If you remember the commercial wines of the Plaimont Co-operative in France’s Gers Region from back in the 1980s (okay, well maybe your parents drank them), when Colombard made in almost a New World style hit our shelves in the generic Côtes de Gascogne, you might decide to look away, but don’t. Those wines were commercial, but they were part of a longer and more complex story, one which highlights a miracle of rejuvenation for some of the poorest winemakers in France, but even more importantly, one which tells a tale of a rediscovered ampelographical and viticultural heritage from which we need to learn lessons for the future.
Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend a Tasting and two Masterclasses at Carousel Restaurant in London, organised by Westbury Communications and the Plaimont Producteurs. The first of these, facilitated by Jamie Goode, with Olivier Bourdet-Pees (Plaimont MD) and Nadine Raymond (Plaimont Technical Co-ordinator/Oenologist) looked at the Heritage of Saint-Mont. The second was an instructive, hands-on, blending excercise led by Christine Cabri (Plaimont Oenologist).
The foothills of the Pyrenees were climatically perfect for the rapid spread of the wild grape vine, and it made its home climbing trees in the forests there long before it was discovered by humans. Its roots competed hard for nutrients, its bunches sought sunlight in order to ripen, and there were plenty of birds to spread its seeds far and wide.
The Côtes de Saint-Mont, where the Plaimont co-operative is based, lies in the foothills of the Pyrenees, west of Toulouse and north of Tarbes and Pau, and sits adjacent to Madiran. The region benefits from very sandy soils. We know how phylloxera devastated the vineyards of France in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, but we also know that the phylloxera louse cannot live in sandy soils. This is one reason why The Gers has such a wealth of pre-phylloxera vine material.
The Gers has always been one of the poorest regions in France, with an agricultural economy close to subsistence level before the latter part of the 20th Century. The nature of viticulture, with much of local wine production being geared towards home consumption rather than commercial sales, means that older, often less productive, vines were not pulled out in favour of more famous, more hardy, or more productive, varieties. This leaves many old varieties dotted around the region which, in more established viticultural areas have long been grubbed up. It also means that the region still has some of the vinifera hybrids planted after the eradication of phylloxera.
The region’s producers embraced modern viticulture and winemaking in the late 20th Century, but some obstinate individuals kept their strange old vines. Seen as mad men then, they are now hailed as heroes. Why is it important that this great heritage is preserved?
- In 1958 twenty well known grape varieties occupied 53% of the French vignoble. By 2012 those same 20 varieties occupied 91% of the vineyards. So much for diversity.
- With climate change comes greater ripeness, something which is being experienced throughout all of Europe’s vineyards. The Southwest’s viticulture is based, especially in red wines, on varieties like Tannat, whose alcohol content at ripeness is increasing. If there are autochthonous varieties which will help freshen the Tannat, these need to be discovered.
- Diversity is a wonderful thing. When we visit a French region we enjoy regional foods, like cheeses for example. No matter how good Comté and Roquefort may be, we still want our Mont D’Or, Livarot or Abondance. We should embrace the diversity in regional grape varieties too. It’s all part of culture.
Although Gers had a winegrowing history going back even further than when Benedictine Monks planted a vineyard for the Abbey of Saint-Mont in 1050, when the Plaimont co-operative was founded sixty years ago the region was in a poor state and the future looked grim. Even the local mainstay, Armagnac, was falling out of favour.
But in the 1970s André Dubosc, who had studied in Bordeaux under Emile Peynaud, came back to the area with a plan to breath life into Saint-Mont, and today the co-operative group has 800 growers producing 40 million bottles of wine a year. Much of that is good commercial wine, but some of it is quite special. Saint-Mont took a big step with the granting of VDQS in the 1980s, and became full Appellation Contrôlée in 2011. In 2012 the historic, 200-year-old Sarragachies vineyard within Saint-Mont, source of many of these old grape varieties, became the first piece of agricultural land in France to be designated a “Protected Historic Landmark”.
The main grape varieties of the region are Gros and Petit Manseng, Petit Courbu and Arrufiac for white wine, plus Tannat and Pinenc for red (Pinenc is a local synonym for, and mutation of, Fer Servadou/Mansois/Braucol as seen in Aveyron (eg Marcillac etc) and Gaillac). These varieties possess great individuality, but equally, they are capable of making wines of genuine class. This is especially the case with the Madiran AOC (Plaimont makes 55% of all Madiran), but the best wines of Saint-Mont are not far behind.
I’m going to run through a selection of Plaimont’s top wines, then take a look at some of the micro-vinifications made from the long lost grape varieties, before finishing with some notes from the blending masterclass.
Dr Jamie, Olivier and Nadine (note beret and scarf obligatory at Plaimont)
The Top Wines of Plaimont
You might have seen the bottles with a wooden label, called Le Faîte. I will admit I always thought this was just a marketing gimmick, but in fact these wooden blocks, attached to the bottle by wax, have an historic precedent. In the past when wine was mainly drunk from cask, wine was set aside in bottle for future special occasions, such as a wedding or baptism. The region didn’t have cellars (probably all that sand) so bottles were burried, to be dug up when needed. The wine was well conserved in the cool earth, but paper labels would not have survived. A wooden one served perfectly.
Le Faîte Blanc is a blend of Gros and Petit Manseng, Petit Courbu and around 2 to 3% Arrufiac, grown in the best terroirs of Saint-Mont, Aignan and Plaisance. A little cold maceration (8-12 hours for GM and 2-4 hours for the others) is followed by vinification in stainless steel tanks, followed by six months on lees (with stirring).
The 2014 is yellow with green glints showing a lovely lemon freshness from the Gros Manseng, with the grapefruit flavour characteristic of this variety (which adds a lovely bitter touch and salinity on the finish). It is a remarkable wine which on first taste I had as a kind of cross between Chablis and a Clare Valley Riesling. Delicious, but with the obvious potential to age. The 2010 still has that trademark freshness, but the nose is more developed with complex notes of other fruits and herbs. The palate shows impressive depth. Of all the wines tasted, Le Faîte Blanc was the one which surprised me most with its quality and potential.
Le Faîte Rouge blends Tannat with Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinenc, aged in 225 litre oak (30% new). It’s a classy wine, though I was more impressed with the white version, but even the 2010 was still developing, with soft but persistent tannins. Among the reds I preferred Monastère Rouge, a mix of Tannat, Pinenc and Cabernet Franc. It sees similar oak treatment (eleven months, 40% new) and the 2014 was dark, with big legs and tannins galore, yet it has nice fresh dark fruits as well, plus some peppery spice on the finish. Tannat is very high it rotundone, which gives a characteristic (green) pepper note.
Les Vignes Préphylloxériques Saint Mont “1871” is a very special wine. It’s made from 99% Tannat and just 1% Pinenc, from a vineyard of just under half a hectare, planted in 1871 on soft gravelly sand, with two vines per stake. Propagation is by layering. Fermentation is in oak with regular oxygenation (syphoning), followed by ageing in oak for a little over one year before bottling.
Pure fruit combines on the nose with flowers and iron filings, with a hint of red meat juice for good measure. It’s tannic but pure. It certainly tastes different to the other reds, that is in part down to the varietal mix. But the difference must also be in part down to the pre-phylloxera vines, which remain on their original root stock.
Château de Sabazan is run along the lines of a Bordeaux château, with nine of its eleven hectares under vine reserved for the Grand Vin. Around 80% Tannat is seasoned with Cabernet Franc and Pinenc, with each plot vinified separately. It is château-bottled after 12 to 15 months in oak (30% new). We were treated to a taste of the 1998 vintage, which had a lovely deep claret colour and an almost floral bouquet. There is some maturity as one would expect in a 20-year-old wine, but it has a dense, firm, spine which with good ripe tannins suggests it will improve further. Quite majestic.
There are plenty of other wines of note, including an attractive Madiran Plénitude (Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc). The 2012 (14.5% abv) had some meaty complexity on the nose, with violets following. Tannins are silky, and it’s a big wine. But that’s Madiran. You have to wait, as the 2004 Château d’Aydie I drank back in December last year proved.
There was also a sample of Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh “Saint-Albert” 2014. Saint Albert’s Day is 15 November, and it is around this day that the final trie for this cuvée is picked. Produced by fifteen growers from the AOC, Saint-Albert is sold by lots at a charity auction. It is pale, with green glints, which is a little deceptive because the nose is powerful – exotic apricot jam and sweet confit lime with a touch of honey. There is a nice saline quality about the finish, which goes on and on.
Madiran Plénitude and Pacherenc “Saint-Albert”
The Long Lost Vines
These lost varieties are the heart of the ampelography work going on at Plaimont. They classify vines (DNA analysis is used where necessary), grow cuttings, and make microvinifications. The aim is not just to conduct research for fun. One of these varieties, Manseng Noir, has gone from one vine to 20 hectares, and will have a commercial release in May of this year (100 hectares are planned). Yielding a wine of just 11.4% alcohol, it is clearly an insurance against climate change.
Morenoa means “brown-black” in Basque, but the grape is related genetically to Cabernet Franc. With Pédebernade 5, discovered in that historic Sarragachies vineyard (mentioned above), it shares a very fresh taste. The latter variety is strong on black pepper, on both nose and palate.
The nursery has 37 vine varieties in all, seven of which were completely unknown and unidentifiable. One of those, Dubosc 1, has been named after the co-operative’s founder as it was discovered on his 150-year-old vineyard at Viella in Madiran. It is related to Gros Manseng, but is a black variety. Like several of these long lost vines, it is a female plant, so very difficult to propagate. It is again incredibly high in rotundone.
The Manseng Noir mentioned above was also discovered in that same Dubosc vineyard at Viella and is genetically linked to the abovementioned variety. The name “Manseng” is linked to “Manse”, manse varieties generally making wines reserved for sale rather than merely home consumption in the past. It is currently being used in the red blend “Moonseng”, but as I have already stated, release of a 100% Manseng Noir is expected this May.
It has a deep colour which stains the glass, a lovely floral and fruity perfume, and concentration, but it isn’t at all heavy. It should release for around £12 retail and will be well worth seeking out.
Even more interesting, for me, was Tardif. This was also discovered in Sarragachies, and is related to another Pédebernade variety, Pédebernade 4. It ripens late and at lower alcohol levels, and also exhibits the spicy, peppery, results of high rotundone levels. There are currently a mere 20 vines, propagated from just one parent, and the 2017 microvinification was just 12 bottles. Alongside the massive pepper aromas it is eye-openingly fresh (but not over acidic). It has obvious potential as a blending partner for the bigger varieties, but even though not especially multi-dimensional, it was strangely attractive on its own after all those tannic reds.
Blending Les Vignes Retrouvées Blanc 2017
Of the white varieties, Petit Manseng is the best known, and perhaps wrongly, the most highly regarded. Its fame rests on the glorious late harvest sweet wines from Jurançon and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, but it fares so well in these wines partly because it is prone to high alcohol levels (it also needs masses of rain). When the juice is concentrated and the sugars do not ferment to dryness, this is not an issue, rather something of a plus. But in a dry wine, not so good. So the backbone is formed by Gros Manseng in the dry wines, fleshed out by Petit Courbu and spiced up with a little Arrufiac.
Arrufiac was described by Olivier as “horrible” and “a monster”. It has high yields requiring green harvesting one year, and low yields the next. It tastes of green apple and is acidic. Growers always want to pull it out, yet it has been proved to contribute something to the blend in small proportion and the co-operative insists growers all keep a little.
Christine takes us through the blending process
We sat down with oenologist Christine Cabri to play around at blending a white. We had three grape varieties to play with (Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu and Arrufiac, which we tasted as individual components first), and samples of some older vintages to inform our experiment. The aim was to blend a wine not for immediate consumption but for ageing. This was the difficult part. It isn’t difficult to blend a wine that tastes good now, but it takes experience to know how each variety fared in each vintage, and what it can contribute to the blend for the future.
This was clear when we discovered from Christine what her 2017 blend is comprised of. In between we had considerable fun trying to put together something creditable…and being rebels, my blending partner and I found a great deal of interest in trying out blends that were obviously wrong. Well, that is surely how you learn?
This was best illustrated when we tried 30% Arrufiac, though little did we know that the final blend for 2017 would include 15% Arrufiac (more than usual, along with 65% Gros Manseng and 20% Petit Courbu) because “this year it was quite mallic, neutral and balanced”.
I’m not sure our results matched the experienced palate of Christine Cabri, but the potential of the grapes was shown when we tried the 2007 vintage of the Vignes Retrouvées. It was shockingly fresh for a ten-year-old white wine, quite brisk even. But it had also become deeper and more complex. The nose showed white truffle and the finish had a gentle chalky texture. Astonishing for a wine that is pretty cheap (around £11 retail in the UK for a current vintage).
The rest of Plaimont’s portfolio
I tasted my way through a couple of dozen Plaimont wines before the Masterclasses. Of course it’s easy to dismiss them when set against the more serious, and interesting, wines mentioned here. But we shouldn’t be snobby about it. These are extremely well made commercial wines which are affordable for all wine drinkers. In white, pink and red, they provide accessible drinking and expert modern winemaking. There isn’t time to talk about them here, but I think if you were to try one when you come across them in a chain restaurant, local bistro or supermarket, you’d be quite pleasantly surprised.
Someone said on Twitter that yesterday’s Tasting was a “perfectly pitched piece of brand promotion”, which was true. But marketing will only get you so far. Sometimes it is easy for the so-called expert to see the marketing and to ignore or dismiss it. But in getting to know the wider story of the Plaimont co-operative, as well as marveling at their commercial transformation and success, it is impossible not to be impressed with the work they are doing, both to preserve their viticultural patrimony, and to plan for their future in an uncertain world of changing climate and destructive weather events. They gave me a fascinating insight and an afternoon of discovery.