The lost varieties of Southwest France

Plaimont is a union of producers that represents a significant proportion of all wines emanating from the Southwest of France: Plaimont produces 98% of wines from the Saint Mont appellation, 66% of Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, 55% of Madiran and 30% of the Côtes-de-Gascogne. It is truly a powerhouse of this significant wine region, and a major supplier of wines to British multiple retailers.

However, it would be a mistake to think this ‘super-Cooperative’ was only concerned with volume. In fact, for over 40 years they have sought to protect indigenous and often forgotten grape varieties of the Southwest, specifically their appellations in the foothills of the Pyrenees, with research and special bottlings of rare varieties. Many of its members’ vineyards are small, with six or seven hectares of vines, and there are historic châteaux amongst its membership too, where wines are bottled under the château’s own name. It is an organisation very much led by the belief in terroir. As Head Winemaker and Managing Director, Olivier Bourdet-Pees, says, “Our wines’ genius stems from our terroirs and native grape varieties.”

During the 2020 Covid-19 ‘lockdown’ I met up with Olivier via Zoom for a masterclass tasting of 12 wines chosen to prove this concept. Olivier explained that in the 1950s, the top 20 grape varieties accounted for around 50% of French vineyard plantings. Today, the top 20 varieties account for 91% of vineyards, so diversity is undoubtedly being lost. He sees it as more important than ever to preserve historic local varieties and allow consumers to rediscover them, “just like they do with heritage tomatoes and ancient apple varieties,” he says.  Another big focus for Plaimont is ‘drinkability’, making wines that are balanced and therefore more approachable and food-friendly.

The first four red wines we tasted are based on the variety Manseng Noir, a truly forgotten variety. A single vine found, and at first mis-identified as a variant of Tannat, was later discovered through DNA analysis to be Manseng Noir, an old variety that was traditionally grown climbing up trees. It produced such low alcohol that eventually production stopped in favour of grapes like Tannat. Having established it was Manseng Noir, Plaimont began a programme of grafting in a nursery in 2002 and by 2010 had enough material to plant a small vineyard – which is unique in the world.

In fact there are 37 different ancient varieties in their conservatory vineyards, 12 of them the main focus for the moment as they are the most suitable in terms of yield and other factors for producing wines, but another 11 remain completely unidentified so far.

Wines of Côtes-de-Gascogne

(2020) From a cooler year when the naturally high acid of the Manseng Noir had to be managed, this has a little more of a tapenade, spicy character, but still that same easy-going fruit and a nicely dry, savoury finish showing charming plush fruit.
(2020) This is a blend with 60% Merlot and Manseng Noir and was a tank sample. Juicy, fresh and cherry scented with a floral lift, but there is roundness from the Merlot. Very smooth, charming and easy to drink, Manseng providing almost no tannin, but plenty of acidity to cut through the creamy black and plummy fruit given mainly by the Merlot I suspect, into a pleasing, easy-going finish.
(2020) Again that big difference in climate to the 2019 vintage, this a much cooler year and the wine shows a fine, Cru Beaujolais-like purity of red fruit and minerality, taut with the tannins gentle and refined and the acidity juicy into the finish. Fruity, but the bite of sour cherry to the acidity adds a lovely freshness. Not currently in the UK.
(2020) Tank sample. A dark, inky, almost slatey character on the nose, with Asian dried plum and black cherry fruit. This is 100% Manseng Noir, that sees no oak, and though the palate has smoothness and fruit density, the vigorous acidity gives it real spine and inky dryness, with plenty of juicy dark, very dry tapenade and cherry character. Intriguing, though still to make it to the UK.

Wines of Saint Mont

The next set of wine are from the Saint Mont appellation. It began with a mini-vertical of one of the top wines of Plaimont, from a very steep slope with a northern exposition. At one point around 2012 the authorities stopped the wines from carrying the Saint Mont appellation because of a ‘blanket ban’ on north-facing slopes that were considered incapable of ripening vines sufficiently. So Plaimont were forced to designate the wine as a table wine, even though their site never had a problem with ripening. Eventually they proved it deserved the status of the Saint Mont appellation, which was restored. We’d look at 2019, 2017, 2016 and 2014. The intervening years were not made as the vintage was not good enough. The wine is made with ambient vineyard yeasts and is also bottled with very low sulphur. It is a blend of local varieties Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu and Petit Manseng, all made in barrel, with 18 months ageing. Only older barrels are used, the youngest being second fill.

(2020) The very first vintage of Cirque Nord and that north-facing site on clay, this wine still shows those vibrant and quite lucious tropical fruit characters, though there's a definite creaminess to this too, and a spine of salty, energising acidity still that suggest it has some longevity yet. Even at six years old, showing a lot of poise and a lot of class. No UK stockists, but the wine sells for around 30€ in France.
(2020) From a particularly warm vintage, this still displays that tropical, mango and pineapple lusciousness of fruit, a hint of honeysuckle and smoothing layer of almond or oatmeal. Quite full, an extra touch of alcohol adding to the power and richness, but the inherent acidity of these grapes and this north-orientated terroir adds ample cut and support. A full and ripe wine - the fullest and ripest of this small selection - but still very nicely balanced and hugely enjoyable.
(2020) Olivier says 2017 was a great vintage for their white wines, "Maybe one of the best I've ever seen," and a big vintage too, the cooler conditions suiting this wine. It certainly has an edge compared to the 2016, a vibrant, shimmering brightness to the expected exotic fruit character. It is a vivacious wine onto the palate too, sparky acidity and tension playing beautifully against the fruit density and ripe sweetness, very juicy and long. This vintage is just coming into the UK market. Price and stockist for previous vintage at time of review.
(2020) Tank sample. Beautifully creamy nose, hinting at custard, with a melon skin and lemon rind touch of waxiness and subtle lanolin quality, a hint of something more tropical too. A lovely blast of orange fruit on the palate, really juicy and citrussy, but more orange than lemon, the little bit of vanillin barrel rounding the picture. Beautifully balanced into a long, taut finish showing a little spice and a touch of saline quality. Not yet on the market, and will develop more from its primary fruit characte. Lovely and full of potential, my score a touch cautious because this was a tank sample. Price and stockist is for a previous vintage at time of review.

Plaimont bought the Château Les Bois Mathieu in 2015 from a producer who was not a member at that point. It is a hot site that produced beautiful, but very ripe grapes, that made higher alcohol wines that were not suitable for Plaimont. They experimented, and decided the vineyard was most suitable for picking earlier and making a dry rosé. There is Caberenet Sauvignon and Franc in the blend, but also Tannat, Petit Courbu and another heirloom variety, Pinenc. This is the first vintage. Les Vignes Retrouvées is a stalwart of The Wine Society’s list, an inexpensive white that blends local varieties Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu and Aruffiac.

(2020) The entry level for the white wines tasted here is a blend of 70% Gros Manseng, 25% Petit Courbu and Arrufiac. Lovely and appealing nose, plenty of zippy but tropical fruit, peach and nectarine over-flowing with these primary aromas, then a lovely hint of oiliness to the texture, a real bitter orange tang to the acidity, pithy and zesty, and a keen, long edge to the finish. Great value and very stylish.
(2020) A really very charming rosé this, pale in colour and extremely fresh and appetising. Equal proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Tannat and local speciality Pinenc form 90% of the blend, along with 10% of the local white grape Petit Courbu. Viticulture is carried out according to phases of the moon, and the wine harvested in the early hours of the morning of a 'fruit day', according to the biodynamic calendar. There's a litghtly herbal note, stone fruit aromas and a mineral, slightly smoky sense, before tangy raspberry, grapefruit and passion fruit in the mouth, plenty of zesty acidity and a mouth-watering, dry finish.

The final two wines are showcases for Plaimont, Le Faîte Blanc and Le Faîte Rouge. Striking with their wax caspules and seals, and wooden tags instead of labels, a tribute to older generations of winemakers who preserved their wines by burying bottles in the clay soils, marked with wooden stakes. The wines are made from the best parcels of the three terroirs that gave Plaimont its name: Plaisance, Aignan and Saint Mont. Le Faîte is produced annually as a limited edition.

(2020) The blend for the top red is 75% Tannat, 15% Pinenc and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Again from limestone and clay, but also sandy soils, typical of the Bas Armagnac region. A powerful nose of black and sour cherry, with some cool and elegant graphite character. Lots of smoothness in texture, plenty of tannin and bright cherry, great mid-palate sweetness, but the structure builds and grips to the finish, staying fresh and grippy, concentrated and delicious, and surely with ageing potential.
(2020) Around 65% of this is Gros Manseng, vinified in barrel, 30% Petit Courbu and 5% Arrufiac. These are 50-year old vines from a special parcel on a cooler slope on clay and limestone and it is Plaimont's top white cuvée. From a hot year this has retained its freshness very well. There's a charming peachy, downy fruitiness on the nose, but also a zesty lemon vibrancy and a smoothing note of nuttiness and light toast. In the mouth it has weight and texture, a certain fat in the mid-palate, vanilla and a nuance of honey, but that lemony thrust of the acidity tensions the whole picture, giving this fine precision and length. Olivier recommends with a special ham produced in the region, and I can see that working well.

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