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Sébastian Le Quérec, export manager of Château Bouscassé and Montus, takes me on a tour of the vineyards. At hellish speed, we sweep from one vineyard to the next in his rickety Renault Clio along the narrow roads of Madiran. If you don't know your way around, you are hopelessly lost in the maze of dirt tracks and small roads. It is mid-September and just before the harvest begins. The ripe Tannat grapes hang on the vine like fat, blue-black udders. The vineyard "les menhirs" is particularly worth seeing. The limestone-rich loam of the hilltop is interspersed with limestone chunks that reach the size of menhirs. The thickest, most disturbing chunks have been excavated. They now frame the vineyard like Stone Age menhirs. "This is where Madiran's future grows," Alan Brumont told me during the interview. The vineyard "les menhirs" produces the eponymous cuvée of 50% Tannat and 50% Merlot. The Mariage (blend) of Tannat and Merlot has something going for it, because both grape varieties complement each other ideally. The Tannat delivers overbearing fruit and strong tannins, the Merlot velvety structure and soft, round body: the bronze fist in the velvet glove. However, the wine has to be bottled as Côtes de Gascogne because Merlot is not permitted in Madiran or in the other main Tannat AOCs. Only in the growing regions that use Tannat only in small quantities anyway, e.g. in Cahors, is Merlot also permitted in the blend.

The site "les menhires"% Château Bouscassé% AOC Madiran

Meanwhile, it is not only Alan Brumont or Patrick Ducournau who are bringing the Tannat forward with innovative ideas. I'm in Aydie, a small village near Madiran, and Jean-Luc Laplace of Château d'Aydie brings a small 0.5-litre bottle over to finish tasting his excellent wines. The wine he pours flows into the glass almost like syrup. Juicy, sweet fruit rises to the nose: definitely a sweet wine. On the palate, a firework of fruit, sweetness and tannins explodes. The world has never seen a wine like this! The wine is called "Maydie" and is an intelligent play on words with Jean-Luc's hometown Aydie: "Maydie is pronounced like 'my idea'.

To understand how great this wine is, you have to dig a little deeper. The Tannat grapes are harvested overripe with 250 - 300 g of sugar. In order for the sweetness not to seem clumsy, it needs a counterweight. The really great sweet wines, like the French Sauternes or Vouvrays, the Portuguese Ports and Spanish Sherrys always have a strong, mineral body and especially the great German Riesling Trockenbeerenauslesen have a perfect balance due to the distinctively concise, fresh acidity. The "Maydie" has an excellent body and a thoroughly pleasant acidity. The counterweight to the sweetness of the "Maydie", however, is its tannin structure. The tannins are powerful on the palate, reverberate for ages on the finish and merge into a perfect sweetness-tannin balance. I am thrilled, let the "Maydie" roll down the palate with pleasure and revel in the minutes-long finish! Normally, spitting is the order of the day, otherwise you can't get through a day full of tastings half sober.

The wine was made by stopping fermentation before the yeasts had fully fermented the sugars into alcohol. The stopping of fermentation is done with pure alcohol. In this respect, the "Maydie" is therefore equivalent to a typical French, fortified Vin Doux Naturel, as produced in Banyuls or Rasteau. Vin Doux Naturels and red sweet wines, however, are not provided for in the AOC Madiran. So the wine has to be declared as "Vin de liqueur".

The Laplace family% Château d'Aydie% Aydie% AOC Madiran

Château Laplace is no longer the only one to produce a fortified sweet wine from tannat. Didier Barré from Domaine Berthoumieu has recently been producing his "Tanatis", which he calls Tannat Vintage in reference to Vintage Port. With the "Tanatis" it becomes even clearer than with the "Maydie" that it is the tannins that balance the sweetness and bring it to harmony. In this case, the particularly tannic pressed wine is also added to the cuvée before it is fortified. Alan Brumont would not be Alan Brumont if he did not also experiment with tannat sweet wine. Unlike Laplace and Berthoumieu, he has not yet brought a Tannat "Vin de liqueur" onto the market. He is testing quite systematically. The 2003 vintage lies for maturation on the one hand in used, old wooden barrels and on the other hand in small new oak barrels. Both are excellent. However, the new wood makes the wine even more complex and adds to the roundness. The wine does not yet have a name, but it is already clear that the future standard is being created here: a deep, multi-layered, red sweet wine that is unparalleled in France, perhaps even in the world.

I have an appointment with André Beheity at the "Maison Des Vins Madiran". He is the chairman of the Madiran winegrowers' association. He has 15 hectares under vine on his own Domaine Damiens and knows the conditions in Madiran very well. I ask him whether the terroir plays a role at all in Tannat, a grape variety with such a strong character, whether you can taste the site character in Tannat. "No," he says, and considers it unlikely that you can taste different terroirs in the wines. But you can clearly taste whether the wine comes from a good or bad terroir: The tannins taste hard and rough if the tannat comes from bad terroir; they are soft and round if it comes from good terroir. And he adds that the grapes must also be healthy and fully ripe in order to produce good wines.

Madiran's vineyards are located on four elongated hill ranges running from north to south. Between the ranges of hills are broad, agricultural valleys. The hill ranges themselves are criss-crossed by many smaller incisions. The best locations are the slopes of these incisions facing directly south. On the hilltops and the south-western slopes, the soils consist of strongly calcareous loam, which has an excellent water storage capacity. The white Pacherenc de Vic-Bilh and rather fresh red wines come from this terroir.

In some locations, also on the hilltops, the clay is very sandy and interspersed with a lot of boulders, the "galets". This terroir has the best water drainage. Flavourful red wines with round, lush tannins come from here. The base of the south-eastern slopes usually has an impermeable layer of ironstone, called "grepp", at a depth of 20 - 100 cm. This layer is so solid that even the vine roots cannot penetrate it. This is not an optimal situation for the vines, waterlogging in rainy periods or drought in dry periods. In order for the vines to produce usable quality, the winegrowers pierce the "grepp" and thus enable the vines to root deeper. The so-called "boulbène", the soil below the "grepp", is poor in humus and consists of silty clayey material with low water permeability. This terroir yields very typical, very tannic grapes. Here, the harvest time is particularly critical. If the grapes are not harvested at the optimal time of ripeness, the tannins remain rough and hard. In the hands of a good winemaker, the "grepp" can certainly deliver very good quality. Winemakers, such as Jean-Luc Laplace, who have plots in different terroirs, blend the wines from the different sites to achieve an optimal result of fruit, acidity, tannins, body and desired ripening potential.

Top site of Château Montus with typical scree stones% the "galets".

The climate in France's southwest is influenced by the Atlantic Ocean. It is fairly balanced with warm summers and not too cold winters. The approx. 1000 mm of rainfall in Madiran falls mainly in early spring and late autumn and winter, but you can also expect a little rain now and then in summer. This is positive for the vines during their main growth phase and for the production of firm, mineral wines. The nearby Pyrenees are the second important climatic factor. Madiran's vineyards are located at an altitude of 200 - 300 metres. The temperature differences between day and night can be significant, especially in late summer and autumn. This contributes to the slow ripening and the formation of diverse aromas and flavours in the grapes.

Three of the other main Tannat appellations, Béarn, Côtes de Saint-Mont and Tursan, border Madiran and are similar in climate. Although the soils are more varied overall, the best wines here also come from south-facing exposed sites with good water storage capacity and good water drainage. The small AOC Irouleguy, only 210 ha in size, is different. It is already in the Pyrenees and here all conditions are more extreme. It rains even more, about 1500 mm, the vineyards are higher, up to 1000 m, and the temperature differences between day and night are even greater. In addition, the Tannat grows here on steep slopes on completely different subsoil, on red sandstone, Keuper and limestone weathered soils. This gives the wines a very unique flair. They are more acidic and appear fresher and fruitier than the wines from Madiran. Blending with a high proportion of Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon suits them particularly well. But even single-varietal Tannats can produce great wines in good years.

In the whole of the Southwest, and especially in Madiran, the striving for top quality is enormous among all those I have spoken to, be they winemakers, managers or oenologists. In addition, especially in the Madiran and the surrounding appellations, the exchange of information and cooperation among the winegrowers is amazingly pronounced. For example, 18 wineries in Madiran have joined together to form the "Altéma" group. The members meet regularly, exchange experiences, do joint marketing and organise joint events around the topic of wine. They engage external experts to provide joint advice and they work together with like-minded partners, such as the "Slow Food Biarn" association.

The results of these joint efforts can be seen and, above all, tasted. There is now a broad base of excellent winemakers. Alain Brumont, with his Château Montus and Bouscassé, has not been lonely at the top for some time now. Depending on the year and who has the luckier hand, it is sometimes one or the other. A good example is the already mentioned, relatively unknown Domaine Damiens of André Beheity and son in Aydie. Through targeted vineyard work on the old, high-yielding vines and the use of high-quality clones in new plantings with high planting density, the quality of the grape material has been significantly improved. Accordingly, the vintages since 1998 show a clear upward trend. The Domaine Damiens is certainly not a top producer in the Madiran, not yet, but produces very good wines in the upper third with a good price-pleasure ratio. It is worthwhile to continue to observe the development of the Domaine.

Father and son Beheity% Domaine Damiens% Aydie% AOC Madiran

I was surprised by the cooperative in Saint-Mont, the "Producteurs Plaimont", which produced 38 million bottles in 2004. Of the 1400 ha of the AOC Madiran, 690 ha belong to the cooperative. The cooperative is quality-certified according to ISO and the BRC standard of the British Retail Consortium and is regularly audited by an independent institute. It has a unique traceability system for each of its members' 3000+ vineyard sites. The members adhere to high standards and the harvest is consequently paid according to the quality of the grapes.

Danielle Hingan, the export manager, presents her wines to me full of verve. From clean everyday wine, which is marketed worldwide as predominantly white table wine from Gascony, to upscale wines from the VDQS and AOC appellations, to top drops from Tannat, the entire range is covered. In 2006, a global player among airlines will pamper its First Class passengers with the cooperative's 2001 Château Viella Village. The wine smells of black and red berry fruits, fills the palate with powerful, concentrated body, noticeable acidity and a very nice finish. The château wines are usually vinified by the cooperative directly in the château. I also very much liked the 2001s from Château de Crouseilles, Château de Mascaraas and Château d'Arricau. Even the wines from the difficult 2002 vintage were superb at Château de Crousseilles. At the Concours de Bordeaux Vins d'Aquitaine 2005, Crouseilles won medals with three 2002 wines: gold for the "Légende" and silver for the "Loustau Casabon" and the "Grains de Roy". The clear winner for me, however, was the 2001 "Madiran Pléntitude", a selection of the best grapes of the vintage. The sweet white Pacherenc de Vic-Bilh was also very good. The little Johnson 2005' calls the "Cuvée Saint-Albert" of Château de Sabazon outstanding and gives it three out of four stars. I was impressed by the commitment and quality of such a large farm.

The "Producteurs Plaimont" cooperative is one of the largest in the southwest of France.

Other top producers in Madiran include the domains Barréjat, Capmartin, Chapelle Lenclos, dou Bernès, du Crampilh, Laougué, Laffont, Laffitte-Teston and the Domaine de Maouries, which cultivates areas in Madiran as well as in Côtes de Saint-Mont. Domaine Laougué won a bronze medal at the 2004 Concours de Bordeaux for its 2002 wine and gold at the 2005 Concours. Domaine Capmartin was awarded silver in 2004 for its 2001 "Vielles Vignes" and gold in 2005 for its 2003 "Vielles Vignes". Domaine dou Bernès was awarded a bronze medal in 2004 for its 2001 wine. Incidentally, all three medal-winning domains are members of the Altéma winegrowers' group already mentioned. Unfortunately, Patricke Ducournau, owner of Domaine Mouréou, seems to have left the group of top winemakers. The critique of the wine guide Der kleine Johnson 2005' leaves nothing to be desired in terms of clarity: "Exclusive winemaker in Madiran, also known as the inventor of micro-oxidation, who now unfortunately only deals in oak chips".

As far as red wines from Tannat are concerned, Béarn does not really have any winegrowers worth mentioning at the moment. In Tursan, Michel Guérard's Château de Bachen and the cooperative in Geaune stand out from the mass of simple, mostly clean wines. The cooperative scored silver in the Concours de Bordeaux in both 2004 and 2005 for the "Paysage" and the "Château Bourda".

Vineyards of Domaine Maouris% Labarthète% AOC Madiran and VDQS Côtes de Saint-Mont

By the way, I drank the best pure Tannat in the AOC Irouleguy: "LUR UMEA", the first birth is the name of the wine. It is the first own bottling, vintage 2003, of the young winemaker Pascale Aphaule from the small Domaine Bordatto in Jaxu and is simply brilliant. The Domaine's 2.5 ha of Tannat have yielded only 6000 bottles. The vines are over 50 years old. Due to the heat in 2003, the grapes were so ripe that the dry, mellow rape was macerated as well. The wine was left on the skins for 35 days, then in 25-year-old used barriques for 12 months. Microoxidation was not used. What a fragrance, what incredible fullness in the mouth and what an endlessly long finish! And also with this wine, I notice the exceptionally beautiful bouquet of dried mulberries, raspberries and aromatic spices that seem to characterise the elite of the top tannats. This firstling is scratching the threshold of great wine! Pascale Aphaule is definitely one to keep an eye on in the future.

Christophe Jeleznoff-Errea, who runs the wine shop "Cave des États de Navarre" in Saint Jean Pied de Port, drew my attention to this wine. He also offers the very good wines of Domaine Arretxea. By the way, Pascale Aphaule was an apprentice at Domaine Arretxea. The dry 2004 white wine from Arretxea from Petit Manseng is also quite excellent, with a fruity acidity and expressive aromas of apricot, peach and carambolle. In the AOC test, it was rejected as untypical. Now it is marketed as "Vin de Table de France" and bears the designated name "Désagrément", unpleasantness.

Other reliable producers in the AOC Irouleguy are the domains Abotia, Brana, Etchegaraya and Illaria. The cooperative "Les Vigneron du Pays Basque" cannot go unmentioned. It cultivates over 180 of the 210 ha of the AOC. In addition to wines with an excellent price-pleasure ratio, you can also buy an excellent blue cheese and a Pyrenean mountain cheese in the cooperative's wine shop in Saint-Etienne de Baïgorri. Of the wines, I liked the 2003 "Gorri d'Ansa" with 50% Tannat and 50% Cabernet, the 2001 "Domaine de Mignaberry" with 65% Tannat and 35% Cabernet, and the 2001 "Omenaldi", which contains 85% Tannat and 15% Cabernet, best. At the Concours Regional des Vins du Sud-Ouest 2004 in Castelsarrasin, the "Gorri" won a second prize (silver) and at the Concours 2003, the "Mignaberry" won a first prize (gold). The "Omenaldi" was awarded a gold medal at the Concours des Grands Vins de France 2003 in Macon.

Steep slopes with terraces characterise the AOC Irouleguy

On my long drive back to Germany, I still often think of the many friendly winegrowers, the beautiful landscapes and the wonderful wines from France's southwest. And last but not least of an extraordinary grape variety:

Tannat, c'est une merveille.

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