One summer evening, as I strolled down the main street of Auch, an unpronounceable city in the heart of Gascony, home of D'Artagnan, the fourth musketeer, I passed one of the outdoor cafés near my hotel. Several men had joined the proprietor at a long wooden table, some wearing the scoop-necked T-shirts of Renoir's boatmen, some even in berets. They noticed me watching one man unwrap a chunk of ham from an awkward paper parcel and put it in the middle of the table alongside his pocket knife. Come join the party, another man motioned. He handed me a glass of wine and a slice of dark-colored ham with plenty of fat. Where had I come from, and why? How long would I stay? What did I think so far? I wasn't used to hearing these welcoming questions in French.
The pale red wine, from an unlabeled bottle, had a powerful depth and a cutting acidity that seemed made to go with rich meat. This region of Gascony, known as the Gers, is the heartland of foie gras, which needs wines with such strong simplicity. The day before, in Bordeaux, at Vinexpo, France's largest wine show, I had met André Dubosc, an animated, kindly man in his late fifties, who filled me with stories of the warmth and generosity of the Gers. He plied me with tastes of the wines made by Producteurs Plaimont, the cooperative he heads, and with the hearty ham his brother cures, the slices gratifyingly rimmed with translucent fat. "You have to go there to see," he told me. "We can export our wine, but we can't export our life. We're lucky we still have it—probably because we're a bit far from everything." He insisted that I visit Saint-Mont, the village near Auch where Plaimont is based. I was eager to learn more about his wines.
For centuries Gers farmers did very nicely making wines to be distilled into Armagnac—one of the world's finest and most expensive brandies. When the men of Saint-Mont returned home after World War II, they found the land badly neglected and their caves for aging wine in a shambles. Like many other small French winemakers who found the expenses of postwar repair too high to bear alone, they banded together in a cooperative. They cleaned and nourished their vineyards, built caves, and erected a new central winery on the main road. The cooperative bought the farmers' grapes and made them into wines for Armagnac.
When Dubosc prepared to assume his responsibilities as managing director of Plaimont, twenty-three years ago, he worried that the cooperative would suffer from several of the steps regional winemakers throughout France had taken in the name of progress. Chief among these was replacing little-known grapes that were well adapted to the local climate with hybrids from industrial suppliers, who promised bumper crops with minimal effort. (In the past decade France, repository of wine greatness, has lost large swaths of its best vineyards to Merlot and other modish grapes once considered fit only for blending—grapes destined to go back out of fashion.) The efficient hybrids made wines good enough to distill into Armagnac, but not good enough to justify the wholesale prices Saint-Mont's vintners had to charge—far higher than those the big distillers could easily find beyond the borders of France.
Agricultural consultants warned Plaimont's members that they must think seriously about going back to their region's traditional grapes, using traditional methods, spacing the vines widely, and accepting lower yields for higher quality, and also about selling their wines direct to consumers rather than in bulk to distillers. Otherwise they risked losing everything—soil quality, which deteriorated after years of intensive cultivation; the few old vines that survived; their livelihoods. The French wine-standards board had in the early 1970s created vins de pays, a new category to encourage winemakers to rediscover and improve the making of minor wines popular in their home territories but viewed by the larger wine world as unremarkable. Even the name, "wines of the country," with its implication of a specific rural place, gave new respect to what had been thought inconsequential; and it sounded better than vin ordinaire or vin de table.
Gascony's vibrant charm has a distinctly Catalan touch: from the top of the hill in Saint-Mont, where there is a beautiful medieval monastery church with marvelous Romanesque capitals, you can see the Pyrenees. A Catalan sociability and proud independence leaven the usual French standoffishness and conservatism. Dubosc was well aware that southwestern France is particularly rich in eccentric grapes, and he hoped somehow to bottle that charm. He began a campaign to persuade the members of his cooperative to replant their vineyards and develop new vins de pays assembled from local grapes that hadn't been grown commercially for decades. He also asked them to reduce vine yield by half in order to encourage better flavor, even though that could mean sacrificing profits in the short term.