The Saint-Mont appellation of southwestern France spreads out over a scenic plateau just north of the Pyrenees Mountains that divide this part of France and Spain. The Chemin de Saint-Jacques (the pilgrimage route known in English as The Way of St. James, which leads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition holds that the saint’s remains are buried) passes just north of the appellation.
Plaimont Producteurs, the local wine cooperative, is a case study in how certain caves cooperatives in France have re-invented themselves. Over several decades it has become the leading producer of wine in southwestern France. Its 1,000 grape producers and 200 salaried employees produce over 40 million bottles of wine annually from the 5,300 hectares (over 13,000 acres) under cultivation. Forty-five percent of the wine is sold in France; the rest is exported to over 30 different countries.
André Dubosc, the director of the wine cooperative from 1979 to 2008, oversaw much of the group’s development. In 1979, three major caves cooperatives in the department of the Gers—in the towns of Plaisance, Aignan and Saint-Mont, merged (the name Plaimont Producteurs comes from the first initials of each; PL for Plaisance, AI for Aignan and MONT for Saint-Mont). The cave cooperative from Crouseilles (which produces wine from the Madiran, Pacherence du Vic Bilh and Béarn appellations) and the cave cooperative of Condom (which produces Côtes de Gascogne wine) were added in 1999.
I first met Dubosc in March 2013 around the time that a small plot of 150-year-old, pre-phylloxera vines in the Saint-Mont appellation were given France’s coveted Historic Monument status. He is as upright and tall as those historic vines, with white hair and a neatly trimmed white mustache under his omnipresent black beret. The third-generation winemaker carries a distinguished French wine-family pedigree. His grandfather, who held an engineering degree from Montpellier’s renowned school of agriculture, worked with other engineers there in the late-19th Century trying to find a way to protect France’s vines from the phylloxera invasion from America. Dubosc’s father was an agricultural consultant who traveled to South America and South Africa. Dubosc earned his oenology degree in Bordeaux, studying under the legendary French oenologist Emile Peynaud.
Dubosc, along with others at Plaimont Producteurs, has used the unique terroir of these Pyrenees foothills, with the steep slopes of the Adour Valley that pass through it benefiting equally from the nearby mountain and Atlantic Ocean climates, and its soil of rolled pebbles, and fawn-colored sand shot through with veins of pure clay and variegated clay-limestone to produce wines with a signature freshness and aromatic exuberance.
The cooperative has also played an integral role in preserving the rich ampelographic history (Ampelography is the field of botany concerned with the identification and classification of grapevines) of Gascony, the ancient name for this southwestern corner of France. Dubosc told me that recent DNA studies had confirmed that the Adour Valley was the home of noble oceanic-climate grape varieties used in Bordeaux (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc), as well as the Tannat used in Madiran and Saint-Mont red wines, and the Gros and Petit Manseng used to make dry and sweet white wines in Jurancon and Pacherence du Vic Bilh.
Going back almost 30 years, the cooperative began to identify and protect the native grape varieties that originated here. In 2002 they created a Conservatoire Ampélographique to preserve them. It has now grown into the largest private conservatory for grapevines in France, with over 60 grape varieties included in it. Among them are 27 grape varieties that are widely planted throughout southwestern France, 33 rediscovered grape varieties, and 12 varieties that are still unidentified.
The current managing director of Plaimont Producteurs, Olivier Bourdet-Pees, who studied oenology in Toulouse, is responsible for a special cuvée Vignes Préphylloxériques made from a small parcel of pre-phylloxera Tannat and Pinenc (Fer Servadou) vines on the highest hill in the village of Saint-Mont. Less than 1,500 bottles are produced annually, and the demand for this rare wine means that only a handful of collectors manage to taste it. Bourdet-Pees, in launching the 2011 millesime of this cuvée in Paris, said that it represents the wine cooperative’s efforts to preserve the unique typicity of its appellations and the biodiversity of southwestern France.
A more audacious winemaking experiment may be coming. Dubosc didn’t want to say much, but he did mention that efforts to select and enlarge, through new plantings, certain of the conservatory’s rediscovered grape varieties, are literally about to bear fruit. Micro-vinifications of these grapes have shown their commercial promise, and there will undoubtedly be announcements this fall about additional special cuvées made from these ancient grape varieties.
What is perhaps more amazing is the effort to use the conservatory’s 12 unidentified grape varieties, the wild ancestors of domesticated vitis vinifera sativa grapevines, to produce wine. These grapevines are sort of the missing link between the Lambrusque vines that grow wild in the forest, climbing 10 meters or higher along the trunks of oak and poplar, and today’s cultivated varieties. More commonly known as Creepers, these Lambrusque vines produce small, very acidic grapes that are not good for making wine. The humid forests of the lower Pyrenees that include the Saint-Mont appellation were and are a paradise for these wild vines.
Through thousands of years of selective breeding, farmers were able to adapt them to the dryer and sunnier climate of open fields, producing larger, less acidic and better tasting grapes. The dozen unknown varieties under cultivation at the conservatory retain the hermaphroditic condition (the ability to fertilize themselves; an advantage over barren male vines and female vines, which were dependent on a nearby male vine for pollination) that is found in Lambrusque vines.
It remains to be seen if wine made from these missing-link vines, wine never made before for commercial distribution, can find a place in today’s marketplace. Given the viticultural, technical and marketing acumen of the Plaimont Producteurs, the chances are that the answer is “Yes.” Stay tuned.