Grapes of Gascony

A vintners' cooperative in southwestern France is creating impressive new wines from rare old varieties

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.

Dubosc won a new wine appellation, Côtes de Saint-Mont, from the slow-moving wine-standards board. He built new caves and bottling plants. He traveled the globe to make a name and a market for Plaimont wines, emphasizing not just high quality for moderate prices but also the worth of old varieties given new vigor. His efforts produced dramatic results: when Dubosc was elected managing director of the cooperative, in 1979, it had two employees; today it has 130.

Plaimont wines neatly check the effects of Gascon cuisine, which prides itself on excess. After showing me around the cooperative and several vineyards, Jean-Pierre Grangé, Plaimont's executive manager, demonstrated this at Auberge de la Bidouze, a nearby restaurant where seemingly everyone within a thirty-mile radius who isn't eating at home gathers daily for lunch (see Palate at Large). With barely cooked slices of duck breast Grangé ordered one of Plaimont's vins de pays: the golden and wonderfully named Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, a full, sweet wine usually sipped as an apéritif or with dessert, and in the Gers frequently paired with foie gras.

This was the wine that won me over to Plaimont, and the first I looked for when I got home. It includes four local grape varieties, each with a name nearly as distinctive as the wine's: Petit Courbu, for body and structure; Petit and Gros Manseng, for sweetness; and Arrufiac, for a cleansing acidity at the end. Sauternes and other big, sweet wines, the ones most people would order with foie gras, can stand up to its richness. But those big wines coat the tongue and palate with their syrupy power. Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh instead defats the mouth, preparing it for the next foray. It's like a trou gascon—the neat shot of Armagnac tossed back midmeal to ready you for cassoulet.

Now when I see foie gras on a menu, this is the only wine I can think of pairing with it. (Plus I like pronouncing the name.) Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, at about $15 a bottle, is significantly less expensive than Sauternes, about $40 a bottle. Plaimont makes three versions: the principal one, with grapes harvested at the end of October; Saint-Albert, from a mid-November harvest; and Saint-Sylvestre, from grapes harvested around December 31. The all-purpose, earliest version is best with food. The later-harvest versions are sweet and potent enough in flavor to warrant inclusion in the vin de meditation category, meaning best tried on their own; they also make impressive and relatively inexpensive gifts.

Grangé then showed me a more modern pairing: a purply-pink slice of ham, of the kind Dubosc's brother cures, with a red wine Plaimont recently began marketing as a vin de soif. This "wine to slake thirst" was inspired by the low-alcohol wine in bottles that vineyard workers once kept cool in streams for their afternoon breaks. The red version is made from two familiar varieties, Syrah and a southwestern oddball, Duras. The bright, berrylike flavor makes it a good foil for pasta and pizza and even salads. At a time when many wines are increasing in alcohol to show their muscle and justify their prices, this is a refreshing wine that can safely be drunk at lunch. It has a lunchtime price, too: about $6.00 a bottle.

Jancis Robinson, one of the world's most respected writers on wine, who has long admired Dubosc, told me that this sort of innovation is surprisingly rare. The French stick to what they know, believing that the rest of the world will follow them—as, once, it invariably did. In the past ten years, though, France's major followers in the wine world—Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, and Spain—have begun taking their own paths. Often that means searching out rare grapes in danger of disappearing. At least they are keeping alive grapes and wines—even if continents removed from their places of origin—that don't deserve to fade away. Dubosc knows that Gascony's comparative isolation has been both an obstacle and a blessing. He is one of the few French winemakers building a region's future by reviving its past.