The south-west of France contains a fair number of widely (for France) spread wine appellations, many of them quite small and little-known outside the country, and even within it for many inhabitants of this country. It also harbours, by virtue of this fact and its viticultural history, quite a few unusual and rare grape varieties, only a few of which have disseminated themselves elsewhere in France or, indeed, around the world.
Some of them are quite idiosyncratic (some might use the term « rustic »), but they certainly have plenty of character and speak with a strong accent. In order to assimilate these with better-known varieties and smooth out the blends, the well- known varieties from the neighbouring Bordeaux region are also quite widely used in many cases. The above is particularly true in the case of the Marmandais appellation that I briefly visited last week during their annual wine festival, and where probably the least-known grape variety that is also playing a growing part in the identity of these wines is called Abouriou. Ever heard of it?
Nobody is really sure where this variety originated, but it could well have been the Lot-et-Garonne département, slightly to the east of Marmande, the town which has given its name to the appellation (AOC since 1990) that is the subject of this article.
The vineyards lies on both sides of the Garonne river, just to the south and east of the limits of the wider Bordeaux wine region which it touches. Hence perhaps the tendency, historically, to make wines that were a sort of me-too of cheaper Bordeaux. These days, although nothing is ever easy for little-known appellations that lie in the shadow of famous ones, things have evolved a bit. The inclusion of grape varieties such as Abouriou and Fer Servadou, as well as Malbec and Syrah, alongside the Bordeaux trilogy of the two Cabernets and Merlot, have added some pepper and salt into the equation and brought an element of differentiation. Perhaps more important has been the influence of some talented and meticulous winemakers such as Elian Da Ros and a couple of others whom I will mention. No appellation can ever emerge in this competitive wine world without leaders and standard bearers.
Like other regions that lie upstream of Bordeaux, along the two main rivers (Garonne and Dordogne) and their affluents that join to form the Gironde estuary, the wines of Marmande used to be carried by river downstream to Bordeaux and sold on as « Bordeaux » from the Middle Ages onwards. This was the lot of many such regions, and then phylloxera destroyed this production and farmers changed to other crops: fruit, tobacco and cereals essentially. Their timid ressurrection dates from the late 20th century, when mixed farming was the rule and hence grapes were mostly taken to the local cooperative to be made into wine. The Marmande cooperative still controls over 90% of the local production today. Most of the wines are red, following the Bordeaux trend in this respect, but there are a few decent whites made using the same varieties as the big neighbour : Sauvignon (Blanc and Gris), Sémillon and Muscadelle, plus a bit of Ugni Blanc. The vineyard surface of this appellation today concerns about 800 hectares.
My visit, which was improvised, took place during a kind of local fair which is this appellation’s main annual event, including tastings at booths pitched in a field, fun obstacles races, concerts and other distractions. I arrived in the morning of the second day to find most of the tasting booths still closed at opening time, so the party must have been quite good the night before. It was a pretty laid-back and informal thing but I got the opportunity to taste at each booth if I wanted to. Given the predominance of the local cooperative, they had divided their wines into several stands under different brand names, which made it rather confusing to understand the range. I started by tasting at a few of them but was not seduced by any of the wines that I tasted, so I moved on to some of the independent producers. Now I never de-consider any type of producer on principle, be they cooperative, négociant or independent. I just judge the wines, and the ones I tasted from this cooperative simply did not impress me at all. They were certainly cheap, but not particularly cheerful on the whole.
The producers that I recommend in the Marmandais
Château Bois Beaulieu (Fabien Tarascon):
He works 10 hectares planted with 10 different varieties. I tasted a very attractive white wine called Nuit Blanche (vintage 2017) made with the 2 Sauvignons and some Sémillon. Well balanced between fruit, liveliness and some body and length. A good and toothful rosé called In Rosa that is fine for drinking with food. It is a blend using Abouriou, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. I enjoyed all the 4 red wines that he poured for me, of which the most original was probably the one called Histoire d’Abouriou 2017, although Belle de Meras 2015 will be worth waiting for in a few years.
Domaine de Beyssac
I particularly liked their red wine called l’Initial (2013 vintage): elegant, supple and finely textured.
Another good and characterful rosé here, called Le Rosé d’Abouriou (2017). Costs just 6 euros, which makes it an excellent buy when put alongside all those so often boring things sold under this colour. Several other interesting and unusual wines on this stand, particularly the red Terra 2016, which is an Abouriou, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot and Fer Servadou blend that has produced a solid and complex wine with lots of fruit, good length and complexity and a lovely touch of bitterness (bitter cherries)on the finish that I suspect comes from the Abouriou component: a lot of wine for 10 euros. I also loved the Seizh Penn 2015, a bit more expensive at 15 euros but as lively as it was complex and with lovely texture.
Elian Da Ros
I would say that he is the undisputed star of the appellation, but whose status and reputation is well-earned and proven by all the wines poured by his wife and himself at their stand that day. If his prices seem a shade above most of the others here, it is because his wines are sold by many wine shops around the country and he is very careful not to undercut his faithful retailers by underselling in his cellar-door operations. I find this totally respectable and wish that more vignerons had this commercial maturity. The wines I particularly liked from the Da Ros family operation that day were La Vague 2015 (Merlot, Cabernet Franc & Abouriou), Chante Coucou 2015, Histoire de Boire 2017, and Coucou Blanc 2016. But all their wines are good.
Look out for these wines. They are different and, at least for the producers mentioned, both good and of good value.