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.
New wine-making techniques have made a world of difference. It was at Château d’Aydiein Madiran that the process of micro-oxygenation was invented in the early 1990s. By very slowly releasing controlled amounts of oxygen into a fermenting (or maturing) wine, the winemaker can mimic the gentle effects of barrel-ageing in a quicker and cheaper manner. The result is a smoother and softer wine.
This process is now used the world over to make young red wines more palatable, but nowhere has its benefits been more obvious than in southwest France.
Alain Brumont of Château Montus and Château Bouscassé favours the use of new oak rather than micro-oxygenation as a means of softening his wines. He and his family have been one of the driving forces in the regeneration of Madiran over the last two decades. Despite micro-oxygenation and new oak, the wines still have a robust vigour and meaty muscular depth, sometimes with an appealing rustic note. They are unlikely ever to be called warming soft and rounded. But they are certainly far more approachable than in times past.
It was also in this region that the French paradox was first discovered. Despite eating a cuisine based on large amounts of foie gras, duck and pork fat, the population appeared to live longer than most. Prof Roger Corder in The Wine Diet (2006) found that the red wines, and Madiran in particular, had some of the highest levels of procyanidins, helpful in lowering blood pressure and reducing cholesterol. The perfect accompaniment to belly of pork in more ways than one then.
A few wine merchants have a decent range of wines from southwest France, including Terroirs in Donnybrook, Honest 2 Goodness, French Wine Unlimited, 64wine, Karwig Wines, Cork, and Le Caveau in Kilkenny. All offer a mail-order/online delivery service.
BOTTLES OF THE WEEK
Domaine Laffont Erigone 2005, Madiran, 13.5%, €22.99Concentrated complex dark fruits, a solid tannic structure and a long dry finish. Stockists: Karwig Wines, Carrigaline; Eugenes, Kenmare.
Ch. Bouscassé 2007, Madiran, 12.5% €21.15Ripe spicy dark fruits with some new oak evident, nicely textured with a solid core of tannins. Stockists: Redmond’s, Ranelagh; World Wine Wines, Waterford.
Domaine Moureou 2010, Madiran, 13.5%, €16A very approachable yet correct Madiran with blackcurrant fruits and a smooth finish. Stockists: Listons, Camden St; 64wine, Glasthule; Lilac wines; Fallon Byrne.
En la Tradition 2009, AOC Saint Mont, Plaimont, 13%, €13.50A perfect example of modern Tannat; smooth dark plums with a lightly dry finish. Stockists: honest2goodness.ie; Corkscrew, Chatham St.