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What appellations come to mind when we talk about the vineyards of the South-West of France? First of all, this is Bordeaux, although this opinion is not complet.
From an administrative point of view, the famous vineyard of Bordeaux is a part of this region, but in the context of winemaking, it stands apart due to the volume of its production and its vast area.
The southwest of France has several protected appellations of origin (AOP) and protected geographical indications (IGP):
- Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh
- …and that’s not all, apart from protected geographical indications.
Many of them grow the same varieties as Bordeaux, but of course, their autochthonous varieties are more interesting. However, their wines are almost unknown outside of France for an historical reason.
Bordeaux merchants considered wines fron these regions as concurents for Bordeaux wines and feared that the richer and more powerful beverages of the “inland” would force Bordeaux wines out of the international market. Then the merchants took advantage of the privileged geographical position of the city of Bordeaux itself. The only way to the Atlantic Ocean and, accordingly, the way to overseas markets was the port of Bordeaux. So savvy merchants imposed high duties on any other wines, that Bordeaux, which would like to explore foreigh markets. Accordingly, the winemakers of the southwest could not pay such fees, which then would have to compensate by the prices of wines, so they decided to distribute their wines only on the domestic French market. As a consequence, quality drinks very similar in style to Bordeaux were unknown on the international market. So, for example, red Bergerac and Pecharmant, from the same varieties as Bordeaux, have similar aromatics, but a bit sweeter on richer, and on the palate they often have more powerful but rustic tannins. Compared to Bordeaux, the wines of the southwest of France are bright, straight and tart, but less refined. The reason for this is the greater distance from the ocean and, consequently, a more continental climate, which has a greater temperature difference between summer and winter, a hotter summer period and less rainfall than in the oceanic climate of Bordeaux.
But the autochthonous varieties of the south-west of France are no less interesting than the famous Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from Bordeaux. Some appellations in this part of the country are even required to use them in blends. One such appellation is Paschrenc du Vic Bilh, sweet or dry.
Some words about the name Pacherenc du Vic Bilh
Unlike many other wine regions, this name does not refer to any locality or geographical feature. It comes from the local expression (from the department of Béarn, where the appellation is located geographically) “pachets en renc”. Literally translating this expression will be difficult, but its approximate meaning means “vines lined up in a row”, and which gradually transformed into pacherenc. Vic Bilh roughly means “old/ancient place or country”. Historically, this area covers three settlements in the northeast of Bearn: Lambeye, Thèze and Garlin.
Geographic location and climate
The territory of this protected appellation of origin is the same as for Madiran red wine appellation. It is located near the Pyrenees, about 190 km south of Bordeaux and 50 km north of another appellation in the southwest of France, Jurançon, which lies directly in the foothills of these mountains. This geographical position forms a climate with the following features:
- Some influence of the Atlantic Ocean remains in the form of spring and autumn precipitations
- Mountains are the source of the warm föhn wind blowing from the altitude into the valley, which dries the air and reduces the risk of diseases in the vineyards
- Winters are colder and summers are warmer than in the oceanic climate of Bordeaux
- The Ardour River and its tributary the Léez, flowing through the region, somewhat soften the temperature difference between day and night, summer and winter
- Precipitations throughout the year is less than in oceanic regions
- In general, the climate is drier than in areas closer to the ocean
Autumn lasts longer here, it is warmer and less humid than in Bordeaux, thanks to the mountain wind and less rainfall. Therefore, red grape varieties with dense skins (Cabernet Sauvignon, local Tannat) ripen better in this southwestern region. White varieties are used for the production of both dry and sweet wines. All depends on the time of harvest – the closer it is to the end of autumn, the more sugar accumulate the berries under the mild autumn sun, and the sweeter the wine will be. By the way, thanks to such weather and the particularities of local varieties, dry wines also seem fragrant and rich, with a light sweetness, which is betrayed not by residual sugar, but by the components of the bouquet and the level of alcohol. And with the high acidity that these varieties also possess, the wines seem balanced.
Soils and terroir
The soils of the appellation are quite diverse:
- Gravel eroded from the Pyrenees – mostly on the hills
- Marl and calcareous soils – closer to the lowlands
- Boulbène – converted, leached alluvial soils, consisting mainly of clay, with some limestone, and characterized by high acidity. They are found in the western part of the appellation on the slopes and on the plateau
This soil composition has several advantages for winemaking:
- Limestoneis good at absorbing rainwater from the surface and storing it underground, allowing vine roots access to moisture during dry summers
- Clayholds water well, which makes it “cool”, i.e. slowly warming soil, slowing down the accumulation of sugar in the berries and preserving their acidity. In addition, clay contains minerals, not only necessary for the growth of the vine, but also it gives the berries unique flavors.
- Gravel is a warm soil that heats up during the day from sunlight and radiates heat to the vines in the evening, which contributes to better ripening of the grapes. This is especially important for local red varieties with a long ripening period.
Grape varieties allowed in the appellation
Paschrenc du Vic Bilh wines, both dry and sweet, must include at least one of the following main grape varieties (in total, there must be at least two varieties in the blend):
- Petit Courbu – adds honey and citrus tones to the bouquet, as well as softness in texture and fullness in body
- Courbu Blanc is a variety close to the previous one, which gives the bouquet honey and lemon notes
- Petit Manseng – responsible for rich fruity aromas of peach, apricot, elegant notes of flowers and sweet spices and candied citrus fruits, and also gives the wine high acidity. Able to accumulate high levels of sugar in the berries and stay on the vine for a long time, this variety is highly valued in the production of rich but balanced sweet white wines.
- Gros Manseng is another variety used in both dry and sweet wines. It has a dense skin, the ability to accumulate sugar and high acidity, which also makes it an important component of sweet wines. Gros Manseng brings brightness and richeness to the organoleptic profile of the wine
The local Arrufiac, which adds sophistication to the assemblage, and the Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc are also allowed, but are considered optional and cannot make up the most part of the blend.
Tasting: L’Insolite. Domaine de Moulié 2017
First, a little about the estate itself. Domaine de Moulié exists since the 1920s and its name comes from the Gascon word “Moulié”, which means “grain mill”. The vineyards of the estate occupy 16.5 hectares, of which 15 hectares produce grapes for red wines of the Madiran appellation, and 1.5 hectares for dry and sweet whites of the Paschrenc du Vic Bilh appellation (moreover, these vineyards are organic, with the appropriate European certification). Another 70 hectares owned by Domaine de Moulié are crops and trees, and these lands are HVE, which means compliance with norms and requirements for the conservation of the environment.
The 2017 L’Insolite collection of Domaine de Moulié that I tasted consists of local varieties Arrufiac, Petit Courbue and Petit Manseng, and their features are clearly reflected in the bouquet of the wine.
Colour: Medium Lemon
Aroma: medium (+) intensity, sweet, honey notes, lime blossom, ripe apricot, candied lemon zeste, candied oranges, light minerality.
Palate: dry, medium body with a rich, buttery texture, high acidity that balances a concentration of medium (+) alcohol (13.5%) and sweet flavors (the wine itself is dry), such as honey, quince jam, candied lemon and orange peels, candied fruits, fresh apricots and dried apricots, lime blossom, acacia. Medium (+) finish with pleasant sourness of lemon peel.
Overall impression and quality assessment: a very good wine with a unique balance of richeness and high acidity, characteristic of white wines from the foothills of the Pyrenees from autochthonous varieties. Due to the concentration and high acidity of this wine, it would be interesting to leave it for another 5 years and evaluate its aging potential.
BLICE quality assessment
Balance – a harmonious organoleptic profile – the wine is aromatic, round, thanks to sweet notes hues and oily texture, but at the same time fresh, thanks to high acidity
Length – quite long, with a pleasant acidity
Intensity – expressive aromas and taste with distinct notes
Complexity – a multifaceted bouquet of fruity, floral and mineral hints
Expression – the wine reflects the characteristics of the varieties and terroir of the appellation, combining a ripe bouquet and rich body, balanced by naturally high acidity
Analytical analysis of combinations with dishes
Due to its high acidity, aroma and relative density, this wine is a suitable accompaniment to intense winter dishes such as raclette or fondue. The acidity of the wine will balance the fat content of the cheese, and its concentration and aromatics will not be lost behind the oily and smoky taste of raclette.
Also, thanks to its minerality, this wine will accompany goat cheese covered with ash and smoked salmon. And, of course, sheep’s cheese, whose fat content will be balanced by acidity (besides, this combination will work according to the principle of locality), or mountain alpine cheese made from cow’s milk, which has milky and buttery notes and amazing aroma.