Southwest France is a bit off the beaten track, in travel and in wine. When wine lovers go to France — and by that I mean the French shelves at our local wine store — we gravitate toward Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne and the Rhone Valley. The hipsters among us long for the Loire, while more old-fashioned enogeeks reach for Alsace. Most of us don’t get to the southwest, which is too bad, because the wines can be as delicious as the scenery is spectacular.
So the next time you feel like traveling by corkscrew, ask your retailer to take you to Irouleguy, Fronton, Madiran or Jurancon. You’ll taste unfamiliar grapes such as negrette, tannat and fer servadou, reds that produce wine at once perfumed and rugged. Gros and petit manseng produce aromatic whites that range from dry and delicate to unctuously sweet.
These aren’t the stylish wines of classed-growth Bordeaux chateaux, nor do they have the sublime luxury of premier cru Burgundy. But they are honest, tasting as though they were grown and produced in a particular place instead of according to a recipe. They are what some people might call “weeknight wines,” because they are inexpensive and uncomplicated. You don’t need to worry about which foods to match with them; almost anything works. They won’t take you too far out of your comfort zone. Most are blended with familiar grapes such as cabernet franc, malbec and syrah.
And it’s fun to say Irouleguy (ee-ROO-luh-ghee). That appellation name is one of the easier words to pronounce on the labels of the excellent Domaine Brana. The wine names reflect the Basque influence of the region; they include the Ohitza red blend, made from tannat that’s tamed with 20 percent cabernet franc.
Exploring southwestern France gives me an excuse to consult my favorite travel primer, “Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours,” by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz (HarperCollins, 2012), more an encyclopedic tome than a pocket travel guide, to be sure.
Tannat, for example, is known for its high tannin (the mouth-puckering, drying factor in red wine), though its name may refer to its dark color. Micro-oxygenation, the modern technique of bubbling small amounts of air into young wine to soften the tannins, was developed in Madiran, the appellation most known for tannat.
Fer servadou, or simply fer, derives from the Latin word for wild, and this grape is the genetic grandparent of carmenere, now popular in Chile. It shines at Domaine du Cros in Marcillac, an appellation that enjoys climatic influence of both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Negrette, as its name suggests, is another dark-colored grape, though more aromatic and less brooding than tannat. It is blended successfully with syrah, cabernet sauvignon and malbec at Chateau Bouissel in Fronton. While fer servadou may be native to southwestern France, negrette is thought to have been brought back from the Crusades by the Knights Templar.
If some of these grape names sound familiar, you might be hearing their Virginia accent. Tannat and fer servadou were planted in the 1990s by vintners eager to experiment with grape varieties that could ripen well in Virginia’s humid climate and contribute color and tannin to its sometimes pallid red wines. Today they show up in wines produced by Chrysalis, Hillsborough and Fabbioli Cellars in Loudoun County, as well as Delaplane Cellars in Fauquier County and Horton Vineyards in Orange County. Varietally labeled tannat can be quite good in Virginia.
Virginia is also making nice wine from petit manseng, a floral white grape that survives well against humidity and ripens with high acidity and sugar levels. In France, the grape plays a minor supporting role to gros manseng in the white wines of Jurancon. Those range from dry, fruity whites to unctuously sweet dessert wines.
With their combination of history, geography and ethnic culture in the glass, the wines of southwest France are too delicious to leave off your travel itinerary.