Rah-Rah Rías!

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As a wine lover, you must surely have a place in your heart for Rías Baixas, the lovely, Albariño-based white wine from Northern Spain.* Crisp and floral, fruity and refreshing, the wines of Rías Baixas are a white wine lovers dream.

However…do you know what a ría is? The word itself sounds a lot like “río,” so you might just assume that it is a local term for “river.” In which case, you would be just a little bit correct.

A ría is actually a type of estuary. There are several types of estuaries, all of which abide by a definition such as the following:

  • Estuary: A partially-enclosed body of water, located on the coast, formed where one or more streams or rivers flow into the ocean. An estuary contains a body of brackish water (a combination of salt water and fresh water) and has an open connection to the sea.

The Cies Islands

A ría is therefore a type of estuary, also known as a drowned river valley or a coastal plain estuary. Rías were formed at the end of last ice age at places where the level of the sea rose in proportion to the coast, and sea water seeped inland into the river valleys. Rías retain the original shape of the river and are usually quite shallow. Rías typically have very rugged, jagged outlines and often include islands as well.

In the United States, Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, and Galveston Bay are all rías. Well-known rías in other parts of the world include Marlborough Sounds (on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island), Sydney Harbor in Australia, and the Fiordo di Furore in Campania, Italy (which is technically a ría despite its name).

The coast of Galicia is lined with rías. Those in the north are referred to as the “Rías Altas” (Upper Rías) and are aligned along the “Coast of Death.” Well, the area is not technically referred to as the Coast of Death, but the Galician “Costa da Morte” is a nickname for the region, so-called for the turbulent nature of the waters that in the past led to many shipwrecks.

Diagram of the Lower Rías by Hidrogalicia_ES, via Wikimedia Commons

The sea around the Rías Baixas, (the “Lower Rías”) is calmer, due in part to the presence of islands. The DO itself in comprised of five discontinuous areas, located close to four rías. These are, from north to south:

  • The Ría de Muros e Noia; formed where the Tambre River meets the sea. This is the smallest of the four rías and the only one not to have an island near the mouth.
  • The Ría de Arousa; formed where the Ulla River meets the sea. This is the largest of the five rías. The Ría de Arousa has two lagoons, as well as a large area of sand dunes known as the Dunas de Corrubedo.
  • The Ría de Pontevedra, located around the delightful, vacation-worthy town of the same name, is located where the Lerez River meets the sea. This ría contains a small inlet known as the Ría de Aldan.  Two small islands, Isla Ons and Isla Onza, are situated at the mouth of the ría. The islands are part of the Parque Nacional Marítimo-Terrestre de las Islas Atlánticas de Galicia.
  • The Ría de Vigo, the southernmost, is formed where the Verdugo River meets the sea. The Cíes islands, located at the mouth of the ría, make the area a safe port, and many beautiful marinas are located here.

*Technically, the white wines of the Rías Baixas DO may be produced using Albariño, Loureira, Treixadura, and Caiña Blanca grapes, along with small amounts of Torrontés or Godello—in various proportions depending on label terminology and the sub-region. The DO is also approved for the production of red wines based on Caiño Tinto, Espadeiro, Loureira Tinta, Mencía, Brancellao or Sousón.

The Rande Bridge over the Ría de Vigo

Click here to download a full-size map of the Rías Baixas DO, with good designations of the rías, the rivers, and the sub-regions.

For the geo-curious: other types of estuaries include the following:

  • Fjords: Fjords are deep, steep-sided estuaries formed by glaciers. As the glaciers advanced, they would deepen and widen the original river valleys; at the end of the ice age as the glaciers retreated, they left behind the fjords. Fjords can reach depths of up to 1,000 feet (300 m). The coast of Norway is well-known for its numerous fjords; fjords also make up portions of Puget Sound (Washington State), Glacier Bay (Alaska), and Milford Sound (New Zealand).
  • Lagoons: Common in tropical areas, lagoons are formed in areas where sediment is deposited at the same rate as the sea level rises to form a body of brackish water separated from the sea by a sand spit or barrier islands. Lagoons are typically quite shallow and parallel to the shoreline, as seen in New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay and Italy’s Venetian Lagoon.
  • Freshwater Estuaries: Freshwater estuaries occur where rivers flow into fresh-water lakes. The Great Lakes, located in the United States and Canada,

Other references/for more information:

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

WineGeo: Grès des Vosges

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The wines of Alsace are a white wine lover’s dream…dry, powerful Rieslings, spicy Pinot Gris, and aromatic Gewurztraminer are just a few of the amazing white wines that are produced in Alsace. (Shout out to the Pinot Noir for red wine lovers as well.)

The soils of Alsace are just as diverse; as a matter of fact, according to the website of Wines of Alsace, “The terroir of Alsace is a geologist’s dream…if you walk 100 feet in any direction, you’ll find a different soil composition, making Alsace a complex mosaic unlike any other wine region.”

Soils underlying the vineyards in Alsace range from the schist and granite of the higher elevations (extending into the Vosges Mountains) to the limestone and chalk of the lower slopes, to the clay and gravel of the valley floors. However, it is the unique, reddish-colored sandstone of Alsace—known as grès des Vosges—that inspired this post.

For starters, grès des Vosges (Vosges sandstone) runs in a large, horizontal swath through the Vosges, underneath a granite layer (from which it is derived) and atop a layer of coal. Grès des Vosges is a hard, compact sandstone composed mainly of quartz and feldspar. Its pink-reddish color is due to the presence of decomposing iron (iron oxide, as also seen in red soils such as terra rosa) that occurred as a result of the slow cooling of large masses of magma as it hardened into granite.

The process of the coloring of the sandstone is termed rubefaction. Much of the sandstone in the Vosges is still grey, and some is still undergoing the process of rebefaction (or rebéfaction as they say in French).

The Strasbourg Cathedral, widely considered to be among the finest examples of late Gothic architecture, is partially composed of grès des Vosges, which gives the building its pink-hued appearance. The Strasbourg Cathedral was the tallest building in the world from 1647 to 1874 (227 years). Today, it remains the sixth tallest church in the world and the tallest existing structure built entirely in the Middle Ages.

Carte topographique des Vosges by Boldair, via Wikimedia Commons

Grès des Vosges is considered a unique aspect of the Vosges Mountains and Alsace—so much so that it has earned Protected Geographical Indication status from the EU. It is also still in great demand as a building material, and as such there is also a trade organization, the Union des Producteurs de Grès des Vosges, built around promoting and protecting the stone.

And here I thought it was all about the wine.

References/for more information:

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

The (Lucky) French Thirteen

Administrative map of the 13 (new as of 2016) regions of France

Administrative map of the 13 (new as of 2016) regions of France

It’s called territorial reform.

As a citizen of the world, you have no doubt heard by now that in January of this year (2016), after years of debate, the French government reduced the number of the administrative regions in Metropolitan France from 22 to 13. This “simplification” has been dubbed le big bang des régions by the French media.

Despite their original intent (and hopefully, eventual success) such changes tend to complicate things in the short term. In this regard, we wish the French well.

On a more selfish note, as a lifelong student of wine this means I need to re-do some of my flashcards. I’m in the process of doing just that, but for now I felt the need to make a quick survey of how these new administrative regions affect the study of French wines!

First, some quick good news: A lot of wine study deals in departments, and these have not changed. There are still 101 departments in France, which include: 94 on the mainland, 2 in Corsica, and 5 overseas territories (Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, Réunion, and Mayotte). Your studies of the Haut-Rhin, Gironde, and Lot-et-Garonne have not been in vain.

And for some more good news, the following administrative regions of France have not changed:

  • Bretagne (Brittany)
  • Centre (although the name has changed to Centre-Val de Loire)
  • Île-de-France
  • Pays de la Loire
  • Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
The departments - thankfully, there have been no recent changes

The departments – thankfully, there have been no recent changes

That leaves seven newly-defined regions. Here goes:

Grand Est: The newly-formed Grand Est region comprises the former regions of Alsace, Champagne-Ardenne, and Lorraine. The capital city is Strasbourg. That’s right—the Alsace region (technically) is no more. However, the wine region is still referred to as Alsace, and if you look Alsace up in a (non-wine centric) dictionary or encyclopedia, it will define it along the lines of something like “a historic and cultural area of France.” Main wine areas in the Grand Est region include Champagne (parts of which cross over into the new Hauts-de-France region to the northwest), Alsace, Moselle AOC, and Côtes de Toul AOC.

Bourgogne-Franche Comté: This new region encompasses the former regions of Bourgogne (Burgundy) and Franche Comté. The capital city is Dijon. There is nothing too complicated about this region, it is merely the coupling of two former administrative areas into one, with a hyphenated name. Wine regions affected include Burgundy (even Chablis, Irancy, and Saint-Bris made the cut) and Jura. The vineyards of Beaujolais and the Savoie AOC are now partially in the region of Bourgogne-French Comté and partially in the new region to the south (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes). The good news: the ideal pairing of white Burgundy and Comté cheese now consists of two sister products from the same region.

Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes: Like Bourgogne-Franche Comté, this newly-formed administrative region seems to be merely a late marriage (complete with hyphenated name) between two longtime neighbors. The capital city is Lyon. The main wine regions within the new region include all of the Northern Rhône Valley (from Côte Rotie in the north to Saint-Péray at the southern tip) and Grignan-les-Adhémar (of the Southern Rhône), parts of Beaujolais, and parts of the Savoie AOC.

Occitanie: This new region is made up of the former regions of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées.  The capital city is Toulouse. Just like long, lost Alsace, we will read things like “Languedoc is a former province of France. Its territory is now contained in the modern-day region of Occitanie in the south of France.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.) The Occitanie region contains all of the vineyards areas of Languedoc and Roussillon (we knew you well), as well as some of the AOCs of Southwest France, including Cahors, Floc de Gasconge, and Fronton.

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Nouvelle Aquitaine: This new region is comprised of the former regions of Aquitaine, Limousin, and Poitou-Charentes. The capital city is Bordeaux. This new area includes all of the vineyards and AOCs of Bordeaux (thank goodness), all of the Cognac-producing region and most of the Armagnac-producing areas (a portion of which stretches into Occitanie). Nouvelle Aquitaine also includes some AOCs of Southwest France, including Bergerac, Buzet, Côtes de Duras, and Monbazillac.

Normandie (Normandy): This area hasn’t changed too much; it just combines the former regions of Upper Normandy and Lower Normandy. This totally makes sense to me and seems like an actual simplification. The new capital city is Rouen. Wine production is not really a thing here, but the apple brandy (with its three Calvados AOCs) and the Camembert cheese is quite good.

Hauts-de-France: Named for this area’s location at the “top” (haut) of France, this new area comprises the two former regions of Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy. The capital city is Lille. Not much wine production goes on in this northerly spot, aside from the fact that the official boundaries of the Champagne region extend ever-so-slightly into the Hauts-de-France’s Aisne department.

Click here for a pdf of the maps-of-france-used-in-this-post, including a blank map of the “New France.”

References/for more information:

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

A Little bit about the Lot

The town of Estaing on the Lot River

The town of Estaing on the Lot River

The Lot River has its source in south-central France, in a small mountain range known as the Cévennes. The Cévennes Range is part of, and sits alongside, the eastern edge of the much-larger Massif Central.

The highest mountain in the Cévennes is Mont Lozère, rising to 5,575 feet (1,700 m) above sea level.  It is here, on the side of Mont Lozère, that the Lot River begins its 300-mile (482 km) journey as a “winding blue ribbon” through the departments of Lozère, Aveyron, Cantal, Lot, and Lot-et-Garonne. Along this path, the Lot River flows through the AOC wine regions of Estaing, Entraygues-Le Fel, and Cahors before joining the Garonne for the final trip to the sea.

From its beginning in the Cévennes, the Lot River flows for about 60 miles alongside a plain known as L’Aubrac—named for the small town of Aubrac located on its western side. This high plateau extends almost 1,000 square miles, and was created by a series of volcanic eruptions that occurred over 6 million years ago. The plateau of L’Aubrac is somewhat defined by the Lot River; the Lot River itself forms the southern boundary, while the Truyère River defines the northern border.

On its journey across the Aubrac Plateau, the Lot River flows through the town of Estaing. Estaing is considered to be one of the most picturesque towns in all of France. Estaing is also the recipient of a rather new AOC, awarded in 2011. The wines of the Estaing AOC are red, white, or rosé, and typically dry (although off-dry styles are permitted).

The Valentre Bridge over the Lot River (Cahors)

The Valentre Bridge over the Lot River (Cahors)

The white wines of the Estaing AOC are based on a minimum of 50% Chenin Blanc and a minimum of 10% Mauzac; the remainder may include up to 25% Saint-Côme (a local grape also known as Rousselou). The red and rosé wines are based on Gamay, with Fer (Fer Servadou) required in the reds, and two accessory varieties (chosen from a long list of allowed, obscure varieties) required in the rosés.

The western boundary of the Aubrac Plateau is about ten miles upriver from Estaing, at the town of Entraygues-sur-Truyère.  Entraygues-sur-Truyère was founded where the Truyère River (a right tributary of the Lot) flows into the Lot River as it continues its journey down the eastern foothills of the Massif Central.

From Entraygues-sur-Truyère, the Lot River twists and turns for about 4 more miles before it reaches the town of Le Fel. Between these two towns you will find the terraced vineyards of the obscure yet delightful Entraygues-Le Fel AOC. This is a tiny AOC, consisting of about 50 acres in total.

Red, white, and rosé wines are produced here; they are mostly dry but off-dry styles are allowed as well. The white wines of the Entraygues-Le Fel AOC are based on a minimum of 90% Chenin Blanc; the remaining 10% may comprise either Mauzac or Saint-Côme. The red and rosé wines are blends, based on Fer, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon, plus small allowed amounts of Mouyssaguès and Négret de Banhars. No single grape may be more than 60% of the blend.

Panoramic view of Cahors, surrounded by the Lot River

Panoramic view of Cahors, surrounded by the Lot River

After leaving the town of Le Fel, the Lot River twists and turns through the hills, limestone plateaus, and valleys for about 70 more miles until it reaches the town of Cahors. Here, the Malbec-dominated vineyards of the Cahors AOC follow the twists and turns of the Lot River for over 25 miles. Cahors is a red wine-only AOC, producing the deep, dark, spicy wines known as the “Black Wine of Cahors.” Cahors AOC is produced using a minimum of 70% Malbec, with Tannat and Merlot allowed for the remainder.

The vineyards of Cahors are planted on two distinct soils; those closest to the river are planted on gravelly slopes, while those farther from the river are planted on the area’s limestone plateaus (known as the Causses). Wines produced using grapes planted on the limestone plateaus are known to be more tannic and austere, while grapes planted closer to the river produce wines that are fruitier and more approachable while young.

After the Lot River leaves the vineyards of Cahors behind, it continues to wind its way for another 60 miles before it reaches the town of Aiguillon. At Aiguillon (a commune of the aptly-named Lot-et-Garonne Department), the Lot River joins the Garonne River for its final journey through the vineyards of Bordeaux, into the Gironde Estuary, and finally out to sea.

Map of the Lot River by Lemen, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Lot River by Lemen, via Wikimedia Commons

References/for more information:

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

 

WineGeo: The Massif Central

Map of the Massif Central by Technob105, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Massif Central by Technob105, via Wikimedia Commons

As a wine lover, surely you have heard of the Massif Central. It’s that big uplift in the middle of France. Except that’s not exactly true…

The Massif Central is actually located in the south of France; but fairly well centered on the east-west axis—just take a look at the cool map. Its boundaries sound familiar to wine lovers: it fills the area between the Loire River Basin to its north, the Mediterranean coastal plains of Languedoc to its south, the lowlands of Aquitaine to the west, and the Rhône-Saône River valley to the east.

Most of the area within the Massif Central consists of rugged mountains, fertile valleys, and forests—about 35% of the area is forests. The rest of the land is open countryside and farmland, much of which supports three brands of cattle (Limousins, Aubracs, and Salers) as well as Lacaune Sheep—famous for producing the milk that will become Roquefort Cheese. A few small towns dot the middle of the area, and three cities—Saint Etienne, Clermont Ferrand, and Limoges—are located near the edges.

The outline of the area, which does not conform to any political or regional boundaries, is considered to be demarcated by the contour line of 1,000 feet (300 m) above sea level. Most of the land sits at an altitude of about 1,640 feet (500 m). The Massif Central stretches over 200 miles from north to south, and about 175 miles (at its widest point) from east to west. This is a large area—all told; it covers about 15% of France. It is also the third highest mountain range in France, thanks to the 6,190-foot (1,885-m) summit of Puy de Sancy.

The town of Navacelles, in the Massif Central

The town of Navacelles, in the Massif Central

Many famous wine-related rivers have their source in the Massif Central. These include the Lot and the Tarn—both tributaries of the Garonne; as well as the Dordogne and the Loire.

Some vineyards are tucked around into the valleys and the outskirts of the uplift. One of these, the Côtes de Millau AOC, is the easternmost of the South West France AOCs. It is located in the south of the Massif Central in and around an area known as Causse du Larzac—a limestone karst plateau situated between the towns of Millau and Lodève. Karst is a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks, such as limestone, and the deep valleys and gorges here were created over the millennia as the Tarn River cut a series of paths through the limestone. Most of the Côtes de Millau vineyards are planted on steep, terraced slopes in the deep valleys of the Tarn.

The Côtes de Millau AOC produces red wines (dry), white wines (dry and off-dry), and rosé (dry and off-dry). The reds are blends, based on a minimum of 30% Syrah and 30% Gamay, 10% to 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and an allowed splash (max 20% each) of Fer and Duras. Rosés are based on a minimum of 50% Gamay; Cabernet Sauvignon, Duras, Fer, and Syrah are also allowed. White wines are made with a minimum of 50% Chenin Blanc and a minimum of 10% Mauzac.

The Millau Viaduct

The Millau Viaduct

If you’d like to visit the wineries of the Côtes de Millau, you’ll need to transverse the Tran River Gorge. Have no fear, you can drive across via the A75 highway on the cable-stayed Millau Viaduct bridge, and when you do, you’ll be on the tallest bridge in the world. The height of the tallest mast is 1,125 feet (343 m) and the bridge deck is 890 feet (270 m) high. If you are bothered by heights, it might be best not to look down.

References/for more information:

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

 

The Outer Limits: The Dordogne before Bordeaux

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The Dordogne River is well known as one of the three main waterways that flow through and handily divide the Bordeaux AOC into the areas of the Right Bank, Left Bank, and Entre-Deux-Mers. However, Bordeaux is only part of the story of the Dordogne River.

The sources of the Dordogne is found almost in the center of France—it’s just a bit too far south to call it the true center. In the mountains of the Massif Central, two small streams—the Dore and the Dogne—arise on the side of Puy de Sancy (Mount of the Cross), which at 6,184 feet (1,885 m) high is the highest mountain in the range. After a bit of meandering around, these two streams flow together and form the Dordogne River.

The upper valley of the Dordogne River is a series of deep gorges, cliffs, and lakes. The river then flows through the neighboring countryside, occasionally meeting small towns such as Lanobre (where you can visit the Château de Val [not a wine-producing Château but a well-preserved Gothic Castle]) and Bort-les-Orgues, where you can view the “Les Orgues” volcanic rock formation—which stretches over half a mile and resembles a series of 300 foot-high organ pipes, the result of cracks formed in cooling, prehistoric lava flows.

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About 50 miles later the river flows through the city of Argentat, a lovely town where medieval houses line the streets along the river. From Argentat, the river twists and turns for about another 100 miles, and just before the town of Lalinde, the Dordogne flows into the Bergerac/Cotes de Bergerac AOC.

The Bergerac AOC produces red, white, and rosé wines. Bergerac reds and rosés center on Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Merlot; also allowing for small amounts of Fer Servadou and Mérille. White wines are based on Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, and Muscadelle; varying small amounts of Ugni Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Ondenc are also allowed. The Cotes de Bergerac AOC occupies the same area as the Bergerac AOC, and produces the same range of wines but with stricter standards for yield and must weight at harvest. The Cotes de Bergerac AOC also allows for a sweet white wine; whites in the Bergerac AOC must be dry.

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Tucked into the Bergerac AOC, and surrounding the actual town of Bergerac (and its famous statue of Cyrano), we find the Pécharmant AOC. The Pécharmant AOC produces dry red wines only, based on Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec. Pécharmant is required to contain at least three varieties, and no one variety can exceed 65% of the blend.

Following the river just to the west of the Pécharmant AOC, we find two wine regions: Rosette to the north of the river, and Monbazillac to the south—both produce off-dry and sweet white wines. Rosette AOC must contain 2.5%–5.1% residual sugar and is a blend of at least two of the following grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Sémillon, and Muscadelle.

The Monbazillac AOC is famous for its sweet white wines that are often touted as something of a less expensive “version” of Sauternes. The grapes of the Monbazillac AOC include the principal varieties Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Sémillon, and Muscadelle; other allowed varieties include Chenin Blanc, Ondenc, and Ugni Blanc. There are few restrictions on the content of the blend, provided that at least 80% of the contents consist of the principal varieties. Monbazillac blanc must contain at least 4.5% residual sugar, and the most famous wine of the appellation—Monbazillac Sélection de Grains Nobles—must contain at least 8.5% residual sugar. Grapes used in Monbazillac AOC wines must be selectively hand-harvested and may be affected by botrytis, but this is not required.  While in Monbazillac, be sure and visit the Château Monbazillac which is a historic castle, a modern winery, and a contemporary arts center!

Map of the Dordogne River by Boerkevitz, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Dordogne River by Boerkevitz, via Wikimedia Commons

To the north of the Dordogne, about 15 miles west of the Rosette AOC (and onward through the surrounding Bergerac AOC), we find the Montravel AOC. The Montravel AOC produces both red and white wines that closely mirror the wines of nearby Bordeaux. White wines are based on a minimum of 25% Sémillon plus a minimum of 25% (combined) Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris; other allowed varieties include Muscadelle and Ondenc. The Haut-Montravel AOC produces sweet white wines (minimum 8.5% residual sugar) from the same blend. Red Montravel AOC is based on a required minimum of 50% Merlot and must include at least one other grape variety; allowed red grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec.

For about 15 miles, the Dordogne River forms the border between the wine regions of Bergerac and Montravel (on the north bank of the river) and Saint-Foy-de-Bordeaux (on the south bank). Just past Saint-Foy-de-Bordeaux, the Dordogne dips inside the Bordeaux AOC and creates the boundary line between Bordeaux’s Right Bank and Entre-Deux-Mers. Somewhere between the AOCs of Fronsac and Margaux, the Dordogne River joins the Garonne and together, as the Gironde Estuary, they make their way into the Atlantic Ocean.

Map credit: Cyril555, via Wikimedia Commons

Map credit: Cyril555, via Wikimedia Commons

References/for more information:

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

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