The Quercy is a little-populated region of southwestern France located between Bordeaux and Toulouse. The Lot River, which runs through Cahors, defines its northern border, and The Tarn River runs along its southern border.
It has its own wine appellation, Coteaux du Quercy, which predominately features full-bodied red wines made from 40-60% Cabernet franc blended with a maximum of 25% of one of the following red grape varieties: Malbec (called Côt here), Tannat or Merlot. They also make, using Gamay grapes, fresh, fruity rosés with red-fruit and floral aromas. Some adventurous winemakers in the Causses du Quercy, a higher-elevation limestone plateau, have begun planting Sauvignon blanc, Chinon and Chardonnay. The white wines made from these grapes have a surprising Chablis-like minerality and freshness, pointing the way forward to increased wine choice here.
Geographically, the Coteaux du Quercy sits south of the Cahors wine region and north of Gaillac. Like them, it benefits from a continental climate that is influenced by both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea (both of which are located around 120 miles (193km) away). Winters here are colder than in Bordeaux, but the sunshine levels and summer temperatures are higher, providing an excellent grape growing season.
Although I’m extremely fond of Cahors wine (particularly 100% Malbec Cahors aged in well-used oak barrels that allow the wine to evolve without tasting like floorboards, and then allowed to rest in the bottle for eight or ten years so that the tannins soften), sometimes you want a wine that is more supple and fruity. Something that goes as well with pasta in tomato sauce as it does with a juicy steak. You find these kinds of wines in the Coteaux du Quercy.
Like everywhere, vineyard sites are essential elements in the wine style: those located on the Causses (in addition to offering refreshing white wines) produce more tannic, longer-lived reds. More gravelly slopes, with a higher percentage of clay, tend to offer more approachable, fruity wines.
Another part of the equation is the grape variety. The high proportion of Cabernet franc results in richly perfumed reds, while the winemaker’s style influences the wine’s body “weight”; the addition of Merlot makes for more supple wines, while Tannat and Malbec add a more meatier, more-tannic character to the wine.
Like many smaller, lesser-known wine appellations in southwestern France, Coteaux du Quercy producers tend to focus on the domestic market. Their limited production doesn’t allow for an export strategy, and they don’t have the name recognition of more famous French wine appellations.
I recently tasted a selection of Coteaux du Quercy wines from what might be called a new-generation wine cooperative. Les Vignerons du Quercy has around 40 members. I use the “new-generation” moniker to distinguish this cooperative from “old-style” cooperatives that more closely resembled an oil refinery in cleanliness, friendliness and quality orientation. The old-style wine co-ops were mostly frequented by elderly wine drinkers lugging plastic bidons (in English, “plastic jugs”) to haul home five or ten liters of low-quality, cheap wine.
New-style cooperatives have largely replaced aging concrete wine tanks with gleaming, stainless steel tanks, and the bidons have been replaced by bag-in-box wines. These cooperatives are run by a younger generation who use websites to explain their history, their philosophy and their wine selection, and they have graphic designers produce attractive labels that are part of a total packaging strategy that includes quality bottles and closures.
At the Vignerons du Quercy cooperative it’s not just form, either. The wine has had a makeover, as well. Francis Jeansou, the director of the cooperative since 2011 (it began in 1985), told me that they’ve made a deliberate choice to obtain maximum quality by matching each of their producers’ terroir with the appellation’s available grape varieties. Selectivity continues with the grape harvest, which is done parcel-by-parcel (to ensure optimal grape ripeness), and then into the co-op’s wine cellar, where grapes from individual parcels are vinified separately.
The resulting wines are excellent, and Robert Parker Jr. must have had co-ops like this one in mind when he recently pronounced that many of the world’s best under-twenty-dollar wines would come from France, Italy and Spain. Here are my impressions of the Vignerons du Quercy wines that I tasted recently. Jeansou told me that around 10% of the production is exported (with around half of that now going to China), and that they now have a U.S. importer who is located in Oregon.
A fresh, vibrant white Sauvignon blanc-Muscadelle blend with pale green highlights, a floral, citrus nose, and a medium-bodied structure. The Muscadelle gives it a slight, exotic fruit element. Served cold, it would be an excellent aperitif. Served slightly less cold, and it would accompany a fish or seafood platter. Only €4.50 ($5.60)*
Also in the etc… range of wines
An 80% Malbec-20% Cabernet franc blend with an intense, red-fruit nose and delicious, ripe black fruit. The “glugability” factor is extremely high with this wine; at €3.85 ($4.20) a bottle, you wouldn’t need to worry about your budget, either. This is a simple, honest wine, with an emphasis on the fruit, and without anything added or taken away to try to enhance it. The co-op director Francis Jeansou describes it as a wine sans maquillage (without any make-up).
Le Mas is a higher-priced (€11; $15) 100% Sauvignon blanc wine that ages for 14 months in 400L oak barrels. It has a precise citrus nose, with just a hint of vanilla from the oak aging. But the oak is nicely integrated and balanced by the wine’s natural acidity and mineral structure. There’s also a good volume to this elegant wine (it’s aged on fine lees and stirred, Jeansou explained, every two weeks), and it would go well with veal or chicken in a cream sauce.
The Bessy de Boissy (another of the co-op’s line of wines) Rosé took the Gold Medal at this year’s Toulouse Wine Salon. It’s 60% Cabernet franc, 20% Tannat and 20% Malbec, and 100% satisfying, with a mouth-filling body and refreshing acidity. Truly an exceptional rosé, this wine would enhance a plate of charcuterie or grilled pork chops. It has an incredible long-lasting finish, and it’s an amazing value at €5.30 ($7) a bottle.
The Bessey de Boissy Rouge won a Gold Medal at the 2012 Salon de l’Agriculture in Paris. The 2010 vintage is 60% Cabernet franc, 20% Tannat and 20% Malbec with a deep, ruby red robe. The nose is both fresh and complex, with spicy blackberry and menthol aromas predominating. It’s astonishingly pure and elegant for a wine that costs just €5.30 ($7), and to think that it will improve in your cellar for from 5-10 years is even more amazing.
I tasted several other equally-good reds, including the €4 ($5.50) 2011 Hauts Lastour Rouge with a complex, red fruit-truffle-mocha nose and ripe red fruit flavors and silky tannins; a silky, round, well-balanced, oak-aged 2008 Peyre Farinière Rouge that won the Gold Medal in the 2010 Toulouse Wine Salon, and that costs just €7 ($9.75); and the co-op’s top cuvée, the Collection Rouge. This last wine is from a small parcel of vines on a south-by-southwest facing hilltop. It’s a blend of 52% Cabernet franc, 25% Tannat, 15% Malbec and 8% Merlot, and the wine is only made during exceptional millésimes (the most recent millésime is 2012, as there will not be a 2013 millésime). The hand-harvested grapes are placed, after removing the stems, in 300L oak barrels where they ferment. Other than pushing down the floating cap, nothing else is done to the grapes until they are pressed following a 20-day maceration period. The wine is then kept in stainless steel tanks for 6-10 months before it is bottled.
The result is a nose similar to the Peyre Farinière Rouge, but seemingly purer since there’s just the faintest hint of vanilla, and the length and elegance of this extremely satisfying and well-balanced wine would not be out of place in a Bordeaux Grand Cru costing four times its €8.50 $11) bottle price. The Vignerons du Quercy objective of making good-value, high-quality wines is a winning strategy.
*All prices are for the Vignerons du Quercy co-op.