The Outer Limits: The Garonne before Bordeaux

The beginnings of the Garonne in Spain's Aran Valley

The beginnings of the Garonne in Spain’s Aran Valley

The Garonne River is well-known to wine lovers as one of the three major waterways of Bordeaux—as well it should be. But The Garonne’s journey through Bordeaux and into the Atlantic Ocean is just a part of the full story of the river, which actually flows for over 370 miles beginning in Spain. From its source in the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain, the river flows through the fourth largest city in France and touches the wine regions of Fronton, Saint-Sardos, Brulhois, Buzet, Côtes de Marmandais, and Bordeaux (among others). It’s quite the river.

The actual source of the Garonne is somewhat up for debate—depending upon how one defines the actual source of a river and even upon the season of the year. However, experts can agree that the source of the Garonne can be found in the Aran Valley (Val d’Aran) of Spain. The Aran Valley is located in the corner of Catalonia that borders Aragon. The source of the Garonne is located on the northern side of the Pyrenees, about 25 miles from the border of France.

As we follow the Garonne from its source in the Spanish Pyrenees Mountains, after about 125 miles it flows into Toulouse—famed for its unique architecture of pinkish terracotta buildings, earning it the nickname of la Ville Rose (“the Pink City”), as well as being the fourth-largest city in France (after Paris, Lyon, and Marseille). Toulouse might well be worth a stop. For those interested in science and industry, Toulouse is the center of the European aerospace industry, the headquarters of Airbus, and the home of the Galileo positioning system. Those more interested in tourism can visit two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Canal du Midi and the Basilica of St. Sernin—the latter being the largest remaining Romanesque building in Europe, and a historic stop on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route.

View of the Church of Gesu in Toulouse

View of the Church of Gesu in Toulouse

Following the river for about 20 more miles, we arrive at the Fronton AOC. Fronton is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in France; vines were first planted here by the Romans. However, for a good part of modern history the wines of Fronton were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to trade; as they were heavily taxed as they passed through the port of Bordeaux. These days, the Fronton AOC produces hearty and rustic reds and rosés based on the Négrette grape variety. In both styles of wine, Négrette must be at least 40% of the blend (and is permitted to be the sole grape variety); the remainder of the blend may be made up of various red grapes allowed in various proportions, including Syrah, Malbec, Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Cinsault and an interesting little red grape known as Fer. Fer, according to Jancis Robinson, is a somewhat “untamed” grape native to Southwest France that was domesticated from locally-growing wild vines. It is known as a highly tannic red grape, richly hued and aromatic that is widely grown throughout Southwest France. (Side note: the grape was likely named from the Latin word ferus meaning “wild” or “savage.”)

If we drive (or swim) across the Garonne River starting in Fronton, we will end up in the Saint-Sardos AOC. The Garonne skirts the eastern section of the boundaries of the AOC, and the sunny terraces along the river are rich in alluvial soil. The AOC produces reds and rosés. Both styles of wine must contain a minimum of 40% Syrah and 20% Tannat. Other allowed grapes include Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

Map of the Garonne by Boerkevit, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Garonne by Boerkevit, via Wikimedia Commons

If we follow the Garonne another 42 miles of so, we will arrive at the Brulhois AOC. Brulhois, whose name is derived from an old Gascon word meaning “wooded slopes,” is home to many types of agriculture and is thus a very small producer of wine (despite the excellent quality of the land). The Brulhois AOC produces both red and rosé wines based on red grape blends. Principal varieties are Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Tannat and must make up a (combined) minimum of 70% of the blend. Other allowed varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Fer-Servadou (the local name for Fer). Red wines must contain at least two varieties; rosé must contain at least three.

Another 20 miles upriver we arrive at the Buzet AOC. It is easy to see the influence of Bordeaux in the wines and grapes of Buzet; the area produces white, red, and rosé wines—all based on a range of grapes that include the Bordeaux varieties in with the grapes native to Southwest France. The white wines of the Buzet AOC allow for the use of Muscadelle, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, or Sémillon as principal grapes; the accessory varieties of Colombard, Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng may combine in a maximum of 10% of the blend.  The reds and rosés of the region are based on Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec or Merlot; a maximum of 10% may include Petit Verdot and Abouriou (combined). Abouriou is a red grape native to Southwest France, grown in very small amounts, and which tends to be low in acidity, highly tannic, deeply hued and somewhat spicy in flavor.

Next, after a drive of about 70 miles, we arrive at the city of Marmande and the Côtes de Marmandais AOC. The Côtes du Marmandais AOC, in my opinion, wins the prize as “most obscure” wine region in this trip along the Garonne. The Côtes du Marmandais, like Buzet, shares its palate of grape varieties with both Southwest France and Bordeaux. The AOC produces white, red, and rosé wines. The whites are based on Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris, and may contain a maximum (combined) 30% Sémillon and Muscadelle. Reds and rosés must contain a maximum combined 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot; up to 50% may comprise Abouriou, Malbec, Fer, Gamay, and Syrah.

The Pont de Pierre (Stone Bridge) over the Garonne in the city of Bordeaux

The Pont de Pierre (Stone Bridge) over the Garonne in the city of Bordeaux

About ten miles outside of Marmande, the Garonne crosses into the Gironde department and officially flows into the Bordeaux Wine Region. About 40 miles later, just beyond the city of Bordeaux, the Garonne River meets the Dordogne River at a spot known as the Bec d’Ambès. As most wine lovers know, the Garonne and the Dordogne flow together to the Gironde estuary which separates Bordeaux’s Left Bank from its Right Bank as it flows past some of the most revered vineyards in the world. After transversing about 62 miles of prime vineyard land the Gironde Estuary empties into the Atlantic Ocean at the Bay of Biscay; thus ending the journey of the Garonne.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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