Come on the reds
Some of the muscular reds from southwest France have a savoury firmness that calls out for robust dishes, writes JOHN WILSON
Belly of pork may have been done to death by most restaurants, but I still enjoy it at home from time to time. On one recent occasion, I went in search of something appropriate to drink. And all that rich meat and melting fat needs something firm and tannic to give it manners, so I picked out a bottle of Madiran supplied to me a month or so ago for an article on south-west France. Perfectly mature yet still solid and muscular, it went brilliantly with my pork.
For certain robust dishes, some of the go-to wines come from this part of France. Overlooked for many years, and therefore very reasonably priced, the red wines all seem to have a savoury firmness that calls out for rich foods. It helps that the local favourites include grilled duck breast as well as other hearty soups and stews.
The southwest is a huge area covering various climates and soils. It is not really one region at all, but several, each surrounding a different river. Included is the hinterland of Bordeaux, so you will find plenty of the two Cabernets, Merlot, Sauvignon and Semillon. But in addition to this, the southwest has a long list of local grapes that are responsible for some of the more intriguing wines of France.
Smack in the middle of the region lies the small (1,300 hectares) region of Madiran. Part of Gascony, this area produces an excellent sweet wine, Pacherenc du Vin-Bilh, and some good dry whites (Marks Spencer stocks the Saint Mont Blanc).
However, it is the red wines that brought the region fame. The local grape is Tannat, rarely found elsewhere (although immigrants did bring it over to Uruguay and to a lesser extent, Argentina, where it thrives) which as the name seems to suggest is fairly tannic.
In the past Madiran was often teeth-staining, firm and ferociously tannic. It needed a decade before you would dare approach it; then it could be superb, even if it retained an austere core. I can still remember the shock of my first sip of young Madiran. Having read the books, I was not ignorant of its reputation, but nothing could have prepared me for the tough chewy mouth-puckering dry wine I tasted.
Many of the other southwest wines were similar, including Cahors, made largely from Malbec, and Iroulégy, a French Basque wine made from grapes grown high up on terraces in the Pyrenees.