Halfway between Toulouse and Bordeaux lies the Pays du Vin Noir (“Land of Black Wines”). Before phylloxera destroyed most of France’s vineyards in the mid-19th century, these strong, full-bodied black Côtes du Brulhois wines were used to strengthen Bordeaux wines.
The 280-ha (690-acre), sausage-shaped appellation sits on the banks of the Garonne River that runs from Toulouse through Bordeaux on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. The oceanic climate and gravelly soil, underlain with clay, is similar to the Bordeaux wine appellations 175km (100+ miles) to the west. The Côtes du Brulhois appellation (one of France’s youngest, having been created in just 2011) includes the same grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, which are found in Bordeaux.
But a mediterranean influence arrives here on winds that pass by Europe’s largest medieval walled city, Carcassonne, and other grape varieties–such as Tannat, from the Pyrenees foothills to the south, and Fer Servadou from Gaillac to the east, and Côt (otherwise known as Malbec) of Cahors to the northeast—are also present. There is also the rare, indigenous red grape, the Abouriou, which was nearly wiped out by phylloxera.
A half-dozen private vignerons make wine in the region, but the majority of the wine is from the Vignerons du Brulhois wine cooperative. The coop produces over 10,000 hectoliters annually (around one-fourth of what the region in pre-phylloxera days produced), and around 5,000 hectoliters of that is red and rosé AOC Brulhois (white Brulhois is difficult to find, but the coop does make a Sauvignon-Gros Manseng blend).
The 2011 AOC designation was the result of a concerted effort, using grape yield management and the selection of the region’s finest terroir, to improve the quality of Brulhois wine. Although unlikely that you might confuse them with a Premier Grand Cru from Bordeaux, the similarity of the grape varieties and soil make certain of these wines great substitutes for more common Bordeaux. Like the nearby wine cooperative, the Vignerons du Quercy that I have written about before, Côtes du Brulhois wines are incredible value-for-money with most of them costing less than €10 ($12.25).
Isabelle Mignot, an œnologue who did her studies in Bordeaux and who serves as the cave coop’s export manager, allowed me taste their range of wines in the recently-renovated tasting room. This magnificent room, which features a table and other furnishings built by local craftsmen from wood from southwestern France forests, has a huge period photo on one wall of one of the gabarres flat-bottom boats that transported Brulhois wines to Bordeaux.
The 1808, an entry red wine named for the year that Napoleon created the Tarn-et-Garonne department, which is just one of the three departments with Côtes du Brulhois vines (the Tarn-et-Garonne and the Gers are the others), was the first wine in the tasting. This Cabernet Franc-Tannat-Merlot blend, with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon and Fer Servadou, is loaded with fresh fruit and spice aromas. The tannins are slightly rustic, but it has a nice freshness, which Mignot told me is characteristic of the Tannat grape. At less than €5 a bottle this is an unbeatable deal. They sell over 250,000 bottles of this wine each year. A good number of them go to Quebec, where it is labeled Carrelot des Amants.
In fact it was the Société des alcools du Québec, the liquor control board that has a monopoly on alcohol sales in the Canadian province, which oriented the Vignerons du Brulhois towards an export strategy in the late 1990s. An impressive 40% of the wine coop’s sales now go to export markets, with Quebec being, by far, the largest.
The 1808 is just the tip of the export juggernaut, however. There’s also an elegant 50% Merlot-50% Fer Servadou red, the Domaine Bel Casse, made from grapes from the appellation’s sole organic vineyard, that mixes red cherries, spices and the green pepper tastes typical of the Fer Servadou grape into a complex blend of cherry pie flavors and silky tannins. The 2013 vintage retails for less than €7 (all cited prices are the cost of a bottle purchased at the coop; you can double that price by the time this wine reaches an export market).
Les Anciens Prieurés, a blend of Merlot, Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon, is more substantial in body and approaches the dark color that earned Brulhois wine its “black wine” moniker. It has a complex nose of cherries, underbrush and leather. There’s also a refreshing touch of menthol, red cherries and chocolate, with a nice, lengthy finish. The price is an incredibly low €5.50.
The power and depth of Brulhois wines is in evidence in two other wines, one aged in oak barrels for 12 months, the Château Grand Chêne, and the other, the eponymously named Le Vin Noir, aged in tanks for a year. The Grand Chêne is 50% Tannat, with the rest being Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. These selected parcels are grown in sand-based soil interspersed with clay (known as boulbènes in southwestern France) and gravel. Blood red with black highlights, and with red fruits, leather and underbrush aromas, the 2010 Grand Chêne (€7.50 a bottle) also has a refreshing hint of mint and vanilla. This powerful, yet balanced wine can be kept from six to eight years.
Le Vin Noir is a blend of 40% Tannat, 30% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc. Ruby red with black highlights, the wine comes, Mignot said, from some of the appellation’s finest terroir (which include a heavy dose of iron oxide in the soil, intensifying the wine’s dark color). The nose had a hint of red currant and blueberry aromas, but it wasn’t as expressive as the Grand Chêne (€8.50). This is undoubtedly due to the 2010 Le Vin Noir being relatively young and going through a “closed” period. This is a long-term, cellaring wine that will keep up to 10 years.
The flagship wine of the coop is named Terressence. I must admit that, for me, it was the least satisfying of the wines that I tasted. It’s made from old-vine Tannat, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes (one-third of each), vinified separately, with 20% of the wine aged for 12 months in oak barrels. You often see, when tasting at a coop or with a vigneron, that the highest-priced wine (in this case €18) is simply a stretch too far. For the Terressence cuvée, it starts with the heavy, Burgundian-style bottle that is different from the Bordeaux-style bottles used for all of the coop’s other wines. I don’t have anything against Burgundy, slope-shouldered wine bottles, but almost every time I encounter this incongruity in a coop’s or vigneron’s family of wines, the wine is made from too-ripe grapes (the Terressence’s “jammy,” flabby flavors and 14.5% alcohol confirm this), is too brawny (one sip was enough of this “huge” wine—you’d have to be Robert Parker to enjoy drinking more), and it is too unbalanced (the sugar-acidity balance was off, making it, once again, “heavy”).
It’s a shame, because the intention to show off the capabilities of the Brulhois terroir, grapes and the winemaking capabilities of the coop are worthy objectives. But I believe that they need to dial back the maturation of the grapes, reduce the extraction of the tannins and aroma components, and maybe not try so hard to use an “international” packaging approach. That would be a “flagship” wine worth trying.
And I’m sure that the Vignerons du Brulhois are capable of producing such a wine. Their 1808, Château Grand Chêne and Grain d’Amour rosé wines (which represent 50% of their production), which are all made from direct pressing, and which are fermented at low temperatures have a lovely freshness and roundness.
I was particularly taken with the Grain d’Amour. They make over 300,000 bottles of this wine from the Muscat de Hambourg, typically a table grape. With its 35 grams of residual sugar, I expected something cloyingly sweet. But, no, the pale, salmon-colored wine is delicate and fresh, lifted by its acidity to a level of elegance that make it worthy of being the an excellent aperitif or a fine accompaniment for a Thai dish, a blue cheese or a fruit-based dessert. And at only 10.5% alcohol, you can, if you want, drink a glass or two without any problem.
So it’s clear that the Vignerons du Brulhois coop can produce, in addition to their excellent “black wines,” something a little off-beat, distinctive and worth seeking.
The last thing that their export manager, Isabelle Mignot, told me was that she was in discussions with an important U.S. importer. Maybe it’s in 2015 that Americans will finally discover what the Québécois have known since 1998: southwestern France reds can give a great many Bordeaux wines a run for their money.