David 1 October 2015
Lately my mind’s been drifting to the Sud-Ouest, as it’s known - a collection of French wine regions that lie south of Bordeaux and west of Languedoc. Covering a wide area, this array of vineyards includes familiar names such as Dordogne, Armagn ac, Gascony, and Basque, as well appellations Cahors, Bergerac and Madiran. But the area I’m interested in is Gaillac,a region significant in France’s viticultural history and reputation.
The beautiful town of Gaillac lies about 50km northeast of Toulouse and wine has been made in the surrounding appellation far longer than most other regions of France, including high profile neighbour Bordeaux. There is evidence of wine being made here as far back as the 2nd century BC when Gaillac was part of Gaul. The ensuing centuries however, saw many ups and downs - while the post Roman Barbarian invasion in the 1st century AD put a halt to winemaking, the monks of Abbey St-Michel got things going again in the 10th century. Ironically, wars with Britain during the middle ages led to a preference for the wines of Gaillac in the English court, right up until the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453.
The reason wine has been made in Gaillac for such a long time is its wonderful climate. Most of the Southwest is fairly cool, being influenced by the Atlantic, but Gaillac gets the benefit of a little extra warmth from the Mediterranean. While Gaillac has this influence more than any other area in the Southwest, it’s still not as warm as nearby Languedoc-Roussillon. The result is wines that have a bit of sunshine, but still have structure.
Gaillac’s location on the River Tarn also served it well. The river is a tributary of the Garonne River, leading to the port of Bordeaux, through which the wines of Gaillac could be easily exported. The Bordelaise were well aware of Gaillac’s quality, having used the powerful, deeply coloured and robust wines as blenders to beef up their own in the early 19th century. This was a golden age for Gaillac… but it was not to last for long.
The canny Bordelaise sought to both cash in on, and limit the rising reputation of Gaillac. They imposed tariffs and strict conditions on Gaillac wines passing through their port. While this definitely took the wind out of Gaillac’s sails, the final nail in the coffin was phylloxera, the louse that devastated the vineyards of Europe. It hit Gaillac in 1879 and destroyed almost 80% of its vines.
Not until the last 20 years or so has the region’s reputation and area under vine begun to grow again. But there are differences - pre-phylloxera Gaillac was essentially a red-only producer, with white accounting for less than one quarter of a percent. Nowdays the region has diversified, with white wine at 34%, rosé at 12.5% and red wine at 53.5%. It’s interesting to note that pre-phylloxera Gaillac had 5 times the production it does today.
Gaillac now boasts a diversity of varieties. The main white variety is Mauzac (37%), followed by Len de L’El (30%) and Sauvignon Blanc (21%). In red, the main variety is Braucol (23%), followed by Duras (20%) and Syrah (19%). A great diversity of wine styles are also made. You’ll find sparkling, sweet white, dry white, rosé and of course dry red, which is what I’m interested in today.
Robert & Bernard Plageoles
The one estate synonymous with Gaillac is
Domaine Plageoles (plah-johl).
The most famous and widely admired growers in Gaillac, Robert and Bernard Plageoles, are renowned for their almost single-handed identification, resurrection and ongoing support for many of the region’s near-extinct indigenous grape varieties. Robert researched and replanted over a dozen varietals indigenous to Gaillac that had all but vanished and in doing so is responsible for bringing these rare flavours into the 21st century.
Robert’s son Bernard took over the estate around 10 years ago and now runs it with his wife Myriam and sons Florent and Roman. Like his father, Robert is passionate about Gaillac, its native grape varieties, organic viticulture, and low-tech wine-making. Under his guidance the estate has gone from strength to strength, reminding many why this region was once so famous.
The Plageoles choose to bottle each wine as a single variety, allowing them to capture each one’s distinct character. In doing so though, the wines don’t qualify for the Gaillac AOC, which oddly must be blended. This explains why many of their wines are labelled as Vin de Pays des Côtes Du Tarn.
Because this estate is so fabled in France, much of its wine never leaves the country and most reviews are from French critics. The absence of any English in the estate’s marketing gives you an idea of how little of it is seen outside of France. Then again, that’s often the French way... let’s not get started.
“The Plageoles put Gaillac - and it’s local grapes - on the map.”Jacqueline Friedrich, The Wine Of France.
“The most famous and widely admired grower in Gaillac.” Paul Strang in his terrific bookSouth West France.
Producteur de très grande vinsLes Meilleurs Vins De France 2015. (One of only 6 south west Domaines at this level).
“We do not know of another winemaker capable of consistently extracting so much eloquence from the most noble of fruit and packing so much minerality from the limestone terroir into the one wine!” Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve, The World’s Greatest Wines.
“Outside of fashion and off the beaten track, the Plageoles continue to produce wines of the highest standards - wines with strong personalities and clear expression of place, yet precise and well made. Working intelligently with their heads, hearts and hands - the result is a range of wines that are irreproachable, pure and focussed.”La Revue du Vin de France.
“Far from being vagabond curios or trendy obscurum, these wines are the product of low yielding, organic vineyards and low-tech, natural-yeast winemaking, from one of history’s forgotten great regions. And they are crafted by one of the most down to earth and passionate wine families. These are wines full of local pride and character. Delicious and totally unique.” Bibendum Wine Co.
While the domaine makes several wines, only a limited number of them make it to Australia. Here are two that will give you an insight into this special estate . I hope you enjoy them.
1. Domaine Plageoles Syrah 2014
Syrah is not a native variety to Gaillac and was only introduced to the appellation in the 1960s, but it’s proven to be well suited. Nowdays it’s one of the main varieties grown in the area.
The fruit for this wine comes from a very low yielding, clay-limestone vineyard, which was planted in the ’60s and ’70s. Plageoles are one of the few estates in Gaillac that still harvest by hand and like all of their reds, the winemaking is pretty simple. The fruit is totally destemmed before being fermented in tank using natural yeasts. The wine doesn’t see any oak and is bottled without fining or filtration.
Syrah (Shiraz) is a staple in Australia, but forget everything you know about it. This is something totally different… and I like it!
The lighter colour is the first indication that this is no ordinary syrah. It’s a clear rosey red with a purpley edge. The lifted aromatics hit you: bright, juicy red fruit, and roses meld with savoury, prosciutto and almost blood-like characters. Wow! On the palate it’s mid-weight, bright and refreshingly astringent with fine dry tannins. Cranberry, pepper, musk and spice mix with charcuterie notes and a ferrous minerality. Let go of what you know about Syrah - you’ll love it.
“If medium bodied, fresh, perfumed, cherry and violet noted Syrah rocks your boat, you will absolutely love this. It’s just so damn pretty and smashable, and yet there is an undercurrent of subtle, bloody, ferrous minerality that is just classic Gaillac. …it remains Gaillac first and foremost. Equally important, it remains damn delicious!” Bibendum Wine Co.
I can offer it for $34 a bottle. SOLD OUT.
2. Domaine Plageoles Duras 2013
Duras is a red variety that’s pretty much only found in Gaillac, and the force behind its former glory. The Oxford Companion to Wine notes; “Its combination of colour, fruit and body suggests that it may well have been largely responsible for Gaillac red wines’ past reputation.” The variety almost disappeared during the 1960s but thanks largely to Bernard Plageoles’ passionate and effective lobbying, it’s now one of the most commonly planted of all Gaillac’s traditional red varieties.
This wine comes from a parcel of 40-year-old, low yielding vines grown on limestone and clay in the heart of Gaillac. The fruit is hand harvested and, like the Syrah, is made simply. The fruit was fully destemmed and fermentation occurred spontaneously with wild yeasts. The wine sees no oak and is bottled without fining or filtration.
Duras traditionally produces wines that are deeply coloured and well structured, with flavours of crushed blackberries and pepper. They also tend to be high in alcohol - but this one is a very approachable 12.5%, which I like.It’s a much darker colour than the syrah - crimson with a russet edge and its aromas and flavours are darker too.
This is what Gaillac through the eyes of Plageoles is all about - an alluring combination of savoury and fruity characters, unlike anything you’ve had before. Pepper, spice and brambliness, along with burnt sugar and a winegum fruitiness - almost chinoto like. Lovely astringency is balanced by firm tannins and a generous, mouth-coating texture, particularly as it opens up.
“Duras is a much darker, meatier wine and the savoury-sweet 2013 offers punchy bramble, inky, dark cherry and forest berry fruits as well as a delicious touch of something ‘animal’. This wild edge is absolutely typical of the variety, as are the firmer tannins (particularly fine this year). Cassoulet calling.” Bibendum Wine Co.
Try this true taste of Gaillac.
I can offer it for $44 a bottle. Click here to order.