Sud-ouest (Southwest) France is best described as a large collection of small AOCs found east of the city of Bordeaux, on and, for the most part, south of the Dordogne River, and extending along the Atlantic coast to the French Pyrenees...
Sud-ouest (Southwest) France is best described as a large collection of small AOCs found east of the city of Bordeaux, on and, for the most part, south of the Dordogne River, and extending along the Atlantic coast to the French Pyrenees. Describing this as a single wine region is impossible since the geography covered is huge and varied. There are three distinct climates which are broken into four large regions, each centered on its major river, the highways of the past. This is where the Sud-Ouest story of being squeezed out of market begins.
Looking at a topographical map of the region explains all. The Gironde is the river which runs from the Atlantic into the wine region of Bordeaux. It then forks into the Dordogne and Garonne, and the Garonne forks again, as rivers tend to do, into the Lot and the Tarn. The vine loves rivers, and there are small wine AOCs all along these rivers. The port of Bordeaux controls access to the ocean, and when the Bordelaise realized that their wine exports might be out-paced by their up-river brothers and sisters, they did the most economically expedient thing – in the 13th and 14th century, they enacted a law that forbade the sale of any wines from the Southwest until all of the wines of Bordeaux had been sold. Goodbye competition.
The more southerly Adour River ends at Bayonne, the only other port between Bordeaux and the Spanish border with rivers that can sustain the vine. The Ardour and its mountainous tributaries are lined with vineyards tended by the hearty Basque people of the Pyrénées. One ventures to guess that the independent nature of these indigenous people led the French and British, who’ve ruled this land since the Middle Ages, to leave these mountain dwellers alone to their own devices. Their devices were probably not centered on world commerce. They drank the wine they made.
Finding all of these wines in the market is daunting, and what is represented are just a few of the best known regions. Bergerac is based on the red Bordelaise varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Montravel (dry) and Monbazillac (sweet) are the whites: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle. The black wine of Cahors is predominately Malbec. The best known red of the Pyrénées, Madiran, is made of Tannat while the wines of Jurançon are made mainly from the white grapes Petit and Gros Mansang.
Malbec and Tannat are most identified now with Argentina and Uruguay respectively. Petit Mansang is finding a home as a dessert wine grape in the vineyards of Virginia. While the Bordelaise rendered the Sud-Ouest wine trade virtually impotent, the grapes have found proper, arguably better, homes in the New World. When man closes off a river, nature finds a way.
I’d like to give a special tip of the hat to the French Wine Society (FWS), especially Julien Camus, President, FWS and Lisa Airey, Education Director, FWS. Some of the information in this blog comes The French Wine Scholar Study Manual. Continue to http://www.frenchwinesociety.org/ to find out about the benefits of becoming a member.