From wooden labels to monks and 150 year old vineyards to revived varieties, this was a tasting that was full of stories and individuality.
There’s been winemaking in South-west France since monks arrived in the region in the 11th century, and it’s a place that still has a strong regional identity – right down to the Gascon beret that our host from Plaimont, Olivier Bourdet-Pees proudly wears as he talks to the Collective.
Olivier was born and brought up in the foothills of the Pyrenees, so he knows the region intimately. In fact, he tells us that this is one of the wettest parts of France – over 1000mm of rain a year, about the same as Manchester. Perhaps that explains the hat.
Gascony is best known for Armagnac. And it was to counter this that a group of growers got together in 1978 to concentrate on wine instead. ‘We started by believing that it was possible to have a big ambition for the region by making wines a bit off the beaten track, and to see wines differently,’ says Olivier.
Their heartland is the Saint Mont appellation, 1200ha of vineyard spread among 40 small villages, and focusing almost entirely on indigenous varieties: the reds Tannat and Pinenc, the whites Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu.
These are very specific grapes and a very specific climate that’s much cooler and wetter than you’d expect for the South of France.
‘It can be hard to get a perfect maturity,’ explains Oliver, ‘and maybe 100 years ago it was hard to do that. But with climate change and improvements in the vineyard, perhaps these kind of zones could be the places giving the top wines in France and round the world; places that give a natural freshness.’
L’Empreinte de Saint Mont Blanc 2017
L’Empreinte is 70% Gros Manseng, which brings a freshness and strength to the wines. Olivier expects grapefruit and citrus when the wine is young, though with time this citrus fruit develops into white truffle.
Petit Courbu adds a roundness to balance the freshness of the blend, while Arroufiac is added in small quantities. ‘On it’s own it’s not a good grape,’ says Olivier, ‘but you can use a little bit like salt or pepper. It lengthens the finish – adds a slight bitterness. It’s especially good in hot years.’
Le Faîte Blanc 2016
One of the features of Plaimont’s whites is their age. The group are very keen for the customer to understand the complexity that is given by time in bottle.
‘We don’t want to present very young wine [in St Mont],’ says Olivier. ‘There are wines from Gascony that are easy to discover when they are really young. But when you enter St Mont or Ireluguy they are much better after three, four, five years. It’s hard for people to do that [ageing] themselves, so we do that for them.’
From north and west-facing slopes, Olivier believes this is from some of the best white wine terroir in St Mont, and you usually need to wait a while to see the wine’s full potential. High acidity allows it to age.
Arguably the most astonishing thing about Le Faîte is its wooden (yes wooden) label. Apparently, centuries ago, the locals used to buy wines for a big event, such as the birth of a child, and would then bury some of the wines underground to keep them for the next grand happening – such as a marriage. Paper labels would rot in the earth, so they used wooden or iron ones instead. It’s quite a story.
Cirque Nord 2016
There is no cru system in the vineyards of St Mont. But if there were, the Cirque Nord vineyard would be in it. ‘It’s the top selection of this region,’ says Olivier.
A north facing amphitheatre with only 8-10 hours of sun a day, it’s a cool site. But the steep slopes catch all the sun’s rays, and big pebbles in the soil warm up and add further heat. Throughout the wine there is an inherent tension between warmth and coolness.
‘We do almost nothing with this plot,’ says Olivier. ‘It’s very traditional winemaking.’ A long vinification with natural yeasts in very old (8-10 year old) barrels is followed by at least 24 months on the lees, before the wine is aged in tank a further 2.5-3 years before bottling.’
Olivier suggests using it for top-class fish dishes and desserts that aren’t too sweet.
Le Manseng Noir 2019
In some ways, this wine is the symbol of the Plaimont project – a symbol of what people can achieve when they come together.
The growers found a vine in a 200 year old vineyard that they weren’t able to identify. They assumed it was a clone of Tannat, but DNA research revealed it to be Manseng Noir – a variety thought to have been extinct for centuries.
From just one plant, they now have 37 hectares of the variety.
Manseng Noir’s big advantage is that it rarely gets riper than 11.5%. Two hundred years ago, this would have been a big disadvantage – it would probably struggle to get past 8 or 9% abv with 19th century viticulture. But that could be a big bonus with climate change making some varieties almost impossible to work with.
It’s often added to more alcoholic grapes (such as Merlot) to bring the abv down.
Château de Sabazan 2017
The co-op bought this 16 hectare vineyard in 1987, and the wine is entirely grown, bottled and aged on the estate. It was the start of their ambition for making serious red wines and currently there are four vintages available, with 2017 the latest.
It’s almost entirely Tannat, with a bit of Cabernet Franc and some Pinenc to add a little easy-drinking red-fruit.
This is the traditional sandy soil of Bas Armagnac – iron rich and very poor – and it gives a wine that Olivier describes as ‘round and fresh, but not too strong.’
La Madeleine 2015
Olivier cites the next two wines as being the reason why he joined Plaimont 12 years ago; because of the willingness of the growers to keep really old vineyards, even though it was difficult for them.
The one behind La Madeleine was destroyed by phylloxera then replanted in 1890. Its 0.8ha make only 3000 bottles a year.
‘It’s an experience,’ says Olivier. ‘Something really different, to meet a plot with a history like that. It’s the result of the decisions taken by growers over a century ago. They didn’t sell the grapes at a premium. But they kept it because they felt an attachment to it.’
Vignes Préphylloxériques 2013
Many growers around the world use the term ‘old vines’ – sometimes rather cynically. But this plot is proper vieilles vignes. It was planted in 1871, ungrafted, but its sandy soil kept phylloxera away.
Strictly speaking, this is not an A-list terroir, but the sheer age of the Tannat vines gives something very special, even from this ‘off’ vintage. But the ancient vines with their 7m-deep roots came through the cool, damp weather so well that Olivier prefers the 2013 to the supposedly better 2015 and 2017.
‘The freshness of the vintage is there,’ he says, ‘but it’s well-balanced – the strength of each plant is behind the cuvée. It’s always a privilege to have a glass of this wine.’
Saint Albert Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2016
This classic late harvest wine – 100% Petit Manseng is picked in at least two runs, from the end of October, and middle of November to (occasionally) the end of December.
This is the closest zone to Pyrenees and it is really cold. There’s no botrytis. Grapes are left to dry on plant, concentrating sugar, aromas and acidity. Olivier said he always has a bottle of this in his fridge for when friends drop in, but also that it’s a great match with roast chicken.
‘The incredible thing with Pacherenc,’ he says, ‘is that you can convince people who don’t even really like sweet wines.’
At this price it can be a useful addition to any wine list or tasting menu.