Although it’s not the part of the wine world that interests me the most, there is no arguing that fine French wine (with the emphasis on “fine”) appeals to a certain class of people who enjoy the finer things in life.
Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows that most of my articles are about people who are rarely found in first-class or with clean fingernails. These people—vignerons, winemakers (OK, when it comes down to it they’re farmers)—are people that I respect and can relate to. My paternal grandparents were Italian peasants who came to the U.S. because they didn’t have enough to eat. Many of these small-domaine owners are only one bad harvest or hailstorm away from foreclosure and losing their land to the bank that actually owns it.
Not that I have anything against the upper class. I do occasionally write about engineers, doctors and lawyers who have given up their former professions to become winemakers. And I’ve even had the pleasure of writing about a charming woman who was once the assistant of the designer Paco Rabanne, and whose descendants were famous French parliamentarians who undoubtedly rubbed elbows with the King of France.
Many of these individuals, at least by appearance, are well off, and they have, for the most part, impeccably clean fingernails. If I had to guess, though, probably none (or very few) of them have what is widely understood to be an excellent indicator of wealth, a Swiss bank account.
Imagine my surprise when I visited the 350-ha Domaine de Gensac estate in the Gers, just west of Toulouse. The owner of this vast property, which includes one of the oldest and best preserved castles in this historically rich region once known as Gascony, is from Switzerland. The chances of him having a Swiss bank account are excellent since his grandfather created, in the 1930s, one of Switzerland’s foremost private banks.
He bought this property about 10 years ago, primarily for his 40-or-so prized Lipizzaners, a breed of horse best known for performing at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. About 80ha of rolling Gascon hills on the property are dedicated to the horses. Only about 20 of the Lipizzaner horses are kept at the Domaine de Gensac. The others are kept on an even larger property that the owners have in Hungary.
I was given a tour of the vineyard, the exquisitely equipped winery and aging cellars (used to age both wine and armagnac), and a 5-star stable and indoor riding arena, by Pénélope “Penny” Wadsworth, who handles media relations. Although tempted to learn more about her school days in the 1970s at a British boarding school in Montreux (of “Smoke-on-the-water” fame), playing darts at the famous “White Horse Pub” with David Bowie and other British rock royalty, I focused my questions on the conversion of the property into a horse farm, cultural center and, certainly above all, a provider of quality red wine.
Prunes, produced by 30ha of prune trees, were the largest cash crop at the Domaine de Gensac before the Vontobels purchased the property. White wine and armagnac were also made from its 20ha of white grapevines. Since 2005, the property has been steadily converted to red wine production. A good number of prune trees were uprooted to plant red grape varieties native to Southwestern France such as Tannat, Côt (Malbec) and Fer Servadou. This conversion began in 2005, and it has accelerated with the arrival in 2011 of an Alsatian oenologist, Jacques Hauller, who also serves as estate director.
Normally, the Gers is associated with Côtes de Gascogne white wines. Hauller explained, however, that the clay-limestone soil in the Condom area of the Gers, where the Domaine de Gensac is located, is perfect for making well-structured red wines. Condom, which is an unending source of amusement for English-speaking people in the region, has nothing to do with the population-control device of the same name; it’s the unofficial capital of the Ténèraze Armagnac region and, with a population of 7,000, the Gers’s second largest city. Red wine from the Condom region, particularly Gensac, has been famous here since the 13th century, Hauller added.
As armagnac consumption has fallen in recent decades, producers in the Gers are using their white grapes more for bottled wine and less for brandy. The Domaine de Gensac is taking this conversion step even further; since 2005, almost two-thirds of the vines on the property have been field-grafted with red grapevine stock. This involves cutting the existing grapevine off of the American rootstock that protects the plant from the phylloxera louse that destroyed the majority of European vineyards in the late 19th century. Surgreffage, as it’s called in French, allows the vine to begin producing grapes of the new variety within a year or two afterwards.
Not all of the vines, however, have been converted to produce red wine grapes. The Domaine de Gensac uses its Ugni blanc white grapes to make armagnac, including the world’s only kosher armagnac. Ugni blanc grapes are also used to make a sparkling white wine made using the méthode traditionnelle (the “traditional method,” where, as in Champagne, the effervescence is produced by secondary fermentation in the bottle). This wine, which is called Cabriole, has fine bubbles, which is not always the case with non-Champagne, Champagne-style wines. Having been aged on its lees, the dead yeast cells, and bits of grape skin and pulp that settle to the bottom of the vat at the end of fermentation, this wine has a nice weight and substance. The relatively soft bubbles and refreshing acidity are balanced by the ripe fruit flavors.
All of the Domaine de Gensac wines are named after classic dressage movements, the highly controlled, stylized jumps and other complex maneuvers used in equestrian competitions. A Cabriole, for example, is when the horse leaps straight upward, and, with all four legs off the ground, it gives a backward kick of the hind legs.
The Pirouette is a blend of four white grapes: Petit manseng, Petit courbu, Sémillon and Sauvignon gris. It’s fermented in oak barrels. The full-bodied, dry white wine has a pleasant floral aroma and pleasing white fruit taste with a touch of vanilla. It has a long, flavorful finish, but I felt that this is one pirouette that could stand a touch more acidity to lift the balance more into equilibrium.
The Piaffer is a cadenced trot executed by the horse in one spot, with its legs in perfect balance. The horse raises and lowers its diagonally opposite limbs alternatively, with the intervals between each footfall being made as long as possible. Mastering the Piaffer is considered the epitome of dressage, and it requires, like an excellent wine, a perfect state of equilibrium and balance. The Domaine de Gensac Piaffer wine is made of Merlot, Tannat, Côt and Cabernet sauvignon that are aged, after fermentation, in oak barrels for 12 months before blending. Spicy with fresh, bright fruit–predominantly blackcurrant, with a delicate hint of smoky vanilla, this is a full-bodied wine with smooth, fine tannins that merits its name. The 2011 is elegant and fresh, and it showed promise of evolving into an even better wine in another few years.
They also use an unoaked blend of 50% Tannat and 50% Merlot to make a wine called the Pas de deux. The Pas de deux is an equestrian performance where two horses perform dressage movements, usually mirroring each other. Similarly the two grape varieties used in this wine play off of each other, with the Merlot bringing wild strawberry and forest fruit to the blend and the Tannat providing a good tannic structure and body.
It’s obvious from the way that he speaks about the two flagship Domaine de Gensac wines that Hauller has become a huge fan of the Tannat grape. Tannat is most closely associated with the close-by winemaking region of Madiran, at the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. With its intense fruit, spice and powerful tannins, Tannat can produce remarkable wines that rival the best Bordeaux Grands Crus.
And he doesn’t even need to mention, but he inevitably does, the master of Tannat, Alain Brumont, of Château Montus fame, who brought this grape back to its pre-phylloxera fame when it was used in the Middle Ages, along with Malbec wine from Cahors, to strengthen and darken lighter Bordeaux wines to produce robust blends that were then shipped to the wealthy regions of northern Europe.
Two 100% Tannat wines, the Terre à Terre, aged for 18 months in the best French oak barrels, and the Solo, made from the estate’s oldest vines and aged for 24 months in large French oak barriques, are what the reputation of Domaine de Gensac (excuse the equine pun) is riding on. Both wines are, naturally, given their grape provenance, dense purple-red in color, with a nose of tobacco and ripe red fruit. The tannins are impressive and extremely present, but the intense fruit flavors and spicy richness of the wine balances them nicely. The 2007 Terre à Terre and the 2008 Solo (with an amazing 15.6% alcohol content) were still youthful; Hauller says that the Terre à Terre will reach its peak in another two or three years, while the Solo should last for another decade or two.
Terre à Terre (which involves the horse performing dressage movements that are “close to the ground”) and Solo (a single rider performing alone) seem to be appropriate names when taking on one of France’s most iconoclastic winemakers. In explaining why he had bought up approximately one-tenth of the Madiran appellation, Alain Brumont famously said: “The best wine comes from the best terroir.”
Hauller admits that he hopes one day to make a Tannat wine that will stand up to the high standards that Brumont has set. Just before leaving, I saw a parcel of vines that might just be what is needed. It’s four hectares of old Tannat vines that Hauller recently acquired for the estate. Planted together, two-by-two, in two-meter-plus squares so that the oxen used to work the vines in a pre-tractor era could pass in both directions, it’s not difficult to sense the potential in this parcel of vines on a southeastward-facing slope opposite the Pyrenees mountains.
Horse training in the classical Haute Ecole tradition bears a lot of resemblance to winemaking in that both require intuition, expertise, discipline and patience. I could imagine that these twisted, old Tannat vines would soon be prancing, in synchronization, along with those others at the Domaine de Gensac.