The Côtes de Gascogne wine region in southwestern France’s Gers department, with its bucolic green hillsides and patchwork fields of corn, sunflowers and vines, is often compared to Tuscany. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the region, which lies just west of our home in Toulouse, researching an Armagnac guide that I hope to complete this year.
Many of the Armagnac producers also make wine. The majority of the white wine comes from Colombard grapes that are distilled to make much of the region’s Armagnac brandy. There is also a good deal of Sauvignon Blanc, and, particularly for the semi-sweet and sweet wines that often accompany another of the region’s specialties, foie gras duck liver, Gros and Petit Manseng grapes.
Many of the red grapes used in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, are found here, as well as Tannat, which, as its name implies, is a very tannic grape, much like Malbec, which also originated in southwestern France. But no one is going to mistake a Gers red, which tend towards the rustic side, for a Chianti Classico Riserva or a Brunello di Montalcino, two of Tuscany’s finest red wines.
One thing that I’ve found from my time spent tasting wine in the Côtes de Gascogne is that there’s a good reason why Armagnac is the product of choice here. Although some respectable light, crisp and fruity white wines, with subtle citrus and green-apple notes are made from Colombard and Ugni Blanc (another white grape with the high-acidity, low-alcohol characteristics favored by distillers), much of it lacks structure and personality. Those rustic reds do a good job of cutting through the fatty, duck-centric dishes that have made the region a culinary star in France’s gastronomic universe, but “complex,” “elegant” and ‘age-worthy” are adjectives rarely used to describe them.
What people from the Gers have been telling me, and which I’m confirming with my research, is that there’s one part of the Côtes de Gascogne where the wine is probably better than the Armagnac. This is the northern part of the department, around the small city of Lectoure. One of the major geological characteristics of this area is the Peyrusquet, a shallow layer of clay soil that sits on the limestone mother rock. In contrast, the majority of the soil in other parts of the Côtes de Gascogne is sandy or what the French call boulbenes, a mixture of sand, gravel and light clay.
Domaine Chiroulet, a 45-ha vineyard located close to Lectoure, illustrates how the Peyrusquet clay-chalk combination is expressed through wine. Before explaining that, however, the history of this vineyard is worth hearing. The Domaine Chiroulet (the name comes from Chiroula–“whistling wind” in Gascon patois) has existed for six generations, since before phylloxera struck down the vines here in the early 1880s. Michel Fezas, the father of the current owner, Philippe Fezas, enlarged the property to its present size in the 1960s. Like most Gers farms, it was polycultural, with revenue from sunflowers, corn and other crops supplementing that of the wine that was either sold to the local cooperative or distilled into Armagnac.
Philippe Fezas studied oenology in Toulouse (at the same university where your intrepid blogger did his winemaking studies). He then went to work at the Seguin Moreau cooperage in Cognac. Philippe’s knowledge of the effects of wood on wines has led him to work with some of the most prestigious French chateaux, including Château Haut Brion and Château Malartic Lagraviere in Pessac-Léognan, and Château de Valandraud in Saint-Émilion, as well as Marchesi Antinori in Italy and Bodegas Vega Sicilia in Spain. While continuing his work with Seguin Moreau, he began working on the family property in 1993. He and his father began studying the soil, parcel by parcel, to determine which variety of grapes would be best for each wine. It struck him that much of the property is covered in the same fine-clay soil that is also found in Saint-Émilion.
Having tasted with cellar masters and top winemakers around France and elsewhere, Fezas began thinking that Chiroulet could potentially produce fine wine. Almost as a lark, he prepared a special cuvée to serve to the guests at his wedding in 1995. The positive reaction to this 50% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, and 20% Tannat red wine convinced him that this idea merited developing. This wine is now the signature red of the domaine, the Domaine Chiroulet Terroir Gascon.
“A great wine is like a piece of music,” Fezas is fond of saying. “The more notes there are, the more beautiful the symphony.” The Terroir Gascon wine is a good example of this philosophy. Merlot gives it fresh fruit flavors, while the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon and Tannat provide, respectively, freshness and structure. Along with the careful attention to vineyard parcel and varietal selection, Fezas makes good use of his experience with oak barrels to add complexity to this and the other Chiroulet wines. The Terroir Gascon spends 12 months of aging in, no surprise, Seguin Moreau barrels and larger foudres.
His flagship Grande Réserve red wine is aged for 14 months in a 50/50 percentage of French and Russian oak barrels. Fine-grained Haut-Futaie oak from forests managed, first by the French Monarchy, and now by the French government, is used to provide a controlled oxidation of the wine. Oak from the Caucasus in Russia’s Republic of Adgué brings another sort of tannin to help structure the wine. This sessile oak presents a less-intense woody character, with a perceptible fruity flavor. Seguin Moreau says that it is particularly effective with red wines made from Merlot or Pinot Noir, which are particularly sensitive to absorbing oak. Whether this is true or not, it’s testimony to the quality of the barrels and Fezas’s experience that his wines benefit from the additional complexity of the oak without suffering from excessive vanilla, toast or other oaky aromas.
Another factor in the quality of the domaine’s wines is that it sits on the highest slopes (180 meters in altitude) in Gascony. That whistling wind that gave the Domaine Chiroulet its name is also beneficial. It dries the vines, reducing the need to treat them for fungal disease. This is particularly important for the late-harvest Gros and Petit Manseng white grapes that are used to produce the dry Côte d’Heux (named for a southern-facing slope of deep brown clay on a chalky base) and the sweet Soleil d’Autome. Both the exposition and the frequent winds allow the grapes to reach full phenological maturation, giving the wines rich apricot and quince fruit aromas, along with the spicy and floral notes that characterize these varieties, without fear of their being attacked by fungal infections.
Both wines have a brilliant acid freshness and minerality, lending balance to their fruity, gourmand nature, and even the Soleil d’Automne, with its 50 grams of residual sugar, is refreshingly light. Likewise, the Terres Blanches, another Chiroulet dry white wine, is a lively, delicious mix of 50% Gros Manseng, 40% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% old-vine Ugni Blanc grown on chalky, white-clay soils. The Gros Manseng is lightly pressed (avoiding the high levels of tannins and polyphenols that can occur with excessive skin contact in this grape variety), while the Sauvignon Blanc and Ugni Blanc benefit from extended maceration to extract the maximum fruit and floral flavors. Fermentation, in stainless steel tanks, is done at a low 16°C temperature, and the wine matures for over 10 months on fine lees that are stirred weekly. The resulting wine has a mouth-feel, complexity and elegance that raises it above the norm for Côtes de Gascogne whites. It is delicious as an aperitif, but it can stand up to a richly flavored chicken dish or grilled fish or shellfish in a cream sauce.
A brand-new winery has been built recently, replacing one that dated from when his grandfather and father were producing bulk wines (one of the fermentation tanks was a tanker that was built originally to transport wine), allowing Fezas even more control over pressings and fermentations.
I didn’t have time this visit to taste their selection of Armagnac, and I’m anxious to try their white and rosé Floc de Gascogne, a regional aperitif made by combining fresh raisin juice with a young Armagnac. This vin de liqueur, which by AOC regulations must be between 16-18% alcohol, is served over ice. Many Flocs lack volume, and the characteristic almond, rose, honey and black fruit aromas are often lost through oxidation occurring while the Floc ages for 10 months in oak barrels. The French Guide Hachette wine guide compliments the Domaine de Chiroulet Flocs for their complexity, volume and length. I’m interested in seeing how well they combine with food, as I’ve been told that white Floc goes extremely well with foie gras or blue cheese, and that red Floc goes well with melon, sheep cheese, cakes and even chocolate.
An Armagnac and Floc dégustation in the springtime will confirm these wine-food pairings and allow me to establish if part of the Côtes de Gascogne really does produce wines that rival the region’s distinctive brandy.