The Wines of Madiran and Irouléguy

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Tannat hands

Madiran is exceptionally high in procyanidins, and has been most closely linked with the ‘French Paradox’, the observation that the French suffer a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease despite enjoying a rich and fatty diet—and nowhere fatter or richer than in Madiran.

The appellation of Madiran, which is coextensive with the appellations of Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec, lies to the south-west of Cahors, on the left bank of the River Adour. Madiran applies to red wines, Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh to white wines of varying sweetness, and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec to dry white wines.

‘Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh’ comes from the Béarnais for ‘vines supported on stakes from the old country’. The principal grape varieties for Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh are Petit Manseng, more noble than Gros Manseng, and Petit Courbu. Today, white grape varieties account for a mere 300ha within the delimited area, and the region’s reputation rests on its red Madiran. This is composed of Tannat and smaller proportions of Cabernet Franc (Bouchy), Cabernet Sauvignon, and Fer Servadou (Pinenc), although some of the finer examples are 100% Tannat.

Summers are hotter than in Bordeaux. Owing to a Foehn effect, autumns are warm and dry with high diurnal temperature variation, which permits and even encourages late harvests. The terroir is complex. There are, in essence, four parallel north-south ridges with altitudes varying from 180 to 300 metres: the soils consist of rounded pebbles on the hilltops, mineral-rich calcareous clay on the most favoured steeps, and sand and clay on the lower slopes.

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The four ridges and the view from Château Aydie in mid-October

Madiran is sensuous yet structured, dark, full-bodied, alcoholic, and so tannic that Cabernet Sauvignon is looked upon as a softener. Techniques used to make the wine less astringent and more approachable in its youth include hand picking only the ripest bunches, destemming, gentle pressing, barrel ageing, and micro-oxygenation, first developed in Madiran by Patrick DuCournau. These days, the best of Madiran is easily confused with the best of Bordeaux, and even the colour can overlap. Leading producers include Château Aydie, Domaine Berthoumieu, and Alain Brumont’s Château Montus. When the Montus cuvée La Tyre beat Pétrus in a blind tasting, a journalist quipped, Avec Montus, Madiran a son Pétrus (‘With Montus, Madiran has its Pétrus’).

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Barrel sampling with Alain Brunt at Château Montus

The picturesque Irouléguy at the foot of the Pyrenées in the French Basque Country makes similar Tannat-dominated wines, along with some rosé and white wines. The appellation is tiny, with no more than 210ha under vine and a dozen independent producers. The climate is relatively cool and wet, albeit with long, dry, and warm autumns; and red Irouléguy is fresher and more floral than its Madiranais counterpart. My favourite Irouléguy producer is Arretxea.

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The village of Irouléguy in mid-October

In the 19th century, Basque settlers carried the Tannat plant to Uruguay, and Tannat is now that country’s signature variety. Styles of Uruguayan Tannat range from light and fruity rosés to dark, brooding reds. The full-bodied style is deep purple with a heady aroma of plum and dark fruit, tobacco, leather, and petrichor. On the palate, the wine is often quite alcoholic but with refreshing acidity. As with Madiran, tannins are very high and can be tough or chewy.

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