The Plageoles: Gaillac’s first family

by Tom Fiorina on December 30, 2010

“Every generation needs a new revolution.”
Thomas Jefferson

Robert and Bernard Plageoles, circa 2008

Photo : Isabelle Rozenbaum - www.rozenbaum.com

It was the Phoenicians, then the Romans ( arriving four centuries later, around the first century B.C.), who first planted vines in the Gaillac region northeast of Toulouse. It predates Bordeaux, and like Cahors, Madiran and other wine regions in southwestern France it might have achieved the same renown if those mercantile wizards on the Garonne River had not first expropriated their wine (by blending it with their own) or later taxed it to death before it went through their port. While Bordeaux did all it could to eliminate its competition by assimilating it, phylloxera, the small, sap-eating, greenish louse that arrived in France in the mid-19th century, almost delivered the coup de grâce to Gaillac.

Southwestern France has about 150 indigenous grape varieties, representing about a quarter of France’s total. Gaillac was home to some of the most interesting: Duras, Braucol, Prunelart, Loin de l’œil, Mauzac and Ondenc, to name just a few. When phylloxera struck many winemakers decided to tear up their vines to grow other crops or to just leave the area. Much of this region’s rich ampelographic mosaic was pretty much lost.

The name Plageoles is synonymous with Gaillac. Its origins date to the Romans; the Plazolles settled in Gaillac before Jesus Christ was born. There were Plageoles in Lavaur, a village close by to Gaillac, when it was taken in 1211 by Simon de Montfort during the Albigensian Crusade to eradicate the heretical Cathars. And then there was an abbé (Abbot) Plageoles who had to leave for Spain when he found himself on the wrong side during the Revolution.

But it’s the 75-year-old Robert Plageoles, an iconoclastic ampelographer (an expert in the identification and classification of grapevines), who has indelibly linked this family to Gaillac wine. This son of the son of a winemaker was an excellent student. He couldn’t afford the cost of the preparatory classes needed to enter les grandes écoles, the higher education establishments outside the main framework of the French university system that are the normal route to success in France, so he set to work educating himself.

He read everything that he could find, particularly historical accounts of Gaillac’s indigenous grape varieties. And he continued the work that his father Marcel, an expert in grafting trees and grapevines, had begun. Marcel liked to hunt. And when he was out on Sundays with his dogs, he would take branches from interesting grapevines that he came across. One of these turned out to be Ondenc, an all-but-forgotten variety. After his father’s death in 1976, at just age 63 of a brain tumor, Robert set to work exploring the 200-or-so grapevines that Marcel had planted around 1960 in a corner of their vineyard.

Ondenc grapes after the stem has been pinched and the grapes have begun to dry and concentrate its sugar.

Everyone told him that Ondenc wasn’t very interesting, that it was fragile, and that it wasn’t worth keeping. But a mention in the 1909 edition of a book by Victor Sebastian about luxury wines saying that Ondenc is susceptible to pourriture noble, the “noble rot”—or botrytis, that attacks grapes made him curious. Particularly since the author compared historic Ondenc wines to the mythical Sauternes of Château Yquem.

Robert and his son Bernard planted 2.5 hectares of Ondenc in the early 1980s, and the resulting wines, which they called Vin d’Autan—after the warm, dry Vent d’Autan wind that blows in southwestern France, were astoundingly good. He continued to search out other Gaillac forgotten grape varieties, principally at the French state grape conservatory on the Mediterranean coast at Sète, grafting and growing Prunelart (for red wine), variations of the Mauzac grape, and Verdanel (for whites).

The Ondenc grapes drying on tables to further concentrate their sugar and aromatic compounds. After pressing, and fermentation, they will be made into an exceptional sweet wine, the Vin de l'Autan.

Bernard took over Domaine Plageoles around 10 years ago. He was always more interested in sports (he was the French Champion for the Military Pentathlon) than the literature and history that fascinated his father. Yet, Bernard shares his father’s rebellious, independent, stubborn streak. Upon entering the Gaillac Wine Syndicate, he demanded to know why their president was from Bordeaux. At age 54 he hasn’t mellowed much, and he’s not afraid to tap on the table to get attention or to fight against what he sees as misguided appellation regulations.

He shares his father’s love for Gaillac, its native grape varieties, and low-tech, natural-yeast wine-making. Rather than blending their wines, they’ve chosen to bottle each wine as a single variety. This New World wine style puts them at odds with the AOC, but it also allows them to market the distinctiveness of the Gaillac grape varieties.

Bernard Plageoles is the first to say that it’s not easy being the son of an iconoclast such a Robert Plageoles, who literally wrote the book (a coffee-table volume, Gaillac wine: 2,000 years of history, that he co-authored in 2000) on Gaillac wine. Only 20 years separate the two men, and Bernard says that there have “often been sparks between the two of us.”

They coexist, however, and the younger-generation Plageoles has introduced some of his ideas, while preserving his father’s philosophy of rebel winemaker. He has planted Syrah, in direct contradiction of Robert Plageoles’ avowed opposition to “foreign” varieties, making a delicious red with excellent ageing potential.

Don't let the smile fool you--this guy is seriously intense.

Bernard has also, along with fellow winemakers Patrice Lescarret and Michel Issaly, and the alcohol distiller Laurent Cazottes, created the bistrot “Vigne en foule” in Gaillac’s main square. A talented young chef, Julien Bourdariès, cooks southwestern cuisine (foie gras, lamb, pig feet, etc.), while there are more than 400 different natural wines on offer. Robert Plageoles has created a grappothèque, a collection of 80 jars with indigenous southwestern grape bunches preserved, museum style, in formaldehyde. The jars, which line the restaurant’s walls, are attractively back lit, and each grape variety is identified, along with a description of the type of wine that can be made from it. The “Vigne en foule” received a national food award in 2009 as the best bistrot à vin in France.

The preparation involved in making the Vin d’Autan is indicative of the Plageoles’ dedication to tradition and quality. All but four of the bunches of Ondenc grapes are removed from each vine in August, then at harvest time each bunch’s stem is pinched with pliers to sever the communication with the vine to allow the grapes to dry and sweeten naturally. When the grapes are harvested several weeks later, they are laid out under Plexiglas tunnels to continue drying and ripening, aided by the hot Autan winds. Finally, they are pressed, and, depending on the sugar and alcohol level, the wine is released as either a vin moelleux (semisweet wine) called Caprice d’Autan or as a higher-in-sugar vin liquoreux (sweet wine) labeled Vin d’Autan. And the price of €50/ for a 500ml bottle is more than justified by the work involved and the tiny yield (around 4hl/ha–or 400L per hectare) obtained.

The Plageoles’ reds, made from Mauzac noir, Braucol (also known as Fer Servadou), Duras, Syrah and Prunelart, have the structure of a good Bordeaux but with more spicy flavors, and the whites, made from Mauzac vert, Ondenc and  Verdanel, are aromatic and fresh, with good acidity and excellent mouth feel. They also make two traditional Gaillac wines—a rustic white sparkling wine called Mauzac Nature, and the Vin de voile, a nutty, dry white wine that is barrel-oxidized like the vin jaune of the Jura or the fortified sherries from Andalusia.

Another generation of Plageoles, Bernard’s two sons, 27-year-old Florent and 23-year-old Romain, are ready to continue the family tradition. Florent, who has a degree in tourism, is ready to use Gaillac’s rich history, extraordinary wine and culinary tradition, and beautiful landscapes to develop wine tourism in the area. The younger Romain is well placed to continue his father and grandfather’s wine-making tradition with his viticulture and oenology studies and a business degree.

It’s not easy being the small wine appellation against the giants of Bordeaux, or the independent, rebellious vigneron fighting to relax or extend AOC regulations to allow different styles of wine. Gaillac and the Plageoles have come a long way in the past 40 years. The Plageoles have managed to recapture some of the historic recognition that Gaillac wines had in the past. They’ve also brought back from oblivion many of its distinctive grape varieties. But Robert and Bernard Plageoles have stepped on a lot of toes. The number of people who are envious of their notoriety is probably equal to the number who admire their work and their wine.

Those content to make industrial, oak-floorboard, banana-flavored, commercial-yeast wines should beware. The Plageoles family will likely continue its rant for generations to come.

But he does have his admirers...

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Iris January 2, 2011 at 17:10

Thank you, Tom, for another thrilling winemaker-story to start into the New year – and what a happy picture at the end of your story, to do it with a smile. I’m amongst the admirers of the Plageole Family and their wines and especially Robert’s enormous work for the old grape varieties for over 25 years now – met Bernard only once, when he was a “young man” – so once more something, to show me, that time goes by… but quality lasts:-)!
and:
Happy New Year to you and your family, while it’s still time to say it!

Tom Fiorina January 2, 2011 at 20:35

Thanks, Iris, always a pleasure to hear from you. And coming from you–an authentic “rebel” vignerone–the comment means that much more to me. Happy New Year to you. I hope that 2011 is a very good year for you and Lisson.

Per-BKWine January 3, 2011 at 10:53

Would have loved to have visited their vineyards. They make some very interesting and unusual wines. Have only met them once \\\i think, but tasted their wines on a few occasions. There are actually quite a few interesting producers in this far too little known appellation. Here’s an interview with Plageoles I did a long time ago: http://www.youtube.com/bkwine#p/u/87/I5D_g5qZeYw

Can you imagine what they could do if they all banded together down in the Sud Ouest and started marketing their wines a bit more effectively: Gaillac, Fronton, Madiran, Jurancon,….!

Tom Fiorina January 3, 2011 at 22:44

Thanks, Per, for your comment. I think that your excellent video interview with Bernard Plageoles is also accessible on their website. An interesting footnote to this story is that I did my one-month “stage vendange” for my DNO studies at their vineyard. Really interesting, and enlightening. I’m sure that you would appreciate visiting them. Also, while I was there a Danish tv crew filmed a segment for a series they were doing of grape harvests across all of France’s wine regions. I know that they were going to visit Antoine Arena in Corsica after Gaillac. I’d like to see the series, as it is in Danish and English. They were going to try to syndicate it, so maybe it is accessible on the Internet.

Thomas January 4, 2011 at 13:42

Hi Tom,

Great article. It really makes me curious to try some more wine from Gaillac. And thanks for the recommendation for ‘Vigne ne foule’. This place sounds so great that I’ll take all our future visitors we’ll have this year to Gaillac for some food and wine tasting. Keep up the good work … et Bonne Chance avec les classes de chimie en français!

Tom Fiorina January 4, 2011 at 19:11

Thanks, Thomas. Gaillac and its wine are worth showing off. Especially when combined with a visit to nearby Albi or Cordes-sur-ciel.

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