Fer Servadou grape from Gaillac and Marcillac, the Duras grape from Gaillac, and the Gros Manseng grape from the Jurancon region. There are a number of really interesting grapes grown only in Southwest France and today we're going to take a look at yet another of them, the Négrette grape.
Négrette is grown in a few different areas, but Fronton is its best known home. The Côtes du Frontonnais is located just southwest of Gaillac and just north of the city of Toulouse, on the western bank of the Tarn river. The viticultural history of the region can be traced back to Roman times, as the city of Montauban, located just across the Tarn river from Fronton, was an early Roman outpost before they went on to conquer all of Gaul. The fall of Rome resulted in a very turbulent time as many Barbarian tribes invaded the region repeatedly. The mood was so bleak that many of the locals believed that the world was going to come to an end after the first millennium AD. As we all know, the year 1000 came and went without incident, and many of the landholders were so grateful for their continued existence that they donated large tracts of their land to the Catholic Church.
Around the same time, an organization known as the Knights of Saint John came into the region. The Knights were a charitable religious organization who were focused on providing food and shelter for religious pilgrims passing through the area on their way to the Holy City Santiago de Compostela (in western Spain) or on their way to the Holy Land. The Knights were based on the Greek island of Cyprus, and it is said that they brought with them a grape called "Mavro," which means "black" in Greek, which is thought to be a direct ancestor of the modern Négrette grape. Etymologically, this makes a certain sense, as both grapes are clearly named for the dark color of their skins, juice and the resulting wine. It's a good story, but it's probably not true. More recent research indicates that Négrette is probably a member of the côt family which also includes the Southwestern French grapes Malbec and Tannat. This family is thought to have been brought from Spain in the Middle Ages before settling in Southwest France. There's a story that Négrette first came to prominence in Gaillac, but that the locals believed that the grape wasn't worthy of their soils and they banished the grape to Fronton, in much the same way as Gamay was pushed out of the better vineyard sites of Burgundy. It turns out that this a great thing for the grape, as it is very prone to fungal diseases and needs a hot, dry climate such as that found in the Fronton region. There are about 1300 hectares planted throughout France with the overwhelming majority in Fronton. There is also some grown in California where it is known as Pinot St. George, though the grape appears to be unrelated to the Pinot family.
Curtis Liquors for about $10. The wine is 70% Negrette, 20% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. The AOC regulations stipulate that the Négrette grape must make up 50 - 70% of the acreage of a grower's vineyard area, and that Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France, Syrah or Gamay should make up no more than 25% of a final blend, while Malbec should only make up 10%. In the glass, the wine was a deep purple-ruby color and was nearly opaque through its core. The nose was very aromatic with funky wild blackberry and black cherry fruit with some wet leather. The aromatics were lifted and powerful and the wine was a real pleasure just to sniff. On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with acid just on the higher side of medium and medium, powdery tannins. There were sour black cherry and blackberry fruit with some espresso and smoke. The finish is a little short with a serious bitter bite on the end, though it spreads out a bit as it opens. It was a disappointing follow-up based on the powerfully aromatic nose, but it was a very good wine, especially at the $10 price point. Red wines from the Négrette grape are meant to be drunk young, and it this one may have been starting to fall apart a bit, but it was still hanging in there.
Wine Bottega for about $15. The blend here is about 85% Négrette and 15% Syrah. In the glass, the wine was a deep lavender color with a bit of fizz to it. The nose was very aromatic with blackberry candy and dusky cherry fruit with a savage, damp leaf sort of character to it. On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with medium acid and a light fizz. It was medium sweet and clocked in at only 8% alcohol. It tasted kind of like a blackberry or a black cherry soda. There were a lot of candied black fruits with a touch of wild, wet underbrush to it. It reminded me a lot of Brachetto d'Acqui and had a lot of the candyish kinds of characteristics that I find in good Brachetto. It did have just enough of that savage, foresty character to it so that it wasn't like pure sugar, but it was still very friendly and was a lot of fun to drink.
Fred Dexheimer, which I will be writing more about soon, but one of the wines we took a look at was the 2008 Chateau Bellevue La Forêt "Ce Vin," which retails for about $11 a bottle. I received this bottle as a free sample for the purposes of the online seminar. They told us that the wine is 100% Négrette, which is very hard to find. In the glass, the wine was a deep, inky purple-ruby color. The nose was very aromatic with strawberry and red berry fruit with a floral, rosy kind of character to it. The nose was intoxicating and reminded me a bit of the Frappato that I wrote about a few months ago. On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity and low tannins. Like the other Fronton above, the palate was a bit of letdown from the nose, as this wine had some raspberry and blackberry fruit with a touch of bitter smoke and spice. Overall, it was a little hollow and thin and the bitterness was a little too pronounced for me. I tasted all of the wines for the tasting the next day and this one had suffered the most, completely falling apart by day two. I would have loved to try a Négrette from a more recent vintage, as most sources indicate that these wines deteriorate very rapidly after the vintage, but I've certainly seen enough in these three wines to excited about the possibilities for this grape.