GAILLAC, AN AREA OF HISTORIC GRAPES AND UNUSUAL WINES
The wine area of Gaillac in South-West France surrounds the cathedral city of Albi, east of Toulouse and north of Carcassone. Cut through by the Tarn River valley, it is a landscape of rolling hills and plateaux. As befits an area which saw extensive warfare during the Albigensian Crusade and the Hundred Years’ War from the 13th through most of the 15th century, there are also a number of bastides, or fortified hill towns; one of the most beautiful of these is Cordes-sur-Ciel, towering into the sky. A destination for those dedicated to an alternative culture during the 1960s, Cordes boasts a number of artisan craftsmen, as well as a very good wine merchant. Gaillac is an area of historic interest and of great beauty. More importantly here, it is an extraordinarily interesting area for those who like good wine, and especially for those who are keen to discover new wines.
For centuries Gaillac, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, winegrowing area in France, was buffeted by history and then by the merchants of Bordeaux. As part of the first Roman province in Gaul, it was certainly making wine in the first century AD. The fall of the Roman empire and the barbarian conquests, which destroyed most of the vineyards, meant that winemaking declined to almost nothing. But it was saved by the Church. In 972, the Abbey of St-Michel-de-Gaillac began leasing out land, with the proviso that the tenant use part of it to grow grapes. In due course, the wines became highly prized both locally and in northern Europe, with England and Scotland important markets. Those who know the Scottish ballad about Sir Patrick Spens will know that it begins with ‘The king sits in Dunfermline town, drinking the blude-red wine’: the wine was almost certainly from South-West France and quite possibly from Gaillac, sent down the Tarn and Garonne rivers and shipped from Bordeaux.
And then came three centuries of intermittent warfare, which cut off the export markets, not to mention the occasional harvest, as soldiers from several different sides galloped over the vineyards and slaughtered the peasants. By the 16th century, however, production had recovered, and Gaillac wines also recovered their place in the English market. Henry VIII was responsible for this. In 1520, the 29-year-old English king met the king of France, François I, near Calais on the Field of the Cloth of Gold (Le Camp du Drap d’Or), when François gave him as a gift fifty barrels of Gaillac wine. Henry loved it, and thereafter drank it frequently, and his example was followed by others. But the Bordelais became increasingly jealous, imposed stiff tariffs and onerous conditions on the shipping of the wines from the port of Bordeaux, and destroyed its export markets. For the following centuries, it was primarily a wine of France only.
The reason it had been so desirable was that the Gaillaçois had cared for its quality. With the backing of the local lords, an early form of quality control was imposed: no wine from elsewhere could be imported into Gaillac so that it would not be adulterated, and into the 19th century the only fertilizer allowed was pigeon droppings – today there are still dozens of pigeonnières dotted around the countryside, with a guide to the best of them. But then came the phylloxera louse, and with the destruction of the vineyards, farmers grew other crops. Even today, only about 10% of growers devote more than three-quarters of their land to vines.
Gaillac, as Gaul was once itself, is divided into three parts by two rivers, the larger the Tarn and the smaller the Vère. La Rive Gauche, on the left side of the Tarn, is primarily gravel, La Rive Droite is clay and limestone, and the Plateau Cordais, north of the Vère, with the bastide town of Cordes as its centre, is limestone and polished stones called galets, comparable to those in riverbeds or in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In the middle of La Rive Droite is the Premières Côtes, made up of limestone slopes, where much of the best white wine is made. The climate is as one would expect, but notable is the strong, hot and dry wind from the south-east, called the vent d’Autan, which keeps the bunches of grapes dry and thus largely free from rot during the ripening season.
But it is the range of grapes known nowhere else, and the amazing diversity of wine styles, which make Gaillac such an interesting and enjoyable visit for the les amateurs du vin, such as the readers of this report. Sometimes so-called local grapes are interesting but not memorable: these are both memorable and delicious. The white grapes of distinction are the Mauzac, the Len de L’el (Loin de l’Oeil in French – both are found on bottles of wine), and the Ondenc. The Mauzac makes up about 60 per cent of white plantings, and is a grape of great diversity itself. When young, it has good acidity for dry and sparkling wines; as it ripens, the acidity declines sharply, enabling winemakers to make sweet wines of amazing richness. Its dominating aroma and flavour reminds one of apples. The Len de L’el is grown nowhere else in France, and is one of the oldest varieties in Gaillac itself. Because it ripens early, it too can be picked early for dry wines and late for some of the sweetest wines of the area. It is quite extraordinarily delicious. The third and rarest grape of the three, the Ondenc, has only two growers with less than 25 acres of the grape (although a third has planted 80 acres but has not yet produced wine for market). It also ripens early and is prone to frost, but it makes wonderful dry wines, round and minerally, and some of the most luscious of Gaillac’s sweet wines, fruity and not too heavy. In addition to these grapes, the Muscadelle and the Sauvignon Blanc are also grown.
The three most interesting red grapes are the Duras, the Braucol, and the Prunelard or Prunelart. The Duras is found nowhere but in Gaillac, bar two little pockets further up the Tarn. With medium to deep colour, depending on the producer, it produces wines of elegance, with spicy notes and a bouquet which increases with age. The Braucol, also known as Fer, is grown nowhere outside of South-West France. This is surprising, given that it likes poor soils and is normally disease-free, and tastes of soft red fruits, such as raspberries, often with spicy overtones. It is very aromatic. The Prunelard/t, nearly destroyed by phylloxera, is closely related to Malbec, and is grown by only a handful of growers, some of whom make a varietal. AOC regulations for Gaillac do not permit it, so it can only be sold as a vin de table or vin de pays. In addition to these grapes, Syrah and the Bordeaux varieties are also grown, primarily by the large producers.
The Gaillac region is very well organised for wine tourism. There is a map of the producers, and during the spring and summer, it is rare not to be welcomed to try the wines (harvest time is usually another matter, and a telephone call or e-mail would not come amiss). By far the most interesting are the independent artisan producers, amongst whom several stand out. Notable by virtue of their devotion to the local grape varieties, their methods of both growing the grapes and making the wines, and their wonderful results are Robert and Bernard Plageoles, (on whom I’ve written a separate piece). The wines of Michael Issaly of Domaine de la Ramaye are also extraordinary. Their production could hardly be more organic: it is entirely done by hand and foot, with foot-pressing still playing its part. Two wines made by M. Issaly must be mentioned. One is Le Grand Tertre, made from 50% Braucol and 50% Prunelard, and sold as a vin de pays. The other is called Vin de l’Oubli, made from the Mauzac grape. After this wine has been clarified, it is put into barrels which are more than fifteen years old and left there for seven years without topping up, in a cellar temperature which is the same as the temperature outside. In the second year flor covering the wine will begin to form and it will begin oxidizing, with the result a wine which is increasingly madeira-like. Over the seven years a third of the wine is lost through evaporation, with the resulting concentration. According to Paul Strang, a notable expert on the wines of South-West France, M. Issaly so loves this wine, which he believes will last for fifty years, that he labels the bottles by hand, affixing stamps from a bowl of bubbling yellow wax.
Two others producers should be mentioned. One is Domaines de Causse Marines, under the guidance of Patrice Lescarret, who takes great pride in being a contrarian. By accounts disliked by many of the winemakers in Gaillac, they nevertheless must admire the quality of his wines. Nevertheless, the AOC judges thought his wines not ‘typical’ of Gaillac wines and thus refused to let him put Mauzac or Duras on his bottles; his response was to label them Zacmau and Rasdu and sell them as vins de table. His true glory, however, are his sweet wines. (Indeed, more than one writer has stated that sweet wines are the glory of Gaillac, luscious without being syrupy or heavy, as Barsacs or Sauternes can be.) Finally, there is Domaine Rotier, which combines a devotion to the traditional grape varieties with a willingness to try new methods of winemaking. The family was one of the first to rediscover the quality of the L’en de L’el grape and has been significant in turning it from a nearly-forgotten variety to its recognition as one of the great wine grapes of Gaillac. They have also been a force behind the revival of Duras. Especially striking was their Renaissance Doux 2008, made from the L’en de l’Oeil with botrytis, or noble rot: intensely sweet without being syrupy, the aroma and flavour of the grape emerges. The wine is utterly delicious.
Beyond these four, there are several dozen winemakers whose products are very much worth trying. They are not as widely available as they might be outside of France, but Great Britain has several sources for these wines: The Smiling Grape, Christopher Keiller Fine Wine, Noble Fine Liquor, and Les Caves de Pyrène. They are stocked widely in the US, but the choice of merchant there often depends upon the state of residence. They can also be found in Germany and Belgium.