Southwest Diary part 3: The Old Guard and the Vanguard – the Madness of Gaillac

In two days in Gaillac I taste varieties not found anywhere else and meet three of the most forceful personalities in wine. This is the connectedness of it all: the common link is the determination to preserve the old varieties.

Gaillac is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in France—there are wild grapevines in the nearby forest of Grésigne–and the only place where some of the old indigenous varieties are still grown. White varieties are Mauzac, Len de l’El (Loin de l’Œil), Ondenc; black are Fer Servadou (Braucol), Prunelard, Duras. But these days, most wines come from Syrah, Merlot, or Cabernet.

GresigneTWWild grapevines grow near Gaillac. Courtesy IFV Sud-Ouest.

The authorities in Gaillac seem especially determined to stamp out individuality among their producers, yet have no clear idea of what Gaillac should represent. It’s a very curious view the appellation has of itself, that wines made from varieties as different as Braucol, Duras, or Syrah can be labeled as Gaillac, styles as different as dry white, semi-sweet white, and a vin de voile (an oxidized style grown under a layer of flor) can be labeled as Gaillac, even a sparkling wine made from the Mauzac grape, but varieties that were grown here two centuries ago aren’t allowed, and producers who make low-sulfur wines are thrown out of the appellation because of supposed notes of oxidation. I hear all about these problems from three top producers.

Wednesday morning: lunch with Patrice Lescarret and Virginie Maignien at Domaine Causse Marines. Hidden away behind the village of Vieux, a few miles from Albi, Causse Marines is a tiny property that just looks like a residence from the road. It’s indicated only by a modest sign, as most of the wine is exported, and cellar door trade isn’t especially important. We talk about the aims of the domain, which focus on making natural, biodynamic wines from local varieties. “There’s no intervention here, except a very little sulfur,” is how Patrice describes his winemaking. It’s a point of pride that there are no clones in the vineyard: everything is propagated by selection massale and Patrice chooses and grafts the vines himself.

One advantage of Causse Marine’s site is a three week difference in harvest from the rest of Gaillac, which gives more freshness to the wines. It seems to keep alcohol levels down too, as everything we tasted with lunch was a modest 13% or so. “It’s legal to add tartaric acid to acidify,” Patrice says, “but I prefer to bring up the acidity by including a little Chenin Blanc in the blend.” In fact, cuvées vary between blends of the old varieties, Mauzac, Loin de l’Oeil, Mauzac, Ondenc, and single varietal wines. For the reds there are Braucol, Duras, and Syrah. The general style is fresh and lively, giving a sense of wines in the old style. But only the entry-level wines are labeled under the Gaillac AOP: after continued battles about the use of very low levels of sulfur, Patrice gave up on the appellation and now labels all his other wines as Vins de France.

Wednesday afternoon: Domaine Plageoles is an old family domain with three generations presently involved. We meet with Bernard, who’s the middle generation. All of the domain’s wines are from single varieties, and I ask Bernard if the domain does not believe in assemblage on principle. He looks a bit surprised, and then laughs and says, “Yes, you can make good wines by assemblage, it’s just that we think we express terroir more clearly with single varieties. Like Burgundy.”

Bernard’s father, Robert, has retired, but comes out to talk about his rediscovery of the old varieties. He restored several varieties that were no longer being grown in the region by obtaining plants from a conservatory, and the domain now produces around fourteen cuvées from these formerly lost varieties (well, seven of them are subvarieties of Mauzac). Some are allowed in the appellation, but Prunelard, Mauzac Noir, and Verdanel are Vins de France.

Robert is rather cynical about modern viticulture. “People are ossified, few people want to shake things up, it’s necessary to be provocative,” he says. “Why has no one found a way to eradicate phylloxera,” he asks, answering, “Because they don’t want to.” I asked about his restoration of the old varieties. “My father had started to have some old varieties, then one day I realized, that’s our heritage,” he explains. He concludes with another provocative thought. “There are no bad cepages, only bad vignerons.”

Thursday afternoon: Michel Issaly is an enthusiast for authentic wines. “We want to preserve the historic cepages, we work almost only with the old varieties,” he says, “with just a little Syrah and Merlot.” Viticulture is natural and seems to use Michel’s own version of a cross between organic and biodynamic. “Vinification is absolutely traditional – I don’t even use too much temperature control for the reds, I want to respect the year. What’s stated on the label should correspond to the conditions of the year. The wine should be a photograph of vintage and cepage.”

Michel only labels a couple of his wines as Gaillac; the rest are Vins de France. “I have pulled my wines out of the appellation because they say they were oxidized.” I have to say myself that after tasting through their ranges with both Patrice Lescarret and Michel Issaly, to say they are oxidized seems like nonsense. I could see no problem with the wines I tasted. These old varieties give a relatively tart wine, with moderate alcohol, and sharp fruit flavors tending to the red spectrum: they are completely different from the international model of the extracted wine with dense black fruits.

The most original wine made in Gaillac is the Vin de Voile. Meaning that it grows under a veil, the name implies that it’s similar to the traditional style in the Jura. It comes from Mauzac, which grows a layer of flor yeast when the barrels aren’t full. “It started because they used to draw wine out of the barrel without topping it up,” explains Michel Issaly. “It’s been made here for three hundred years, and it’s the real historic wine of Gaillac.” Today the wine is typically bottled after seven years. It has a unique character: at first you get a fugitive impression of the original fruits, then the dry Sherry-like notes take over, giving a savory impression with a touch of fenugreek.

Michel concedes that his wines aren’t typical. “There are few vignerons left who work with authentic varieties,” he says, “they are all using Merlot, Syrah, and Gamay.” By reintroducing the old varieties, Robert Plageoles offered Gaillac the chance to perpetuate its history, but Patrice Lescarret and Michel Issaly are rare producers who are taking up the challenge. Patrice’s problems with the AOP are summarized by this exchange. Is this typical, I asked about Les Greilles, as we tasted the only white that Patrice bottles under the appellation label. “If you mean historically, yes. If you mean in terms of current production, no; today most Gaillac is made using industrial yeast and contain Sauvignon Blanc, so the typicity has changed.”I can understand why the Gaillac Syndicat feels compelled to authorize international varieties, since authenticity isn’t everyone’s glass of wine, and you have to live in the commercial world, but it’s a pity they have in effect excluded their most thoughtful and individual producers.