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Inside the Wild Diversity and Winemaking Heritage of Southwest France

Spread between the Atlantic and the Massif Central, the wines of Southwest France are among the most intriguing, varied, and deeply rooted in the country

Photo courtesy of Wines of Southwest France.
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Even among top sommeliers, the wines of Southwest France are considered to be some of the most exciting and intriguing in the world. This, after all, is an ancient territory, a wild landscape in which every hillside and river bend hide a new wine to be discovered.

The region’s history goes back millennia, to when Romans planted wine grapes here as they developed vineyards across France: Even thousands of years ago, the potential for greatness was clear in this part of the country. From the 12th century onward, abbeys and monasteries took hold in Southwest France to welcome pilgrims as they traveled through on the increasingly popular Camino de Santiago from northern Europe, which served to further cultivate local viticulture, spread native varieties, and import new ones. Today, the wines are as stunning as ever, thanks to a willingness to look forward but also a deep, abiding respect for the past.

Southwest France is full of producers who are “sticking to their history, staying true to their roots,” explains Jeff Harding, wine director of the Waverly Inn in New York. That respect for the region’s unparalleled wine heritage, know-how acquired over decades working these vineyards, and a willingness to buck trends and produce wine of idiosyncratic character and deliciousness, are what set it apart. So, too, is the tapestry of local grape varieties that are so deliciously emblematic of the region, alongside the international varieties that also thrive there. 

Indeed, Southwest France is ranked at the top of all of the country’s wine regions for grape diversity: 300 varieties are planted here, including 130 indigenous ones spread out over 42 unique appellations. Names like Abouriou, Mauzac, Duras, Cot, Loin de l’Oeil, and more carpet the expansive landscape. If it’s breadth and excitement you’re looking for, Southwest France has it all: Both fresh and profound reds, crisp whites, and rosés that practically vibrate with energy. The sparkling wines are remarkable, too.

And while the region itself is huge—it stretches from Bordeaux in the north all the way to the Pyrenees in the south, and is bordered in the east by the Massif Central and the Atlantic Ocean to the west—and it encompasses a terrific range of terroirs and microclimates, a deliciously discernible thread runs through it all: Heritage. Brooklyn-based sommelier James Sligh makes the compelling argument that Southwest France doesn’t seem like a single region, but a collection of smaller ones. None of them, however, tend to make wines that are driven by fruit alone, he points out. From everyday-priced bottles to cellar-worthy ones, the best of them often lean on the herbal, savory characteristics that set them apart.

Map courtesy of Wines of Southwest France.

Channeling the Land in Every Bottle

Given the size of Southwest France—more than 133,000 acres of grapes were planted there in 2019—and the stunning range of terroirs, it should come as no surprise that the region’s 750 independent wineries and 5,000 winemakers produce a stylistic range that is unrivaled anywhere else in France.

This also means that there is something for every consumer. The Domaine Duffour 2019, from Côtes de Gascogne, is a clean, crisp, elegant white wine with vivid grapefruit, lemon, and taut minerality. And while the constituent grape varieties may not be terribly familiar to most consumers—it’s a blend of Colombard, Gros Manseng, and Ugni Blanc—its character makes it a delicious alternative to more run-of-the-mill Pinot Grigio. On a wine list, Harding points out, this is a fantastic hand-sell, offering complexity and food-friendliness at a stunningly fair price.

That sense of value is something that runs throughout not just Côtes de Gascogne in particular, but Southwest France in general. Sligh points to the Domaine de Pajot Les 4 Cepages 2020—which is produced from the same varieties as the Dufour but with the addition of Sauvignon Blanc as well—as a great example of why, “When I’m looking for value and affordability in a white … this is a part of the world that I look to.”

Interestingly, because of the incredible biodiversity in this part of France, and the relative affordability of land there, many grape-growers also farm other crops as well, which means that they’re not quite as dependent on wine profits each vintage as they might otherwise would be. Domaine de Pajot is a perfect example: They also farm organic hazelnuts.

Fronton, east of Côtes de Gascogne, embodies much of what makes Southwest France so exciting: Many of its wineries are family-owned, and because, as Sligh points out, they live among the vines, with children playing in the vineyards, there is an added incentive to farm as cleanly and sustainably as possible. The result is a range of wines that are both deeply expressive and fantastically drinkable. The Ninette Le Roc Rosé 2020 manages both with exuberance: It’s a blend of 70 percent Négrette and 30 percent Syrah, and it practically bursts from the glass with the kind of cherries, wild strawberries, and spice that make a single glass inevitably lead to a second.


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Versatile Pairings

Heading northeast from Fronton, just south of the Lot River, is Marcillac, where haunting wines like the Domaine Laurens Pierres Rouges 2017 grow. This is crafted entirely of the indigenous Fer Servadou variety, and its earthy, iron-like core that anchors walnut skin, olive pits, and black cherries makes it perfectly suited to pairing with mushrooms, according to André Compeyre, sommelier for Aldo Sohm Wine Bar and ambassador for Wines of Southwest France. Sligh noted that its “dark, ferrous” character and its “earthy, foresty quality,” would sing alongside mushrooms, potatoes, and beans.

Well west, along the flanks of the Garonne River and not all that far south of Bordeaux, is Côtes du Marmandais, where wines like the Elian da Ros Chante Coucou 2016 are crafted. It’s a more familiar blend dominated by Merlot, with additions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Syrah, resulting in a sappy, energetic glassful with brambly berries, olives, licorice root, leather, and forest floor. The connection to Bordeaux is clear here, but this remains a “specific and irreplaceable” wine, according to Sligh.

This range and expressiveness are what set Southwest France apart, and every village and appellation has something to offer. From Syrah-Braucol blends like the Château Lastours Gaillac to the Château Lamartine Cahors Cuvee Particuliere 2015, which showcases a deeply affecting side of the indigenous Malbec variety, to the tannic, meaty, unforgettable Château Peyros Madiran (a bottle of their 2009 is the “perfect cassoulet wine,” according Compeyre), Southwest France is a region of infinite fascination.

The Château de Sabazan Saint Mont 2016 sums the magic of the region up nicely: It’s a single-vineyard Tannat, grown on just 20 acres in a town of 150 people. The château itself was rebuilt in the 1400s, using stones from the 1200s. And yet it is also a wine that appeals deeply to contemporary tastes, too. Compeyre loved its blackcurrants, spice, and leather notes alongside the richness of duck leg confit.

Value and Character

That kind of juxtaposition—of the ancient and the contemporary—is what gives the wines of Southwest France such a sense of excitement. It is undoubtedly a study in contrasts: A hotbed for lesser-known, indigenous varieties, yet it’s also the birthplace of some of the world’s most widely planted and now-international grapes, like Malbec and Cabernet Franc. 

That tension between the local and the international, between the old and the new, is what makes Southwest France so exciting. The region itself may be large, and pinpointing one or two emblematic grape varieties is close to impossible, but that’s the beauty of it: There is a sense of discovery—and serious pleasure—to be found in bottles from across Southwest France. Exploring all of the region’s wonders is a labor of love that can last a lifetime. Fortunately, the value, variety, and deep ties to the land make it one of the most rewarding endeavors in the entire world of wine.

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