Tucked away in the southwest corner of France 250 kilometers north of the Spanish border and with the great and historic wine-trading port of Bordeaux to the west is the stunning city of Albi (recently added to the UNESCO register of world heritage sites), the cradle of the heretical Cathars and one of the oldest wine-producing regions of France, Gaillac.
In this land of rolling hills, duck and geese farms, wheat fields, verdant valleys brushed broadly with dazzling sunflowers and spectacular medieval villages clinging to lush rocky escarpments (some like Cordes-sur-Ciel seemingly floating above the clouds), wines of pronounced regional character have been crafted for the last 2000 years!
The wines of Gaillac have the proud distinction of being some of the oldest produced in Europe yet like many regions, because of an agricultural posture that encouraged quantity over quality, they had lacked character and presence. All that has changed in the last twenty years and the region, from its basket of historical varietals and more recently with the addition of the consequential Syrah, has begun to produce some truly outstanding wines of great value!
Local grapes like the aromatic Mauzac and the weighty and textured Loin de l’oeil produce crisp, flavorful whites that display a lovely range of citrus fruits such as tangerine, lemon-lime and orange peel laced with chalky mineral notes and bright, refreshing acidity. They are lovely accompaniments to the succulent local cantaloupes with smoked ham and make for a refreshing summertime aperitif.
Medium to full-bodied reds made from Fer
(or Braucol as it is know locally), the deeply colored Duras and increasingly the robust, softly-spiced and richly fruit-driven Syrah have made faithful dinner partners for the local cuisine for centuries. The traditional, oven-baked cassoulet made from white lingot beans, smoky and tender duck confit, hearty Toulousain duck sausage, carrots, onions and tomato finished with day-old bread crumbs is never happier than when its centuries-old soulmate is by its side.
In this, the land of Toulouse-Lautrec where long summer evenings nourish the soul and carefree laughter fills the warm night’s air, bright and lively sparkling wines produced from the local white varietals are crafted in two different styles. The methode traditionelle like that of its champenois neighbors to the north is fermented dry and then undergoes a second fermentation to create the sparkle. The methode gaillacoise (which predates the methode champennoise) is one where the wine is bottled during the first fermentation and left to evolve naturally making for a charming, slightly effervescent wine that seems to make the local crickets (les cigales) sing with thunderous enthusiasm.
In all, this is a region of overwhelming beauty whose rich viticultural and gastronomical landscape has for centuries inspired musicians, writers, painters and poets to lavish it with song, verse and abiding affection. As the morning light spills across fields of dormant sunflowers and lush vines heavy with fruit emerge from the shadows of one stunning medieval village after another, the eternal promise of this land of abundance once again radiates as far as the eye can see.
It’s hard to say if it’s the duck fat or the wine but there is no question that the Gaillac appellation, the beating heart of the French southwest, is as strong as it has ever been!
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!