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

The Outer Limits: Broke Fordwich

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Broke Fordwich. I don’t even know what to ask. Is it an animal, a vegetable, or a mineral? Is it a person, a place or a thing? God forbid it should ever show up on a wine exam, and yet there it is, staring at me from page 243 of the CSW Study Guide. Damn.

Before we go any further, here is the truth: Broke Fordwich is a place. It’s a wine region in Australia; actually, it is a subregion of the Hunter Valley Zone (and the Hunter Region) in New South Wales. The name is derived from two small towns: Broke (population 636) and Fordwich (just to the north of Broke, and apparently with an even smaller population).

Despite its homespun name, Broke Fordwich is not to be shunned as a wine region. It is a bit off-the-beaten-path, but in Winespeak we often refer to that as “authentic” or “less touristy.” The area itself uses the phrase “the tranquil side of the Hunter Valley.”

As for the location, it is important to first remember that Australian Geographical Indications range from largest to smallest as follows: State > Zone > Region > Subregion. Following along, we can find the Broke Fordwich Subregion within the State of New South Wales, the Hunter Valley Zone, and the Hunter Region (simplified as such: New South Wales > Hunter Valley > Hunter > Broke Fordwich.) The Hunter Region has two other Subregions, Pokolbin and the Upper Hunter Valley.

Photo of the Yellow Rock Escarpment by Sardaka, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of the Yellow Rock Escarpment by Sardaka, via Wikimedia Commons

The website of Broke Fordwich (which is quite nice, and will make you want to plan a visit right now) describes the area’s location as “in the southwest corner of the mid Hunter Valley”. The area is quite beautiful, surrounded as it is by the Brokenback Mountain Range (part of the Great Dividing Range and NOT to be confused with Brokeback Mountain, which was supposedly in Wyoming). Local scenery includes views of Yellow Rock (a gorgeous escarpment) and the Wollemi Foothills.

The Broke Fordwich Subregion is tucked between the Upper Hunter Valley to the northwest and Pokolbin to the east. It geographic boundaries follow the catchment of Wollombi Brook (a tributary of the Hunter River), which flows from its source in the Brokenback Mountains/Great Dividing Range north through the towns of Broke and Fordwich.

Broke Fordwich became an official Geographical Indication in 1997. The basis for the boundaries include its unique soil, the climate-calming effects of the Wollombi Brook, and the rain shadow provided by the Brokenback Mountain Range which hugs (and partially encircles) the area to the west and south.

The Fordwich Sill, a stretch of red weathered volcanic clay running through the area, is one of the unique soil features of Broke Fordwich. This basalt- and iron-rich soil absorbs moisture quickly and releases it slowly; an excellent feature for this dry area that sits at a balmy 32.5 degrees south latitude. The red soils of the Fordwich Sill are ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and tend to produce grapes that are made into rich, soft-style wines. Other soils in the area include free-draining alluvial soils (heavy on the sand), which is widely planted to the area’s well-known Semillon and other white grapes.

Map of New South Wales via Wine Australia

Map of New South Wales via Wine Australia

Broke Fordwich is responsible for about 14% of the total wine production of the Hunter Valley Zone. Not surprisingly, the most widely planted grape of the area – responsible for at least 30% of vineyard acreage – is Semillon. Semillon is followed by Shiraz, Verdelho, Chardonnay, and Merlot. A smattering of other grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Pinot Noir, among others, are also grown.

About that name: The town of Broke was founded in 1830 by Major Thomas Mitchell. Mitchell named the town in honor of his fellow Napoleonic War Veteran, Sir Charles Broke-Vere.

Confusion Corner: The terms “Hunter” and “Hunter Valley” are often used somewhat interchangeably, although technically the Hunter Valley is the larger zone which encompasses the Hunter Region. No one quite knows why the original decision was made to refer to the zone as “Hunter Valley” and the smaller region as “Hunter,” and it might not really matter: there’s very little difference between the outline of the Hunter Region and the only slightly larger Hunter Valley Zone. The region just shaves a little bit off of the edges on the western and northern boundaries, and excludes the area around the city of Newcastle on the coast.

References/for further information:

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

The Outer Limits: AOC Châteaumeillant

Vineyards in Châteaumeillant - Photo by Ameliris, via Wikimedia

Vineyards in Châteaumeillant – Photo by Ameliris, via Wikimedia

Tucked away into the southwestern corner of France’s Cher département, the Châteaumeillant AOC is located quite literally in the outer limits of the Loire Valley wine region. About 45 miles south of Quincy, it’s the last Loire Valley AOC on the road out of town.

The Châteaumeillant AOC is named after the town it surrounds  in the foothills of the Massif Central. The town of Châteaumeillant has about 2,000 residents. The AOC of the same name somewhat straddles the line between the Indre and Cher départments. It has been called the most central vineyard in France—and it does appear to rest firmly in the middle of the country.

Wine has been part of the local economy here since the fifth century BC, as proven by the discovery of over 300 amphora that were unearthed during a construction dig.

In the fifth century, the area was a Roman town named Mediolanum. Due to its location, Mediolanum was an important part of the wine trade and something of a way-station for Italian wines being sent to troops stationed in (what was then) western Gaul. Some time later, the area began growing grapes and producing wine.

The Châteaumeillant AOC is a small producer. There are currently just 173 acres (70 ha) dedicated to red wines and another 49 acres (20 ha) for rosé (vin gris). Red wines are made from a minimum of 40% Gamay with Pinot Noir allowed to fill in the rest. The pale vin gris (rosé) is made from the same basic formula, but also allows for a maximum of 15% Pinot Gris in the blend. Rumor has it that the appellation is going to steadily increase the minimum portion of Gamay until it reaches 60% sometime after the year 2027. White wines made primarily from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are also produced in the region, but are labeled with Val de Loire IGP status.

Culan Castle

Culan Castle

Châteaumeillant became a vin délimité de qualité supérieure (the now-defunct VDQS category) in 1965 and was promoted to AOC status in 2010. There seem to be only around 10 wine estates in the area; noted producers include Domaine Roux, Domaine Goyer, and Domaine du Chaillot.

If you would like to visit Châteaumeillant, it’s about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Paris. Once there, you can see the ancient amphora of the region at the Archeological Museum of Chateaumeillant, tour Culan Castle (built in the 13th century), and visit the Chapitre d’Albret (dating from the 1500s). The region also has a variety of farms that produce some of the Loire Valley’s famous goat cheeses, which should be a great match with the vin gris of the AOC Châteaumeillant.

It sounds like a trip to the outer limits that you might enjoy!

References/for further information:

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