Back at the end of the 1980s I had this idea for a book. It was going to be called The Lost Vineyards of France. Somehow it never happened, and as the years passed so many of the vineyards I visited with a view to inclusion suddenly got found. I think Les Caves de Pyrene were guilty of much of their discovery, and the wines of the Aveyron were among them. I’m going to take you away from your isolation down into deepest France. We shall visit wooded mountains cut by famous rivers, we shall visit a mysterious abbey with a dark history, hidden among the forests and river gorges, which houses one of the most remarkable hidden religious treasures in the country. Then we shall taste wines that few really know, yet one of the producers down here (Nicolas Carmarans) is amongst the finest natural wine makers in Europe
Aveyron is historically, along with Corrèze to the north and the other departments of the Massif Central, one of the very poorest regions in France, so rural and remote that even some French people don’t really know where it is. The major city is red Rodez, not red for political affiliations, but for the beautiful pink-red stone from which its major buildings and Gothic cathedral are constructed. The red comes through in the old name for the province, Rouergue, a land of red earth surrounded by mountain country. To the north there are the great limestone causses of Cantal, Aubrac and the Monts d’Auvergne. To the east lies the great wooded Cévennes. The Aveyron river itself flows into the Tarn north of Toulouse, whilst directly west of Rodez the River Lot flows towards the hill country of Cahors, then on towards Bordeaux. Only to the south is the country more open, as we head through broad hills into L’Hérault, towards Montpellier and Mediterranean France.
The main vineyards of Aveyron lie a little to the north of Rodez, roughly from south to north being Marcillac, Estaing and Entraygues et du Fel. Marcillac is the senior appellation, with around 160 hectares planted, with a further forty or so hectares split evenly between Estaing and Entraygues. The soils are mostly rich red clay (called “rougier”), with a high iron oxide content, but they are mostly laid down over schist. In parts there is both schist and limestone (the latter for which the wild causses to the north are famous). The seemingly perfect choice for the region’s major red variety is Fer Servadou (reflecting the iron, both in name and nature), also known locally as Mansois. The next two varieties seem to have strayed down from The Loire, Cabernet Franc, and Chenin Blanc. Cabernet Sauvignon also appears, as do a host of minor varieties in this context (Gamay, Semillon, Muscat etc).
The obvious question seems to be why is there wine down here? Especially if I tell you that there were several thousand hectares in Aveyron before phylloxera, surely far too much to supply a local market and a relatively small urban population? I think the answer isn’t simple. Although there are good communications by river, they almost all lead towards Bordeaux and the west, and we know that the wines of “the hill country” were only allowed into the cellars of the Bordeaux merchants once the local stuff had been sold. Yet the Aveyron wines were once quite highly regarded, and they also seem to have been sold further north in the Auvergne, via the River Truyère.
Rural depopulation struck as the Twentieth Century loomed, and the lure of factory work, however poorly paid, was better than the agricultural subsistence offered on the fringes of the Massif Central. Many Aveyron pioneers had forged a route to Paris even earlier, coalescing together, as the Auvergnats and Alsaciens did, in the city’s eastern reaches. On top of depopulation the First World War hit hard, as it did in all sparsely populated parts of France.
Viticulture was tougher than tough here, yet there was a ready market for some vignerons who had clung on, in the mines which were worked in the area, at their peak from the 19th century until about the time of my first visit. I remember coal miners’ cottages seeming almost incongruous in the rural hamlets of the region. Coal and vast amounts of water running from the north into the main river systems allowed for local industry, and indeed not far to the north you can visit the village of Laguiole, which no aficionado of fine cutlery would care to miss. But transport to the French industrial heartlands was slow and the railways passed the region by.
The advent of wine here goes back a lot further. Sited in the hills above the steep-sided valley of the River Dordou, a little north of Marcillac-Vallon, is one of France’s real hidden gems, the Abbey of Conques. It is the monks of Conques who first introduced the vine as they came down here from Burgundy, and its story is worth telling. The Abbey was founded by Burgundian monks in 866 on the site of an older seventh century oratory, near one of the ancient routes to Santiago de Compostela. The monks really needed something to draw people to stop at remote Conques so guess what these good Christian men did? They stole the relics of the 4th century Christian martyr Sainte-Foy (Saint Faith) from the Abbey of Agen and installed them at Conques, and guess what, pilgrims stopped visiting Agen and came to Conques instead. The Chapter at Conques became very rich. Why Agen never came asking for them back I have no idea?
The Abbey Church is now based on a large cruciform building erected in the eleventh century, no doubt built by pilgrim riches. It has a lovely compact feel, recently restored. The church itself is famous for its 212 carved columns and a fine tympanum of the Last Judgment over the west door, but the treasury is what most people visit for, wonderful even without the great “Majesty” of Sainte-Foy. This is a gold-plated statue, life-size, of the child martyr.
The reliquary’s head, which contains a part of a human skull said to be verified as the child’s, is Roman in origin (5th century), when the statue began its life as a reliquary. I say began because the precious gem stones, intaglios and cameos of Roman, Byzantine and Eastern origin which adorn it were added by pilgrims over subsequent centuries, it is said as offerings for the “great many wondrous miracles” the effigy performed. Whatever your beliefs and faith, you do not want to miss the Majesty of Sainte-Foy. You will see few treasures like it in the whole of Europe.
Back to wine. The monks did, despite their shameful theft (not uncommon, strangely, in medieval Europe, as the treasures of St-Mark’s Basilica in Venice attest), begin something worthwhile by selecting the warmer sites in these cool hills for planting vines. The special microclimate here was recognised very early on.
Today there are few producers, full stop, but they do mostly tend to be producers of note (though Marcillac has a good co-operative, and Estaing a small one). If you are going to make a living here it is clearly going to be because the quality merits a good price. This exceptionally beautiful part of France has, like the Auvergne, furnished some hardy individuals with affordable vineyards and an alternative lifestyle option, and this is doubtless why the best wines of the Aveyron tend to fall into the low intervention category.
Most of the vines are on terraces, the majority of which currently stand abandoned but the pre-phylloxera sites, when restored, do provide the best wines. The vignerons do have one thing to be thankful for. Mansois/Fer took easily to regrafting after phylloxera, so the region’s traditional variety for the most part survived and has probably grown here for more than a thousand years.
There are ten or so private estates, including three or four major players, in Marcillac, and the first whose wines I tasted were those of Philippe Teulier of Domaine du Cros. Imported currently and for many years now by Les Caves de Pyrene, I remember being so pleased on returning to the UK in 1988 that his excellent Lo Sang del Païs cuvée was imported by Admans of Southwold. What a name for a varietal young-vine Mansois, “blood of the countryside”. If Fer Servadou often tastes first of iron filings, then its secondary flavour must be fresh, iron-rich, blood. But this young vine wine, made in stainless steel, is also very fruity and very easy to glug.
If the Lo Sang is from young vines (averaging 25 years), then the old vine Mansois, coming from vines between 50-to-100 years old, is a different beast. Darker fruited with coffee and liquorice notes, it undergoes a much longer vinification and is aged in older foudres for 18 months. This is a special occasion wine, which I’ve had a few times, whereas I’ve drunk many bottles of the former, which I think I prefer on account of its lively authenticity.
There is, I believe, a barrique-aged red wine which I haven’t tried. It comes from grapes harvested at the top of the limestone scree slopes, and from the “rougiers” soils at the bottom, the two blended together. There’s a rosé and a white, the latter from Muscat and a blend of local varieties. I am pretty sure there was a semillon up to the late 2000s. Only the red wines are AOP/AOC.
Philippe’s son, Julien has joined his father and the future looks bright for Domaine du Cros. Philippe started out with just one hectare which he has grown to 22 hectares, making this the largest domaine in Marcillac. Lo Sang del Païs is pretty easy to source, via retailers working with Les Caves de Pyrene, which also sells the VV cuvée (of which they sometimes have magnums as well as bottles). The domaine is situated above the Aveyron River at Goutrens, near Clairvaux, and the countryside here is rather spectacular.
Don’t just gaze here, do head north if you can. It isn’t wine country but the Causses are beautiful in their own way. We stayed in the region for a week and one of several trips took us north via Aurillac, to the beautiful small town of Salers and a brisk walk up the Puy Mary. Less far to drive is Laguiole, the original home of the finest knives in France (production later expanded and moved to the “knife city” of Thiers, to the north). It was on a trip here that we returned via Aubrac and the causse of that name. Stopping in one of the villages we saw an advertisement for the transhumance, the annual springtime moving of the cattle to higher summer pastures, where the milk for the local cheeses (rather like Cantal) takes up the flavours of wild flowers on the limestone soils. We saw an advertisement for the transhumance raffle. First prize was a cow.
It was much later that I discovered Nicolas Carmarans, who makes wine with his wife near Marcillac. If I tell you that Nicolas ran the Café de la Nouvelle-Marie in Paris in its early days, you will recognise immediately that this is a man committed to natural wine. He purchased a vineyard called “Mauvais Temps” in 2007 and works (I think) somewhere between three and four hectares today. His unstaked single vines are on hard to work single row terraces (much of the local terracing takes a number of vine rows), so he cultivates them with a cable-plough and sprays only with biodynamic preps.
Mauvais Temps itself is a beautiful wine, but unusually for the region it is not a varietal Mansois, 50% of this grape being joined by 30% Negret de Banhars and 10% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. I can drink this bottle after bottle. Cuvée Maximus is pure Mansois, a deep wine of darker fruits with cherries. It has structure and bite, but low alcohol. I think I’ve only tasted “Fer de Sang”, a negoce cuvée, also Mansois but undergoing carbonic fermentation.
The main white cuvée, called “Selves” is a little gem, not to be overlooked. The variety is Chenin Blanc, also grown on the narrow terraces. It starts off apple-fresh, more ripe apple with spice, but not into the tarte tatin spectrum. A floral, blossom, scent floats above the apple, but the palate is full of the mineral tension given by the volcanic soils. There was a white blend in 2017 made from Chenin with Aligoté too. I would say, if feeling mean in doing so, that it’s “almost as good”…it’s brilliant but I prefer Selves by a nose. It’s called Entre Les Eaux and was made because of the frost and hail losses. The Chenin (40%) comes from Nicolas’ own vineyards whilst the Aligoté (60%) was sourced from a friend in Macon. Vin de France, of course.
The other winemaker worth getting to know is Jean-Luc Matha (Domaine Le Vieux Porche), who makes Marcillac from his base at Bruéjouls. He has a couple of powerful strings to his bow in Laïris (the easy drinker) and Peïrafi (the Cuvée Spéciale), both 100% Mansois and aged in old barriques and other barrels. I haven’t seen the wines around for some time. Last I heard he’d achieved organic certification in 2016, and the estate does stretch over a good sixteen hectares, but I’m not sure how the future will pan out. Jean-Luc has been making wine for more than thirty vintages and I understand his son, Hugo, has a successful career in Parisian fashion. In France these wines are cheap, with Laïris below €10, Peïrafi not much more.
If you want to sample the wines of this remote department, then Marcillac is the place to begin. But if you are especially adventurous, and indeed if you actually visit the region for an opportunity to sample one of the last enclaves of true “France Profonde”, then you will certainly want to explore Estaing and Entraygues et du Fel too. If Marcillac is almost directly north-to-NNW of Rodez, half way to Conques, then these two tiny wine regions are a little further away, both off the D920 accessed via the attractive town of Espalion, on the River Lot.
Espalion, on the Lot, has a famous medieval bridge
Taking Estaing first, because it is closest to Rodez, the name may be familiar. The château which imposes itself on the other side of the bridge over the Lot was built on the remains of the original in the eleventh century, when the Lords of Estaing were powerful regional noblemen, and bishops of Rodez. The most famous “Estaing” was French President, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (served 1974-1981). He purchased the château here, along with his brother, in 2005, although I know of no direct link with the original owners.
Like Entraygues et du Fel, Estaing used to make wine under VDQS and now produces under AOP. Estaing used to have the honour of being the smallest VDQS at the time, although that may not apply today. The grape mix is a little different in Estaing, although Mansois/Fer Servadou still dominates. You will also find Gamay and Arbouriou (which variety those who know the Marmandais wines of Elian da Ros will surely have tasted).
A little further downstream Entraygues -sur-Truyère sits on the confluence of the Lot and Truyère rivers, at the exact point up to which the Lot is navigable, and it joins the small hamlet of Le Fel further down the Lot to form the last of these three small wine regions. The soils are similar, as are the grape varieties, with Banhars (after which that Negret variety is named) being only a few stones throws up the Truyère from Entraygues. The main difference between Entraygues/Estaing and Marcillac is that the former pair are distinctly cooler. And if you think the countryside around Marcillac is rocky and mountainous, wait until you see Le Fel, a cluster of buildings atop a cliff above the Lot.
On my 1988 visit I purchased wine from Jean-Marc Viguier at Entraygues, whose red was made with a fruit salad of grape varieties at the time, before he reduced his palette to just Fer Servadou and Cabernet Franc. In 2005 Laurent Mousset came along (and later his son, Olivier). Laurent and Olivier’s base is Le Fel, and Laurent set about revitalising his five or so hectares and establishing himself as the clear leader in Entraygues. He’s also a Fer and Cab Franc man, but he has reworked his terraces to allow a small tractor to balance somewhat precipitously along the vine rows. Les Caves used to import Mousset’s red. I wonder what happened? I liked it.
The only wine I have bought from Estaing was from a tiny six-man co-operative called the Caveau du Viala, which now just calls itself Les Vignerons D’Olt. The co-op has since expanded and has established a Maison du Vin between Estaing and Espalion (check lesvigneronsdolt.fr for location and opening times). There’s a hamlet called Le Viala (not to be confused with several villages called Viala in the wider region), which is (or was) the base for Pierre Rieu, who was Estaing’s best known producer at the time of my 1980s visit. I never found him, although Rosemary George did (in her French Country Wines, Faber & Faber, 1990).
If you want to try the wines from this part of France I strongly recommend anything and everything from Nicolas Carmarans, and the fruity Lo Sang del Païs from the Teuliers. But if you are a lover of the true rural France try to find your way to The Aveyron. If you are such a person you won’t be disappointed, although you may not have quite the experience we did. We stayed on a farm a couple of kilometres from Montrozier, in rooms directly above the cow shed, which only smelt, almost unbearably so, on arrival. We became surprisingly used to the bovine odours after a night there, and as ample compensation walked with the owners’ dog, Titou, a three-legged canine companion, through fields, woodland and along an old Roman Road, when we were not exploring further afield.
Before leaving Aveyron I should mention the AOP wines of the Côtes de Millau and the former Vins de Pays de L’Aveyron. The Côtes de Millau is in the south of the department, and I have never seen a wine from this vignoble. Certainly a few years ago there was a decent small co-operative there, based at Aguessac.
I have seen biodynamic, zero sulphur, wine from the old Vin de Pays de L’Aveyron (now IGP or often Vins de France), in the guise of Patrick Rols. Les Caves sold a couple of white cuvées from Patrick, who has six hectares at Le Colombier, Conques. Apparently Eric met him at the Dive Bouteille Tasting, where he stepped in for an absent Nicolas Carmarans. They subsequently imported a couple of his wines around the late 2000s, but I have not seen them listed recently.
You won’t find many sources for wines like these. In fact you can probably read more about them in one of those big old Les Caves wine lists than in any books. The World Wine Atlas places these wines on its map of France but they don’t get a mention in the text. The first book listed below (a classic) gave me just a tiny insight of what to expect in the wider region. The second was for decades the bible for any lover of French Regional Wines.
The book by Michael Busselle appears partly because it has some text on the region, but also because Busselle, a photographer, has been quite an inspiration to me over the years. I have several of his books, and The Wine Lover’s Guide to France (Pavilion, 1986) was probably the book which taught me how beautiful the vineyards of France can be at a time when I had hardly begun to get to know them as I do now. It may have been the biggest spur to my life of wine travel.
The last book on the list is considered “the” work on the wines of Southwest France. Despite being more than a decade old, I reckon most people would learn a lot from reading it.
- Three Rivers of France – Freda White (Faber, 1954)
- French Country Wines – Rosemary George (Faber, 1990)
- Discovering the Country Vineyards of France – Michael Busselle (Pavilion 1994)
- South-West France The Wines and Winemakers – Paul Strang (Univ of California Press, 2009)
East of Salers on the road to the Puy Mary