I've had an interest for some time in making a little excursion to the Gaillac region of SW France. So on my last trip to France, I made a point of flying down to the Languedoc via Toulouse this time. Although the city is not immediately surrounded by vineyards, it's only about a 30 minute drive in any direction to reach various wine growing regions. Closest to Toulouse on the east side, is Gaillac, a lovely appellation in the rolling Massif Central foothills of the Tarn Valley. Due to the slightly higher elevation, and the greater Atlantic maritime influence than Languedoc, vineyard locations are necessarily more sporadic and less contiguous than further south. On the the other hand, being a sort of "crossroads" in terms of growing regions, the climate is suitable for a fairly wide range of varieties. With a few exceptions, this range includes many esoteric varieties, unknown to the average wine drinker - making a trip here all the more fascinating.
Gaillac in red, NE of Toulouse
The Gaillac winegrowing region is considered to be one of the earliest in ancient Gaul (after Languedoc), likely first planted in the 1st century under Roman rule. Currently, the vineyards cover around 4,200 hectares (10,000 acres), and the total production of the AOC region is between 110-150,000 hectoliters of red wine, 45-60,000 hl of white wine, and 20,000 hl of rosé. The appellation has three distinct terroirs: on the right bank of the Tarn the soils are calcerous-clay, with a mix of granite & calcerous soils to the north (this is where the more subtle and fruity styled wines are produced). The soils on the Tarn's left bank are more typically alluvial, with sand & gravel deposits, and (where the more robust and heavier-weight reds are made). The Gaillac AOC requires that the wines be a blend of approved grape varieties, i.e. 100% varietal cuvees would have to forego the appellation on the label. What makes the region unique though, are the numerous indigenous traditional grape varieties (some of which are only found here), such as the "signature" red variety, Braucol, which also goes by the name fer servadou in the nearby Coteaux de Quercy and Marcillac regions. This grape makes lovely, slightly delicate & spicy reds, reminiscent of Loire Cab Franc. Another unique staple red variety is the robust & peppery Duras - no connection to the region "Côte de Duras" near Bordeaux. Then there's Prunelart, one of the rarest varities in France with only 20 hectars planted, and possibly related to Malbec. Principal white varieties are Mauzac, used in the Limoux AOC for sparkling wine, the crisp, perfumy and rare Ondenc grape (used primarily in sweet wines), and the ancient Len de l'el, which adds floral and citrus notes to white blends. Lastly, there is the very rare Verdanel, which is capable of producing a quite high alcohol, yet firm white. Each of these are used in both dry and dessert style whites. As for the more well-known varieties, Syrah, Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc are the most commonly used in the region.
With limited time for my visit, I made sure to seek a recommendation for a respected producer of typical & authentic regional wines. Interestingly, there seemed to be agreement from multiple sources on the place to go (for someone who only had time for a single winery), which made my decision easier. The choice, Domaine Plageoles, in the town of Cahuzac-sur-Vere , met and exceeded my expectations - even if the convoluted route I chose made me a half hour late (would have helped to know that the estate was 'outside of' and not 'in' the village). I was greeted by the affable winemaker/owner, Bernard Plageoles. With limited time, I waived the "facility/vineyard tour" so as to focus on the wide range of wines (incidentally all organic) being offered in the tasting room.
Gentle verdant hills of Gaillac, just shy of Domaine Plageoles
As I'd anticipated, virtually every wine I sampled here was highly distinctive. Perhaps the only exception was their Mauzac, which with its fresh, crisp appley character, was a bit like drinking a still version of Blanquette de Limoux. Next was the sturdy and bone-dry Verdanel, which, with its weight and intensity, would make it nice accompaniment to rich pork or poultry dishes. This was followed by Bernard's dry version of Ondenc, which was quite aromatic - and, just as he suggests in his technical notes, has a distinct quince character in both aroma and on the palate.
On to the reds: I found the Braucol to be rather light and refreshing, with hints of black pepper, cassis and dried tea leaf (à la Cab Franc), as well as a versatile food wine. The Syrah was most definitely not as weighty or viscous as it's Rhone counterparts, but still had good typical varietal flavors and a fine balance. The Duras was nicely rounded (softer tannins) with noticeable brambly (blackberry) notes and hints of pepper. I have to admit though that my final sample, Prunelart, left me with the most lasting impression of all these well-made wines. Deep plummy flavors, accented with spice and even anise, were packed into a quite concentrated and voluptious wine with a long rich finish.
Unfortunately, cutting my visit short, cost me the opportunity to taste some of Plageoles' special reserve and dessert bottlings. Thankfully though, I intend to return soon, and Bernard assured me that we'll take up where we left off!
The man himself, Bernard Plageoles, behind a bevy of lovely wines
If you're able to visit (advisable to call ahead):
Route des Très Cantous
81140 CAHUZAC SUR VERE
Tél : 05.63.33.90.40 - Fax 05.63.33.95.64
P.S. Plageoles' wines are available in the U.S. through:
Jenny and Francois Selections (contact to inquire about availability in your location)
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