustic, tannic, dark wine, it is now beautifully polished and slick malbec.
Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2012 Chateau d’Aydie
£10.50; alcohol 14 per cent
This sweet wine appellation sandwiched between Madiran and Pau offers some of the best bargain sweet wines in the world. I cannot understand why more people have not discovered them, they are always popular at my tastings. Expect honey and passionfruit with beautiful orange blossom notes, raisiny sweetness and vibrant acidity.
•Join Rose’s Italian wine series on 5, 12, 19 and 26 November in Edinburgh, www.rosemurraybrown.com