The rebirth of a wine Appellation can sometimes be triggered by the strong will of a lone grower, and that is certainly the case for the Gaillac wines in the Sud-Ouest wine region in France, which found a larger public thanks to the determination of Robert Plageoles.
Let's first look at this French South West (Sud-Ouest) wine region : this is probably the less well-known wine region in France, because most people mistake it with the Bordeaux wine region, which is separate. The Sud-Ouest wine region is a cluster of appellations located south and east of Bordeaux. These appellations are scattered on a large territory as you can check on this map, and their respecting fame varies a lot. Among them are Irouleguy, Jurançon, Gaillac, Buzet, Cahors, Monbazillac and Bergerac, to name a few of the better known appellations. Gaillac is the appellation we'll stop at for this story. The Gaillac appellation area, which is located in the Tarn département on the foothills of the Massif Central mountains, was until recently under the radar in spite of being one of the most ancient wine regions of the Gauls. This area had its own indigenous varieties, red and white, which had unfortunately been replaced in the recent History by mainstream varieties fitting more easily into a wine distribution and mindset with little room for weird-name varieties. But a grower/winemaker going under the name of Robert Plageoles (Bernard's father) decided years ago to go against the commercial tide of planting mainstream varieties and he reintroduced the indigenous grape varieties of the area, vinifying the juices naturally (without additives).
As Bernard Plageoles explains, the winemaking is natural, meaning that they use only wild yeasts for the fermentation and they don't correct the wines with enological products. They've been vinifying this way for ever, even during the 70s, 80s or 90s when so many winemakers took the shortway of the additives industry. His father Robert as well as his grandfather always kept relying on the indigenous yeasts for his fermentations. In the vineyard they did use chemical products for a short time (between 1985 and 1987) but they quickly came back to using only sulfur and copper. And while they never fully stopped plowing, they also used some weedkillers for about 10 years, after which they also reverted to a non-chemical approach regarding the weeds management. After years of a fully-organic vineyard management, they decided in 2007 to get the certification because it was more convincing for their customers.
Speaking of the massive plantings in the region of varieties like Sauvignon, Cabernet, Merlot and the likes in the place of the obscure local varieties, this took place largely in the 1960s' and the 1970s', when vignerons in Gaillac and the region desired to comply to what they thought the market and the average consumer wanted. Robert Plageoles (Bernard's father) was the first in the region to reverse the trend in the 70s' by choosing to replant the local varieties after extensive research on the subject, including in old books. Among the varieties he had to replant from scratch, the Ondenc was the first, with replantings beginning in 1983.
All these varieties are vinified separately, and in non-wood containers, except for the veil wine, in order to get a good expression of their singularity as well as the one of the soil. Anyway, says Bernard Plageoless, there was no tradition of blending in Gaillac, until the appellation rules sort of imposed it in 2003. There was also no complantation around here, unlike in Jura or Alsace, where it was common to plant together different varieties in a given parcel (including red with white).
On the winemaking side, another unique and traditional technique they use at Plageoles is the filtering of thick particles with cloth bags. The sparkling wines here could be by the way the focus of an entire story by themselves as the sparkling method of Gaillac predates the Champagne one and is fully natural when made according to the local tradition. You can see on this picture above that the vat with the sparkling is lifted high above the filtering container in order to work softly by gravity. The cloth bags on the right only stop the large particles so that there will still be something to work on for the yeasts. It's not a sterile filtration, these cloth bags making a very light filtration. This filtration takes place when the fermentation is in full force, shortly after harvest. It's goal is to slow down the yeasts and make the juice leaner.
The Mauzac Nature (the sparkling) is bottled in january with 25 to 30 remaining sugar and it will then be bottled after a light filtering with its sparkling cork and wire cap. There's no sugar adding. There may be a small SO2 adding at this stage to prevent an excessive oxidation. There's no disgorgement for this particular wine, so there may be a bit of haze in the bottle.
Except for the SO2 that they use here even if minimal amounts, the vinification is natural, using only wild yeasts and ignoring correction additives, including sugar (no chaptalization). This is all possible because the organicly-grown vines allow the life in and around the grapes to proceed and turn the juice into a balanced wine without outside help.
Bernard says a few words about the weather and conditions in 2011 : There was a beautiful spring like elsewhere in France, and the drought was averted thanks to some 100 milimeters of rain that fell around here by the end of july to early august. It benefited to all the varieties and allowed the grapes to take some weight. The fermentations rolled swiftly after the harvest, sometimes with an incredible ease, like for their Duras grapes : Bernard Plageoles says that here it was completedin 4 days, really, the fermentation was over and well, he and his father had never seen something like that. I've heard similar stories all over France (maybe not for the 4-day issue), about the swift and easy fermentations in 2011, but this particular case (their Duras) seems to stand out..
Speaking about the weather conditions, later in september there has been some rot here and there on the grapes because of all the rainfall but the late season was very nice and the rot turned into noble rot. So even the dry whites got a bit of noble rot which builds into the character of this vintage. The harvest began september 1st.
__ Plageoles Verdanel 2011. Taken from a small stainless-steel vat if I remember. Costs 11,4 € at the winery. Verdanel is the name of a very rare white variety from the area, they have about 30 ares of surface of it, aged some 12 years. From now on they'll be able to increase the planting surface and the bottle production of their Verdanel, which is labelled as table wine. The color is amazingly green and light (pic on right). B. feels bergamot and aged apples on the nose. From what I read on a linked page, there was no more than 4 remaining vines of this variety a few years back, at the INRA repository at Vassal. Close call. Costs 17 € tax included at the winery but it is sold out for the last available vintage.
__ Plageoles Mauzac Nature 2011 : the base wine which will bottled soon and become an authentic Gaillac natural sparkling. The wine is taken from a comparatively-large cement vat. The bottling will be scheduled according to the best moon conditions, somewhere in the 2nd week of january. It will be on sale in may june 2012. It has already been filtered in september/october. It' a Mauzac rose (pink), but only the skin is colored, the inside is white and so is the wine. Very fresh wine with notes of apple and pear, quite pleasant already that way. Notes on linde, B. says.
He's going to have a check of the remaining sugar, it was recently at someting like 25/28. It could go as low as 22/23 but preferably not lower. As he fills the glasses from the vat, he notes that the wine is already beginning to referment even though it is cold, so he is going to follow that closely with an analysis. They're very lucky to have a laboratory at Gaillac (Laboratoire Oeonologique Départemental) where they can have their data checks made very quickly. Bernard Plageoles says that this proximity factor helped them a lot to lower at the maximum the SO2 addings because they can tailor the addition cuvée per cuvée. This lab is so efficient that wineries as far as from the Jurançon bring their samples here.
The vinification : destemmed like all the reds, put into cement vats, lightly stomped over, then at tyhe end of the day they take out 15 hectoliters in a separate vat to cool down the juice to 4/5 ° C, after which they pour it back over the grapes in the cement vat. While draining through the grapes, the juice will in turn cool down the whole vat load, bringing the temperature inside to 10/12 ° C. That's all, he says : he does this once and then lets the wine do its life. The fermentation will go up slowly and he just checks that they're OK (he is equipped with cooling coils in case the situation veered out of control). Yields are not high for this Mauzac Noir : from roughly 80 ares they made this vat only, or 23 hectoliters, which makes maybe 20 ho/ha. He insists again on the importance of the goblet training for the quality and style of the end wines. Shade is very important under this latitude because it can be very hot under the sun in summer.
There a 3g/hectoliter SO2 addition after the malolactic fermentation and no further addition at bottling.
__ Plageoles Duras 2011. This Duras variety must not be mistaken for a Côtes de Duras which is appellation of the Sud-Ouest with both reds and whites but no Duras (the variety) at all... Aromas of raspberry, cherry. Somme pepper, a lot, says B. Makes 15 ° in alcohol, Bernard Plageoles says, but it goes down well still. There is a good structure to back it.
__ Plageoles Vin d'Autan 2007. An Ondenc vinified in liquoreux. Autan is the name of a wind which blows south-east. The grapes are all pinched on the vines with a tool in september and let to dry under the Vent d'Autan (the seasonal wind) and harvested in october. They make this wine almost every year. In 2011 they didn't make a Vin D'Autan along this passerillage method but by picking grapes with noble rot because the year produces plenty of them. The Caves de Pyrène have an interesting page on Ondenc. Lovely wine, such an exquisite concentration. And still fresh in spite of its 300 grams of residual sugar. But costs 50 €. Asked about the SO2, Bernard Plageoles says that they add more of it for these wines than for the dry ones, something like 20/25 mg free SO2 or 80/90 total, which is not that high compared with what you find on the market. The wines go through a sterile filtration.
Check this tasting video of the Mauzac Roux by Aurelia in Quebec (in French), a wine ideal for foie gras or Roquefort. We didn't taste the wine but bought 3 bottles.
The prices at the domaine (tax included) are : Gaillac Mauzac Vert 2009 (dry white) 8,8 €, Gaillac Ondenc 2010 (dry white) 11,4 € (sold out), Verdanel table wine 2010 17 € (sold out), Gaillac Vin de Voile 1999 (50cl) 25 €, Gaillac Mauzac Nature (sparkling) 11,4 € (magnum 25 €), Mauzac Noir 2010 (red table wine) 8 € (sold out), Gaillac Braucol 2010 8 € (sold out), Gaillac Syrah 2010 8,2 €, Gaillac Duras 2009 11,4 € (sold out), Gaillac Prunelard 2009 17 € (sold out), Gaillac Mauzac Roux 2010 (moelleux) 12 €, Gaillac Ondenc Doux 2010 (liquoreux - 50cl) 10,3 €, Gaillac Le Loin de L'Oeil (Len de Lel - liquoreux) 50cl 10,3 €, Gaillac Muscadelle 2010 15 €, Vin D'Autan 2007 (50cl - liquoreux) 50 €.
Bernard Plageoles has two sons, aged 24 and 28, who are gradually investing themselves in the vineyard management
More than 25 to 30 % of Plageoles wines are exported : The United Kingdom first (Caves de Pyrène), Switzerland, Holland, Belgium (Cave des Oblats), Denmark, the United States (Jenny & François), Canada (Quebec - Diane Turcotte Vini-Vins), Australia (Biben) and Japan (Oeno Connexion, Mr Ito)
Domaine Plageoles is part of a small regional distribution company (regrouping about 10 estates) : Abisto De Nas was set up to facilitate the purchase and delivery of the wines of the participating wineries. The wines of these vignerons of the South-West can also be found in the J'Go restaurants, with 2 branches in Paris (Drouot & Saint Germain).
Among other places in Paris where you can find Plageoles wines are L'Ebauchoir, Lavinia, and Le Mauzac near the Panthéon, a Wine bar/restaurant named in honor of the emblematic grape. At le Mauzac from what I checked recently, the rates are :
Mauzac Nature 2010 (natural sparkling) : glass 5,5 € bottle 29 €
Mauzac Vert 2009 : glass 4,5 €, pot (46 cl) 16,5 € bottle 25 €
Mauzac Roux 2010 (moelleux) : glass 5,5 €, pot 18 €, bottle 27,5 €
Mauzac Noir (sold out for now, but they'll have some later)
Syrah 2009 : glass 5 €, pot 17,5 €, bottle 27 €.