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The wines of South West France are inevitably overshadowed by the richness and fame of the grand crus of Bordeaux, arguably the wine capital of Europe, if not the world. And yet for the lover of wines searching away from the celebrated clarets there is much to discover and taste.
MADIRAN Perhaps the best known of the Appellation Controlée wines in this area is Madiran: a dark, strong flavoured red wine rich in tannin (beware your carpets if you spill it) that comes from the area north east of Pau.
Three varieties of grape go into Madiran: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and the powerful Tannat, which is so much at the heart of the wine. The rules for Madiran give the vintner plenty of room for play: in theory the proportions should be between 20 and 80 per cent tannat, the rest taken up by the Cabernets. Such wide discretion allows a huge variety of madirans and you can even find wines made from 100 per cent tannat.
The `ordinary' madirans are sold - for my taste - far too young. The tannin from the tannat would allow these wines to mature gracefully over a number of years, but as always the taste of the French consumer, together with economic pressures of cash flow, mean that they reach the shelves of the supermarkets two to four years after they are made, and older years can be hard to find.
On the other hand a number of wine-makers make special cuvées, aged in oak barrels and predominant in tannat, perhaps - if they are lucky - from old, very mature vines. These are the wines that win prizes and they are sold after six or seven years, and while more expensive their greater maturity and roundness make them delicious drinking.
PACHERENC DE VIC BILH The Madiran area has, however, a surprise for the discerning wine-drinker: its white wines. These are known by another Appellation Controlée: Pacherenc de Vic Bilh. A curious name, but easily explained: pacherenc is vine in the old tongue, and Vic Bilh is another village in the area.
Pacherenc comes either dry - a gentle dry, not too acid - or sweet - a delicate, glorious sweetness that does not cloy and can be easily drunk with foie gras, as the locals do, or with pudding, as the British tend to.
The Pacherenc is made from four grape varieties: Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Arrufiac and Petit Corbu. Again the presence of several varieties give each wine-maker the freedom to stamp his own individuality on his one, making the exploration of Pacherenc an extremely pleasant task.
JURANCON South of Pau the vineyards covering the south faces of the hills between the Gave de Pau and the Pyrénées produce the white wine of Jurançon, and the red and rosé wines of the Béarn. Jurançon, like the Pacherenc, comes both as dry and doux, though its tradition is as the sweeter wine. The dry Jurançon has been produced in more modern times for modern tastes, while the sweet wine was the wine beloved by Henri IV, France's first Protestant king who came from the area and is still fondly remembered and indeed celebrated on various wine labels for his patronage.
Jurançon is produced from similar grape varieties as the Pacherenc but here the soil can sometimes give it a more acid and slaty taste, a stronger character. Some quite delicious wines can be found, often from the smaller producers.
BEARN The reds and rosés are simply known as the Rosé (or Rouge) de Béarn. The rosé in particular is a delightful complement to the warm climate, eminently quaffable very cold on the hot and close days of summer. For the red one needs to search more diligently for the best. They are light wines, good for drinking young and not for laying down, though some wine-makers are making strenuous efforts to establish a fuller tradition.
IROULEGUY In the far south west corner, in the shadow of the Pyrénées, lie the picturesque vine-yards of Irouleguy, the Basque's own Appellation Controlée. Irouleguy, like the Béarn wines, are rosé and red, light wines that easily accompany the spicy dishes of the area.
COTES DE GASCOGNE And still the South West has not yielded all its surprises. The wines discussed so far are all Appellation Controlée, which means that their production is strictly controlled by rules that dictate the grape variety, the vine-yards that can produce them, the quantity that can be made each year.
In the hierarchy of wine the next level `down' is VDQS - vin délimité de qualité superieur - and this is subject to less stringent regulations. But watch out! There is some wonderful drinking to be had from the white wine produced by the armagnac producers, and at lower prices. But the wine-making is no less serious: at least one producer keeps his white wine in oak barrels to produce something with strong echoes of burgundy,
Of course they are using the same grape varieties as armagnac. But hush! the regulations are less strict, and the careful observer will notice the odd Chardonnay grape growing.
Wine-making is not just standing still in the south west of France.
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