The Fronton Wine Festival that is held each year during the last weekend in August is one of the summer highlights for Toulouse wine lovers. Located just north of Toulouse, best known as the headquarters of jet plane manufacturer Airbus, this wine region sits between the Tarn and Garonne rivers. It covers just 2,400 hectares, making it one of France’s smallest. Contrary to most of the southwestern wine regions, which are filled with rolling hills, Fronton is flat, sitting on three ancient terraces of alluvial soil deposited by the meandering rivers.
Fronton is known for the Négrette grape, a thin-skinned variety that produces low-acidic, low-tannin wines with part violet-come-hither, part Middle-Eastern-spice-market aromas and a lush, soft mouth. The prevalent legend, when I attended my first Fronton fair six years ago, was that the Négrette had been brought here from Cyprus in the Middle Ages by religious knights who had fought in the Crusades. Local opinion seems to have been swayed by the trend, among certain of today’s wine drinkers, towards indigenous grapes (sparked perhaps by wine-drinker fatigue with international grape varieties, evolving fashion trends, and the recently published Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz Wine Grapes tome), for the story being told now is that the Négrette shares ancestry with two other southwestern grapes: the Côt (the local name for Malbec) and Tannat.
Whichever story is accurate, the Négrette grape reigns supreme in the Fronton region with 1,700 hectares of it planted here. Marc Peyavayre from Château Plaisance, one of my favorite Fronton vineyards, told me at the festival that he favors a combination of the two versions, with “the mother” of the Négrette grape being brought to Fronton in the Middle Ages and that it was then crossed with one of the aforementioned native grapes.
He also told me, to my surprise, that Négrette is grown in several California vineyards, where it is known as either Pinot Saint George or Pinot Noir, and that he believes, after comparing vine leaves, that a Corsican grape—the Minustellu, is really Négrette. I intend on following up on this theory in the near future with several Corsican winemakers who grow this grape. Certainly the Négrette seems to be an excellent candidate for the recently launched Wine Mosaic project meant to preserve, protect and promote the original grape varieties of the Mediterranean.
Apart from those interesting indigenous grape discussions with Peyavayre, I noticed several emerging trends at the wine festival. The first was the general improvement in all of the wines that I tasted. Back in 2008 I left the festival feeling like I had a mouth full of splinters. Overuse of new oak seemed to be, with only a few exceptions, the rule here. I suppose that this was partly Fronton winemakers following the then trend to produce very-ripe, broad-shouldered wines, and partly a response to the common disparaging remark, viewing the lush, soft tendencies of the Négrette, that this was the “Beaujolais of Toulouse.”
For the most part, the wines that I tasted from approximately one-third of the 29 winemakers present were unoaked or, when they had seen a barrel, the oak was discrete or undetectable on the palate.
In addition to better managing the aging of their wines, there also appears to be improved vine cultivation. The low-acidic, low-tannin Négrette’s lush, soft characteristics are even more pronounced at high grape yields. Green harvesting some of the grapes and better canopy management help to beef up the wine (perhaps not to the taste of a certain, well-known American wine critic, but certainly to the point where you know that there’s something in your glass). It’s never going to have the chewy, mouth-filling tannins of a Cahors or Madiran from the southwest, but it has the appeal of being ready to drink now—not in five years, and it makes for a more attractive summer wine cooled to 15° or 18°C.
The other trend was the presence behind the winemaker stands of a lot of new, younger faces (or maybe I’m just getting older). There’s a new generation of winemakers taking over from their parents and grandparents, with a new sense of enthusiasm for Fronton and the Négrette.
Philippe and Diane Cauvin, who took over her family domaine, Château La Colombière, in 1999, fit that description well. Their very pale Vin Gris rosé, a blend of Négrette (60%) and Gamay (40%), illustrates why this appellation produces some of southwestern France’s best rosé wine. Its fresh, mineral, fruity flavors rival some of the best rosé from Provence. And, like the rosés that I appreciate the most, it has a heft and length that allow it to stand up to a barbecued steak or even a Salade gersoise, the traditional southwestern France salad that includes as much dried duck, duck livers, duck paté, foie gras and other assorted duck parts as salade.
Their 100% Vinum cuvée was round and fruity, with the distinctive violet and licorice-perfumed peppery Négrette characteristics of the best Fronton wine, while still being balanced with good complexity and length. The other wine that I tasted, which is called Bellouguet, is a blend of Négrette, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. It ages for two years in a combination of concrete tanks and 600L oak barrels. It’s rich and concentrated, with good balance, and with a nice blend of peppery, licorice-flavored aroma and the structure and body of a good Cabernet. At €15 a bottle, it represents excellent value-for-money.
Négrette blends seem to be on the rise, as the judges who awarded prizes following a morning tasting of the wines were especially impressed with a blend of Négrette, Syrah and Côt called Le Bouissel from the Château Bouissel. This is one of the Fronton Vin de Haute Expression wines, which means that it has been selected and accredited by a local panel that grades Fronton wines against certain quality standards. It’s another way of saying Grand Cru without stepping on any Bordelais or Burgundian toes.
Le Bouissel took the “Sommelier’s Coup de Coeur” award, which translates roughly as this is what you’re likely to see recommended by your sommelier if you ask for a Fronton wine in a better French restaurant. It’s an interesting wine, but the aromas, extremely ripe fruit and brawny tannins in it would never allow you to identify its origin in a blind tasting.
That holds true for two other wines from Château Bouissel that were singled out for recognition by the jury; a dry white wine called Peiruda made from Viognier, Petit Manseng and Colombard grapes (which received a gold medal) and their Sibéria sweet white wine (a silver medal recipient) made of (amazingly enough, as this is southwestern France) Riesling and Gewurtztraminer. This one will have the Alsatians scratching their heads, but it works. It has an attractive petrol nose, a rich and dense mouth, and it will go well with dessert, foie gras or a nice cheese platter.
Château Plaisance took the gold medal for white sweet wines for their Collection Privée wine, a blend of Botrytised Chenin and Semillon grapes. These “noble rot” grapes are pressed and then fermented in small wooden barrels for four months. Like a good Sauterne or Tokaji, this wine has enough acidity to balance the 22% alcohol in it, with heady fruit, white flower and dried apricot aromas.
Château Plaisance also won a silver medal for its Cuvée Tradition in the unoaked Fronton Red 2011 category (the gold medal was won by Domaine de Lescure). All of the award winners are listed here.
Overall, particularly for rosé wines, the 100% Négrette reds that continue to steer clear of or to use oak judiciously, and Fronton reds cleverly disguised, using intelligent blends, as something that might possibly have come from 200km to the northwest (i.e., Bordeaux), things are looking up for Toulouse wine lovers and those drinkers around the globe served by importers willing to look in lesser-known French wine regions.