Apparently, thanks to yet another mediocre film adaptation, there’s going to be a brief resurgence of interest in The Three Musketeers, so here’s a useless bit of trivia: d’Artagnan was a real guy.
Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, Comte d’Artagnan served Louis XIV as captain of the Musketeers of the Guard and died at the Siege of Maastricht in the Franco-Dutch War in 1673. Ah, life’s ironies: Alexander Dumas’ fictionalized character is far better known than the genuine dude.
And speaking of that, Dumas should thank his stars he was born in Picardy. Can you imagine being a twelve-year-old in Peoria with the name ‘dumb ass’?
The only relevance that little chestnut has to this piece is that the d’Artagnan en vérité was from Gascony, and so is the wine and eau de vie sampled below. This happy hinterland to the south of Bordeaux, then inland to Toulouse, renowned for douceur de vivre (sweetness of life), produces some of the most interesting wines in France—many from varietals unknown beyond the region. Grapes like baroque, fer servadou, arrufiac for example—and it’s fair to say that some of them nearly vanished in post-World War II Gascony when soldiers returned to find their vineyards decimated and their caves in a chaos of neglect. Unable to afford restoration costs, many were sold a quick bill of goods by industrial hybrid mongers who promised them quick, high yields with little effort. And for the most part, they got that, at the expense of some of the unique contours of their culture.
Armagnac is the spirit (no pun), the heart and the soul of Gascony, and in fact, these hybrids proved good enough to produce a workable version of this venerable eau de vie—but in the end wound up being pricier than grapes that distillers could find elsewhere, beyond French borders. A return to the ancestral varietals, with their lower yields but regional integrity, became an economic necessity, and ultimately saved some of these grapes from extinction. Would that the Enawene Nawe of the Brazilian Amazon could be so lucky.
Speaking of Armagnac—and one could hardly consider Gascony without doing so—a few points for the level set: With documented references to distillation dating back to the early 15th century, Armagnac is the oldest brandy made in France, and thus, it is Cognac’s big brother.
Brothers, homies, ultimate and unrelenting rivals—the Noel and Liam Gallagher of potables; Ray and Dave Davies, Cain and Abel. Without question, the DNA is the same: Both Cognac and Armagnac are built upon an identical trio of grapes—ugni blanc, folle blanche and colombard—and on the surface, the most definable difference between the two is the production program. The unique alambic armagnacais column still that’s used to create Armagnac is technology distinct from the pot stills used for Cognac (column stills, in fact, are outlawed in Cognac), and involve a process where wine is fed continuously into the still rather than Cognac’s ‘batch-by-batch’ method. As a result, Armagnac is distilled a single time while Cognac is distilled twice. This gives Armagnac an earthy edge that is almost invariably referred to as ‘rustic’, though the spirit’s most aggressive fusels are mellowed by prolonged aging in local Monlezun black oak. The extra cask-time required to soften Armagnac adds subtle nuances to the liquor that simply aren’t present in Cognac—so, arguably, if a quest for complexity is your end game, Armagnac is the superior spirit. Certainly, it’s cheaper.
Ultimately, the most telling difference between these squabbling siblings may be in the je ne sais quoi. Since much less Armagnac is made, it has an aura of mystery about it that mass-produced Cognac—of which Americans drink thirty-five million bottles per year—can’t touch. Most Americans have never, and will never taste an Armagnac and to those who have even heard of it, it remains a sort of an oddity at the periphery of booze consciousness.
But then again, Gascony in general is a bit of an enigma to Americans—probably because the Gascons don’t grow much merlot or chardonnay and food-wise, they’re known for foie gras—about as un-PC a comestible as exists these days. And even if you can find folks who know that Gascony is a wine producing region, there are a lot of stutters and stammers when you ask them to list any of its sub regions or—beyond tannat—its principal varietals. To most wine geeks not on a Master Sommelier fast track, Madiran is the only familiar Gascon commune, but then if you toss in a question about Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh or Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec—Madiran’s two white wine appellations—invariably, it’s deer-in-headlights time.
Even in France, Gascony is something of an anomaly. The culture is more Catalan than Gallic, which is a polite way of saying that the people are outgoing, friendly and kind-hearted instead of being stuck-up, frosty and Parisian chic. Stand in a hilltop church belfry and you can see the Pyrenees; listen to the tones of the old people and you’ll hear ‘Gascon’; a dialect with its roots in Basque. There’s no pretense to Paris lifestyle here; it’s the Hooterville of France, pays primeval, with tics and rhythms and chivalries unchanged since the Aquatanians were praying to the god of the pagus.
“We can export our wine, but we can’t export our life. We’re lucky we still have it—probably because we’re a bit far from everything,” said André Dubosc, head of Producteurs Plaimont, a wine cooperative in St. Mont.
St. Mont is a fourth appellation in Gascony; a tiny commune with a population of less than three hundred and about two thousand acres planted to vines. The reds are primarily made from tannat and fer; the whites from arrufiac, gros manseng, petit manseng, courbu and clairette. Situated just north of Madiran, it might seem joined at the hip with that AOC, with the only significant difference in style and varietals between the two is that St. Mont legally allows (until 2020, anyway) a percentage of merlot in their reds.
Tursan is the fifth wine growing region of Gascony. A VDQS since 1958, it’s even smaller than St. Mont with a scant twelve hundred acres under grape cultivation. It’s situated southeast of Mont-de-Marsan, not far from the town of Condom (seriously) and builds reds around tannat, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. Whites may be as much as 90% baroque, a grape that grows nowhere else on the planet. It’s a possible cross between folle blanche and sauvignon blanc, and the wine it hatches has a singular aromatic and flavor profile suggesting lemon, nuts and honey.
Beyond regions, there is an apéritif from the Côtes de Gascogne that has, since 1990, held its own appellation d’origine contrôlée status. Floc de Gascogne is a fruity, fresh and flowery (floc means ‘flower bouquet’) blend of Armagnac and grape juice, white or red. A curious concoction indeed, but not so curious as the gang that promotes it. The Académie des Dames du Floc de Gascogne is the only all-female wine society in France, and as they venture out among the rabble to hawk hooch they wear black capes pinned with sprigs of the three essential fragrances of Armagnac: Plum, rose and violet. Their Musketeer-like motto is: ‘Les capes, les bouteilles, et en avant!’ ‘Capes, bottles and forward!’
It’s all terribly Grand Siècle.
That’s Gascony, though—one foot in the seventeenth century and the other in the twenty-first. A lot of the current innovations involve resurrecting the past: Replanting heirloom cultivars, for example. But even more is the result of a most un-French open mindedness toward American enological techniques and a willingness—even an eagerness—to learn from them. Whereas old-school French vintners tend to believe that they lead and the world follows, André Dubosc of Producteurs Plaimont, amazed to discover that certain California colombards—the same varietal that Gascons vinify ghostly thin and low-alcohol innocuous for Armagnac—were aromatic, full-bodied and brimming with fruit, vigor and aromatics. Returning to St. Mont, he began using California vinification techniques on his colombard crop, including stainless steel tanks and temperature control in the cellar.
The results have been stunning, and Dubosc has been hailed as visionary in a beret.
And he may be key to a genuine grasp of this animated, dichotomic, arcane land: As Armagnac is the liquid embodiment of Gascony, as foie gras is the culinary embodiment of Gascony, André Dubosc, with his peculiar blend of of humility and hubris, tradition and trajectory, ambition and nostalgia, may well be the mortal embodiment of Gascony.
Point guard for a renaissance of interest in the wines of Gascony, Colombelle is mostly colombard with 30% ugni blended in to smooth and temper and add some floral notes. As might be predicted, the wine—which never sees oak—is crisp and leans toward lightness with notes of lime, grapefruit, pine, pear and mango with a bit of herb (tarragon) and a nice minerality on the finish. Winemaker Christine Cabri goes on (and on) about ‘thiol’ aromatics unique to Gascony and I can’t quite get what she’s driving at. Thiols are sulphur compounds usually associated with the smell of garlic, and neither seem to be obvious in Colombelle, nor would they be a plus if they were. Li’l help?
As André Dubosc is to St. Mont, Alain Brumont is to Madiran—credited with resurrecting its reputation. As might be expected in someone with such a resume, Brumont is a perfectionist, although he may cross that subtle borderline between detail-focused and psychotic. I mean, the guy vintage-dates his manure. I’d call that ‘anal’ but it would be too obvious. The wine is profound, and not for the faint of heart—it’s a freight train of tannins that does not take prisoners. Mostly tannat with a bit of cabernet added to lighten up the program, it’s aged in new oak to create the sort of wine that is essentially undrinkable without cellar time—the 2005’s are just beginning to straighten themselves up. The wine shows strong earth notes, with woodspice, cloves and roasted coffee and the classic bois et sous-bois (forest and undergrowth); there’s a carnality about the midpalate which may be a touch of brett. Brumont is a proponent of different barrels to accent different wines and even uses American oak for some; this one is sweet local Monlezun. Compared to Bordeaux of similar quality, the price point for Montus is remarkable.
Domaine Berthoumieu Cuvée Charles de Batz, Madiran, 2006, about $18:
Apparently, this wine is the archetype for heart-smart French reds; tannat skins contains the wine world’s highest concentration of procyanidin, a flavanoid nicknamed ‘Vitamin P’ which has been directly linked to cardiovascular health. Vitamin P increases at higher elevations (more ultraviolet light from the sun) and also, as vines age. So, a mountain grown tannat from old vines is precisely the sort of bevvie you’d want in foie gras country. Et voilà, Domaine Berthoumieu. Charles de Batz, you’ll recall, was the real d’Artagnan, and indeed, this wine is produced in his honor. It’s a brooding blockbuster, heavily extracted, loaded with ripe tannins, tingly acids, spicy black fruits and the savory dried herbes de Provence that typically show up in massive Rhônes—including thyme, oregano and lavender. The wine was made by Didier Barré—much-awarded sixth generation winemaker from a Domaine which has been owned by his clan since 1850.
Nestling in Bas-Armagnac, much of Domaine de Pajot’s ugni and colombard harvest wines up with the domaine’s own Armagnac label slapped upon it. The rest is devoted to Quatre Cépages (four varietals), with gros manseng and sauvignon blanc making up the rest of the quartet. It is the Fab Four, a classic lineup for Gascony where winemakers claim that each of these grapes is a perfect complement to the others—the art is in proportions. This is a particularly balanced example: The manseng brings perfumed mango and pineapple to the party, ugni offers white flowers and bracing acidity, sauvignon blanc is there for citrus and grassiness and colombard adds stone fruit (white peaches especially) and apple. The spec sheet warns that Quatre Cépages must be served at 9°C, so be forewarned, ye insurrectionary ignorers of wine thermometers—I guarantee that these Gascon bastards can still blow the cobwebs off the guillotine.
In dated Armagnac, the label indicates the age of the youngest wine in the blend, and there are usually older vintages mixed in as well; this ten year Reserve also contains 12 and 13-year-old Armagnac. It has a nice brilliant amber glow with golden tints; the nose is youthful, showing fig, orange peel, prune and beeswax. Palate is warm and toasty with dried apricot and honey and the finish is nice integrated with sweet oak and vanilla. Darroze, incidentally, is not an Armagnac producer—rather, they seek out and bottle from the top makers in Bas Armagnac.
Chateau de Laubade Floc de Gascogne Vin de Liqueur, around $23:
The producer claims to use a recipe from the 16th century, though why a product with two ingredients—liquor and grape juice—requires a recipe is anybody’s guess. In any event, the apéritif is produced by blending free-run juice with Armagnac in closed vats, which settles between harvest and the end of winter. The result, here, is a beautifully balanced SweeTart of a sweet heart—honeyed and crisp, offering zesty acidity with a foil of candied apples. Grapey notes intertwine with citrus and violets and the liqueur has a freshness that must be a sort of synergy from the sum of components—neither the wines of Gascony nor the eau de vie can quite compare. Unfortunately, the only liquid on the planet more unstable is nitro-glycerin, and floc must be consumed soon after opening as it begins to degrade almost instantly.
The Unusual Suspects: A Lineup of Gascony’s Top Cultivars
Fer Servadou: Produces perfumed, rich red wines that taste of blackcurrant, raspberry and occasionally, rhubarb.
Tannat: The dominant red grape of the region, tannat produces wines of rustic astringency—big, bold, beautiful, but invariably requiring years of aging.
Cabernet Sauvignon: Unlike nearby Bordeaux, where cab is king, here it’s used primarily as a blending grape to talk some sense into tannat. Like it’s extended family in the Medoc, predominant flavors are currant, blackberry and in warm vintages, mint.
Cabernet Franc: A blending grape used to offer the wine a bit of finesse. It is successful in Irouléguy, but in Saint-Mont, not so much.
Merlot: In Saint-Mont, merlot produces soft and quick-to-mature Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. Flavors include cherry and Damson plum.
Petit Manseng: This thick skinned grape is the versatile star of the manseng family, with the ability to produce intensely sweet dessert wines or dry table wine. With extra hang-time, flavors range from pineapple and honey to gingerbread. It may well be the next viognier once viognier gets tired of being the current viognier.
Gros Manseng: Similar in appearance to petit manseng, but heartier and less susceptible to the disease called ‘shatter’, which is brought on by the sort of excessive rainfall that occasionally plagues Gascony. The resulting wine, however, has little of petit mansengs elegance, and whereas in very good years, and with proper vinification it can produce a respectable tipple, it currently lacks the potential to make a superlative product.
Petit Courbu: A blending grape used specifically to contribute minerality and body; the aromatics that come along for the ride are peach, honey and citrus. Fat and generous as a stand alone, courbu puts in a cameo in both the dry wines and the sweet of Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh.
Arrufiac: This is one of the varietals that André Dubosc believes deserves to survive; hence, it’s a grape used to add structure to blends, but its distinctive gunflint nose make it instantly recognizable when it is used.
Baroque: A varietal that has no reality beyond Gascony—and even here, it is almost exclusively grown near Tursan. Here’s another grape that had a deck chair on the Titanic of extinction, saved from oblivion by chef Michel Guérard, owner of the 3 star Michelin rated restaurant Les Prés d’Eugénie. It produces a wine with a pronounced nutty character with notes of white pepper and pineapple
Colombard, Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche: To come full circle, we’re back to the Three Musketeers—the trio of Armagnac grapes. Or maybe it’s closer to My Three Sons. Either way, ugni, when grown near the sea, develops excessive acidity—an Armagnac requirement. Folle Blanche is the workhorse, providing vast yields of light fresh wine. Colombard’s qualities more or less mirror the other two, and some Armagnacs leave it out of the blend altogether. For those that who insist on its inclusion, it may be a bit like Steve Douglas forcing Robby and Chip to take Ernie along when they go into town.