A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fer Servadou - Marcillac and Gaillac, France

The southwest of France is perhaps its most consistently overlooked region.  It is common to go into a wine shop and find bottles from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Rhone Valley, Alsace or the Loire Valley with little trouble.  Languedoc-Roussillon is showing up on more and more shelves and wines from the Jura and Savoie have been a staple in geekier wine shops for many years.  But outside of a few isolated outposts (notably Cahors and Madiran), Southwest France goes largely ignored by most wine consumers, which is too bad because there are a lot of exciting grapes being grown there that either aren't grown anywhere else on earth or are grown in very limited quantities elsewhere.  The price is right for most of these wines as well, since the region's low profile means there isn't a large worldwide demand for its wines.  Many of the best examples can be had for extraordinarily low prices.  In short, Southwest France is a great place to go hunting for unusual bargains.

Geographically, the region broadly defined as Southwestern France is located just south of Bordeaux and stretches south towards the Spanish border.  It is bounded to the west and east by the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean Sea, respectively.  Though it is located very close to the sea, there was no major seaport in Southwestern France, so the growers and vignerons had to ship their wines north to the port at Bordeaux.  The problem was that the merchants in Bordeaux had their own wines to sell and enacted a series of policies that was designed to squelch any competition from other regions.  Since the people of Southwest France didn't really have any other options for shipping their wines, they were at the mercy of the Bordeaux merchants for centuries and struggled to establish a reputation for their wines abroad.

In 1189, Pope Alexander III decreed that a town called Saint Jacques de Compostelle (today known as Santiago de Compostela) located in the far northwestern corner of Spain was a Holy City.  Holy Cities were a big deal back then, and a huge number of people began making pilgrimages to the site.  Since nobody was flying around in airplanes and the sea route wasn't practical (nautically or financially), everybody making the pilgrimage ended up passing through Southwest France on their way to the Holy City in Spain.  Foot traffic equals economic opportunity and many of the villages that exist in Southwest France today were set up as way-stations for pilgrims coming to or from Santiago.  It is thought that many of the unique grapes grown in Southwest France today arrived via some of these pilgrims, most likely those on their way home from Spain.

One of the more interesting grapes from this region is called Fer Servadou.  Those of you who are up on your Latin will recognize that Fer looks a lot like the Latin word for iron (ferrum).  The grape is so named not because the grapes or leaves have a rusty color to them, but rather because the wood for this vine is extraordinarily hard.  Fer has a number of synonyms, the most common of which are Mansois (used primarily around Marcillac) and Braucol (used primarily around Gaillac).  It is grown throughout Southwestern France where it is often used as a blending grape.  It has long been a key component in Madiran where it is used to soften the harsh edges of Tannat and provide color and aroma, though it is being supplanted by members of the Cabernet family.

Fer is perhaps most important in the Marcillac region, located just northeast of Cahors in the northeastern part of Southwest France.  The vineyard areas of Marcillac are located in the valleys of two streams that run through the area, the Ady and Créneau.  The earth here is rich in iron oxide, and, as a result, the soil and rocks in the area are a distinctive red color.  Wine has been made here since at least the Middle Ages, though it took a serious hit when phylloxera struck.  The vineyards were completely wiped out during the infestation and were only saved, somewhat ironically I suppose, by the discovery of coal in the area in the mid-1800's.  The coal mines produced a lot of thirsty workers so many of the old vineyards were grafted and re-planted to slake the local workforce.  The mines were closed in 1962, and plantings in the area dropped again, but a few producers banded together to create a cooperative.  The move helped them obtain VDQS status in 1966 and full AOC recognition in 1990.  There are a scant 180 hectares under vine in Marcillac, and nearly all of it is devoted to Fer.

I was able to find a bottle of the 2010 Domaine Du Cros "Lo Sang del Païs," which means "blood of the countryside."  I picked it up from my friends at The Wine Bottega for about $15.   Domaine Du Cros is owned by Philippe Teulier.  Philippe's father got started in 1982 with a single hectare under vine.  Today, Philippe farms 25 hectares in total, making him the largest independent grower in Marcillac.  All the grapes on his estate are hand picked and the winery is built into the steep hillsides of the region in order to take advantage of gravity during the winemaking process.  The "Lo Sang del Païs" bottling is his entry level wine made from the youngest vines on the estate (and representing about 2/3 of his production).  The wine is fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel before undergoing malolactic fermentation in large neutral oak foudres.  In the glass, the wine was a deep, inky purple-ruby color.  The nose was nicely aromatic with boysenberry, sweet black cherry, fig and spice.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity and fairly high tannins.  There were tart cherry, blackberry and wild raspberry fruits with some cranberry and leather.  It was a bit of a surprise to get so much sappy black and purple fruit on the nose but tart, red berry fruit on the palate.  Overall, the wine was a little sour and a little thin.

Gaillac is located just southwest of Marcillac, right outside the town of Toulouse.  Archaeological evidence has shown that the vineyards in Gaillac were already in full swing by the first century AD, though they likely go back a few centuries before that.  Through the years, Gaillac has had their share of boom and bust times, through barbarian invasions, church occupation and their on-again/off-again trade relationship with England.  Today, Gaillac is the second largest area of the Southwest in terms of volume of production, and the wines come in all kinds of different styles.  Sparkling wine is especially important here, and has a history that pre-dates Champagne production by at least 100 years.  The method used is similar to the méthode ancestrale used in Limoux, and is known locally as the méthode gaillacoise (though the AOC laws stipulate that it must be labeled as méthode traditionnelle).  There is also something called gaillac nouveau that is made from Gamay grapes vinified in the same way as the more famous Beaujolais Nouveau.

Fer is important in Gaillac, but not to the extent that it is in Marcillac, though it is required by law that the local growers' AOC plantings be comprised of at least 10% Fer in Gaillac.  Domaine Philémon is located near the Vere river in the northeastern part of Gaillac.  I'm not sure what percentage of Fer Domaine Philémon has planted, since it doesn't look like they have a website, but what I do know is that the Vieules family (who owns the estate) has farmed this region since the early 1800's and farm wheat, sunflowers and grapes in equal measure.  I can only find mention of two wines that they produce: the "Perle," which is a white blend of Mauzac, Len de l'el and Sauvignon Blanc, and the "Croix d'Azal," which is 100% Fer, though they use the local term Braucol.

I was able to pick up a bottle of the 2009 Croix d'Azal from my friends at The Wine Bottega for about $13.  I believe Curtis Liquors in Weymouth and the Spirited Gourmet in Belmont also carry this wine.  In the glass, the wine had a deep, inky purple-black color with a very narrow violet rim.  The nose was nicely aromatic with crushed blackberry and black cherry fruit with a little smoke, licorice and wet leather.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity and fairly high tannins.  There were dark, black flavors with blackberry and black cherry fruit, charcoal and smoke, black pepper (which was especially strong on the finish) and a funky leathery kind of taste.  This wine was much more rustic than the Marcillac, but was also deeper and more complex.  It was also much more balanced and well-structured and I had to check the price tag a few times to make sure it was really only $13.  This wine is an extraordinary value and would be fantastic on any food with a smoky char to it.  If you're a fan of backwards, rustic Rhone style reds, seek this wine out.

I should mention that most of the information for this post is from Paul Strang's South-West France: The Wines and Winemakers, an indispensable historical resource as well as an interesting guide to the producers of the region.  People interested in learning more about Southwest France would be well advised to pick up a copy of this book.


Craigk8 said...

Excellent post Fringe Wine - nice to see some more press on Mansois!

Todd - VT Wine Media said...

Excellent! Always happy to see quality coverage of the underrepresented and unheralded...especially when they are killer deals. Thanks for the data, and I will try to check out your friends at the Bodega nect time I am in Boston. Cheers!

Todd - VT Wine Media said...

As luck would have it, I really scored. I was included in a group of bloggers doing a virtual tasting wines of SW France with Fred Dexheimer. I ended up going to NYC and having the Marcillac there, and then again a couple of days ago here in VT. Great stuff, lovely food wine, pinot noir in weight,wild and brambly pepper.
Had a fun bubbly Mauzac from gaillac as well - Plageoles, check it out.