This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by J Vineyards and Winery in California’s Russian River Valley. The cool climate around J Winery is similar to their native France, helping the grapes thrive. J makes highly acclaimed Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and a variety of sparkling wines with very happy grapes. To experience wine from J Vineyards and Winery, visit TheBarrelRoom.com.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers dives into the French winemaking region of South West France. There are so many appellations here, but only a few, for now, make it to our market. Tune in for more.
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. I just found out that McDonald’s once tried to make bubblegum-flavored broccoli so kids would eat their vegetables. I would try that once.
What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair Podcasting Network, this is “Wine 101.” My name is Keith Beavers, and I am the tastings director of VinePair. Hi.
Okay, so we’re staying in France. We’re going to Bordeaux. Then we’re going south into this beautiful swath of land called the South West of France. It can be a little complicated. Let’s get into it.
Wine lovers, I feel like we really need to talk about South West France. This is a place that doesn’t often get the attention that I feel it deserves. It’s a region of France that makes a bunch of wine. Not all of it comes over here, but what does come over here from South West France is a lot. I know that’s a little bit confusing. You’ll understand in a second.
The wines from this part of France are so cool, and they’re really delicious, and they’re very unique in themselves, but because Bordeaux is so close to this area, it’s often been overshadowed by Bordeaux. Throughout history, this area of France and the wine didn’t really make it outside this area for a while because of the large taxes being put on them going through the port of Bordeaux.
Bordeaux was in a protectionist mode at some point and did not want commerce from anywhere else. Today, we have planes and trips, and none of that’s happening, but because of years of this, it’s not as recognized as it should be. The South West France wine region — it’s not an actual AOC. It’s not like the South West or Sud-Ouest AOC. It’s just a recognized region with about 30, more or less, AOCs in it. If you look at a map of this part of France, the southwestern quadrant of the country, you’ll see the estuary where Bordeaux is. Then if you look south of that, there’ll be a big old chunk of land. Then down below that, you’ll see Languedoc-Roussillon. That area between Bordeaux and Languedoc-Roussillon is South West France.
Usually, as the estuary breaks off into two rivers, the Dordogne and the Garonne, as we’ve talked about before, those rivers have other wine regions attached to them. Then south of those rivers, going down towards the Basque Country, there’s a place called Gascony and actual Basque country, this whole area is South West France. It can be broken up into different sections itself. You have the Dordogne department, the Garonne department. You have Gascony. There’s a group of wine-making regions there, or AOCs. Down in Basque Country, you have a few as well. There is a lot going on here and there is a ton of history.
This is where Dumas was doing all of his work with “The Three Musketeers.” This is also the land of foie gras, duck confit, and black truffles. I mean, what? It’s also home to this famous natural region called the Perigord, P-E-R-I-G-O-R-D, if I’m pronouncing it incorrectly. There are four areas of the Perigord. There’s Perigord green, Perigord black, Perigord white, and Perigord purple. The black area is known because of its black truffles. The white area is known for chalk cliffs, the green area for its forest, and the purple area for grapes. Those four quadrants, even though it’s in one part of South West France, pretty much define South West France. Beautiful views, amazing food, and great wine.
The thing is there’s so much wine being made here, red, white, sweet, bubbly, rosé, and in all these different AOCs, but because the northern part of this area was once an extension of Bordeaux or thought to be an extension of Bordeaux. This is before the appellation system was formed, and then, when the AOC system was formed in the 1930s, Bordeaux became separated from the rest of South West France, as did an AOC called Cognac. Not only that but of all, give or take, 30 AOCs in this one region, there is no overarching AOC and then they are the subregions of a larger AOC.
All of these wine regions pretty much market themselves as their AOC. It gets a little bit different in certain places, which we’ll talk about. It can be very confusing and complicated, but the good news for now, for us on the American market, is that of all those AOCs, only a few of them really come onto our market with the large distribution that you’ll find in wine shops. What you’ll find in wine shops, and I hope one day mostly on wine lists — these wines could be on wine lists for great prices, as these wines aren’t very expensive.
There are expensive wines, but in these AOCs that come on our market, for the most part, these are amazing wines very close to Bordeaux that are really affordable. We’re talking like $15, $20 a bottle, and either very similar to Bordeaux wines, or completely different because you have wine regions — and we’ll get into them — some of them individually, but Bergerac and Côte de Duras, that are so close to Bordeaux, they make wines from the Bordeaux varieties or most of the varieties. Then as we move south towards what is Languedoc-Roussillon, the variety mix or encépagement gets very unique and very different.
Just east of Entre-Deux-Mers where all white wine is made in Bordeaux — this would be an extension of Bordeaux back in the day, but this is where we get into a group of AOCs that because of their historical connection to Bordeaux and because of their proximity to Bordeaux, these days, they have a reputation. They have a name to themselves and more of it is made. Directly west of Bordeaux is the AOC Côte de Duras. It’s named after a town on the Garonne river but there’s also a grape from the area, it’s a red wine grape called Duras. Here for red wine, it’s basically all of the Bordeaux varieties. For white wine, it is all the Bordeaux varieties. There are additional blending varieties that will become more important in a later episode by the names of Ugni Blanc and Colombard. Those are white wine grapes.
You’re not going to see a lot of Côte de Duras on the American market, but it’s a really great wine. I’ve actually tried some of their red wines. This is where the gravel goes up and there’s a little elevated area of limestone in this wine region and the wines are nice and structured. They also do their noble rot wines here because we’re close to Entre-Deux-Mers, so there’s some great Botrytis wine but it’s not really here all the time on the market. I mentioned it to you because I would love to see more southwestern French wines on the market or on wine lists or in wine shops because they’re so affordable, and they’re so good. I hope that just having this in this podcast that maybe, at some point when these wines become more prominent on the market, and people are exploring more, this information will be here because just east of Côte de Duras is the largest wine region in the area called Bergerac.
I’m sure if you’ve been in French wine sections, you may have seen wines from Bergerac. This is a large appellation named after a town on the Dordogne River and is the most prominent AOC in this part of South West France. It has always lived in the shadow of Bordeaux, but what’s really great about Bergerac is if you like Right Bank Bordeaux, if you like Merlot-dominant Bordeaux, these wines are pretty much Merlot-dominant even. They use all of the varieties, most of the varieties from Bordeaux. It’s pretty much going to be Merlot and then Cab Franc, and then everything else.
These wines are soft and earthy and affordable, and they are everywhere. You’re going to find Bergerac on the American market. You can find them. It’s not hard. It’s not easy, but it’s not hard depending on where you are. These are wines that will go between $15, $20, $23, and $30. You can even go up to $50 or whatever, but these are what I consider good everyday Bordeaux-like wines, very close to where Bordeaux is. This region is so prominent that it actually has a second designation within the Bergerac AOC called Côtes de Bergerac, which is wines that are made to age. The majority of the wines being made from Bergerac that come onto our market are a little, like I said, everyday wines, but then there’s a Côtes de Bergerac. If you see that, you know that those wines are a little more structured. They have a lower yield when they’re being made and the alcohol is a little bit higher. These wines are built to age a little bit longer, so it’s fun to play around in Bergerac.
What’s cool is that the dominant white wine variety of Bergerac is Sémillon. Sémillon is such a wild, beautiful variety and on its own, blended with Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Green and Muscatel, it could be really cool. They do a lot of that, but there are 100 percent Sémillon that are just beautifully structured with minimal fruit, just beautiful. The thing is, there are other AOCs. There are about 13 AOCs, including Bergerac in this little area, but really just Côtes de Duras, Bergerac, and the next thing we’re going to talk about, Monbazillac, are available on the market. A lot of red wines that are made in other AOCs, just call themselves Bergerac and come on the American market because of the recognition of Bergerac.
Just south of Bergerac is an AOC called Monbazillac, and this, wine lovers, this is your affordable, noble rot wine. They do the same thing as Sauternes, and its surrounding communes, but the price here is so much more affordable. Monbazillac does noble rot from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon green, and Muscatel, just like it does in Sauternes, but the history of this area is a little more of a roller coaster ride. I’m not going to go into the whole thing, but it wasn’t until the early ’90s that this area changed things up. We’re still in the new phase of Monbazillac, so out there right now in the world are great bottles of Mombazillac that are just waiting for you to buy at an affordable price. I mean, we’re talking very affordable, a lot less than Sauternes. Talking like $20, $30. I mean, they’re 500-milliliter bottles, but $20, $30. You can have that with some friends and a cheese plate and not break the bank, beautiful wines.
Now as we go even further east, we enter the AOC of Cahors, C-A-H-O-R-S, on the river Lot, L-O-T, where they make a wine from a grape called Côt, C-O-T that you know as Malbec. This very old wine region was almost forgotten because of, number one, Bordeaux’s dominance, number two, Malbec’s dominance in the Argentine market. It was because of the Argentine market and how much we as Americans fell in love with Malbec that gave new resolve to the Cahors region to bring back the Côt or the Malbec that the world forgot about. You’re going to see a lot — not a lot — but you’re going to see Cahors on the market. Now they’re doing a very big marketing push on the American market. They have been for almost 10 years now, and you’re going to see Cahors and you’ll see the word Côt, and that’s a Malbec.
The thing about this place is it’s not your Argentine Malbec. Not big, purple, juicy full-bodied wines. These are more medium to full body, very earthy, and somewhat a little bit peppery, and often blended with Merlot. They’re great, earthy, beautiful wines with food. Again, you’re going to find them out there, but they’re not as prominent, but they should be. The thing is, out of all these 30 AOCs, the ones that I just mentioned, those are the only ones that you’re really going to see on the American market. There are other AOCs like Buzet, Fronton, Gaillac. Down in Gascony and in the Basque region, which is more south towards the Pyrenees, it was called the Midi-Pyrenees, is Madiran. You can see some Madiran, but not really. Jurançon, Béarn, and a couple of other ones I can’t pronounce.
The thing is, these wines, you will see wines from these areas around, but they are so spotty that I’m not going to really get into them here. What I will say is south of the immediate extension from Bordeaux, outside of all of the Bordeaux varieties being played with, down towards the Pyrenees, the white wine situation gets insane. There are so many white wine varieties native to that area just before the Pyrenees, it just boggles my mind. There’s so many of them with very unique names that I can’t pronounce all of them. Some of them are with names like Courbu, Baroque. There’s Duras, Mauzac, Négrette, and these are just some of the ones I can pronounce. There’s also Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, all these varieties are blending varieties and we get into Armagnac and Cognac.
I want to talk about that because Armagnac is part of South West France, but because we have a Cognac episode coming up, I’m going to mention it there. I do want to say, these all are high-acid blending varieties, or even in the reds, they’re high acid and peppery. Petit Manseng is a very unique varietal. It’s very expressive. There is a place in Virginia that is making it their white wine grape. The Petite Manseng coming out of Virginia is amazing. In France and South West France, these are all blended together in these very beautiful, easy-drinking, high-acid, refreshing white wines that are often made from co-ops and then come over here.
There are specific wines being made in all these different AOCs, but we just don’t see them here. If you’re in France, you will see them, but here, not so much. Just the ones that we’ve talked about, but more of the stuff needs to be making it onto our market because they’re so affordable. They’re so good. If you were at a restaurant, you had a wine list that had South West France, you would probably drink that every time you go until you’re done with it because it’s probably on a wine list, these wines would be $40, $50, maybe even $30 and an absolute bang for your buck. That’s why when you see them in retail, they’re $15, $20, $25. Maybe sometimes even $10 and just really good, everyday drinking wine.
That’s a little breakdown of South West France. Again, there are going to be more and more wines hopefully coming on the American market as we become more exploratory with French wines, especially in places like this. These are very food-friendly wines. They’re very you-friendly wines. They’re very crowd-pleasing, friendly wines, and they’re very price-friendly wines. I can’t wait to see more in the market. Okay, talk to you guys next week.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
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