By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 9 April 2016
The green valleys of the Dordogne have long been a tourist hot-spot. Visitors to this beautiful corner of France discover a wealth of little known wines from sweet Saussignac to fleshy red Montravel, but they are often hard pressed to find these wines on the shelves when they return to the UK.
The reason why Dordogne is largely neglected by UK winemerchants and supermarkets is because many of the wines resemble the cheaper spectrum of white and red Bordeaux. Names here are confusing too, with Bergerac and its subzones there are 13 appellations, but some are small selling only to locals and holidaymakers. Today thanks to outside investors and dedicated locals, winemaking standards have improved, but you still need to choose carefully to be rewarded with anything of real substance.
Bergerac vignerons have exported their wines to England since 1254, long before Bordeaux rose to fame. They were granted special priviledges to export by Henry III of England. Once Bordeaux rose to prominence, the powerful wine aristocrats of Bordeaux used their position down river to try to exclude their Haut Pays rivals inland. Sizewise, Bordeaux now dwarfs its neighbour (Bergerac today has just 8,000 hectares) – and thanks to nomenclature, political and religious differences (Bordeaux was Catholic, Bergerac Protestant), Bergerac in the hinterland of Dordogne began to develop its own rural identify around the scenic town of Bergerac.
With esculating prices of Bordeaux wines, the Dordogne’s dry whites and juicy quaffing reds can now offer great value. On Bergerac’s higher slopes you find similar limestone soils as in nearby famous St Emilion and the same grapes as Bordeaux: Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for dry and sweet whites, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec for reds. The climate is less maritime than Bordeaux, grapes ripen later in Bergerac (by 7-10 days) so the growers often pick too early in wetter vintages when grapes are not fully ripe. No surprises that the earlier ripening Merlot is popular here.
Stylistically, I find the wines of Bergerac in the Dordogne like a crossroads between the subtle charm of Bordeaux and the more rustic edgy Malbec-based reds of Cahors in the Lot valley to the east. Quality-wise there are still too many cheap and cheerful wines here, as many Bergerac growers sell to co-operatives who make quaffing wines for visiting tourists – but there is a small band of quality-focused producers like Chateau Thenac and Chateau Tour des Gendres (pictured right) trying to change this.
Just to the north of Bergerac, two subzone appellations Rosette and Pecharmant produce excellent wines which are largely drunk in situ and rarely appear in the UK. Rosette’s amphitheatre of vines is particularly attractive with delightfully fragrant sweet whites, whilst Pecharmant makes rich oaky reds from its iron-clad soils.
Monbazillac to the south of Bergerac is Dordogne’s golden gem. Its favourable siting to the east of where the Gardonette tributary runs into the larger faster flowing Dordogne, you get the same conditions as in Sauternes and Barsac. Morning mists and hot baked sunny afternoons encourage the growth of botrytis cinerea, noble rot.
Soils here differ from Bordeaux sweet wine areas, with more limestone and marl rather than Sauternes’ gravelly mounds. The climate is warmer too, so Monbazillac tends to produce sweeter styles than Sauternes, with less acidity and refinement. Since the mid-1980’s Monbazillac has improved in quality and has officially become the best appellation in Dordogne.
Next door is tiny Saussignac cru with just a few thousand cases of sweet wine, an appellation brought to prominence by enterprising wine grower and author Brit Patricia Atkinson – who has since retired and sold her vineyards – but plummy Merlot-based Clos d’Yvigne red is available in Marks & Spencer (£12.49).
Two other wine appellations you might encounter here are Montravel, where you can now find good fleshy Merlot based reds similar to neighbouring Cotes de Castillon and St Emilion satellites to the west – and Cotes de Duras where they grow similar grapes and make similar styles to Bergerac.
Bergerac: BERGERAC GRANDE RESERVE SAUVIGNON BLANC / SEMILLON 2014 ***STAR VALUE BUY***
Easy approachable dry white with a hint of green fruits, creamy soft palate with a honeyed undertone. Very acceptable at this price for an easy-going aperitif style. Alc 12%
Bergerac: FLEUR DU THENAC 2013 Chateau Thenac
(£11.95 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)
Honeyed nose with floral undertones, refreshingly dry well-made Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend; with a high alcohol level which is certainly not obvious on the palate. Alc 13%
Bergerac: LA CHANDELLE MERLOT 2014
Bearing in mind the price, this is as good as any supermarket claret. Soft juicy and smooth Merlot with rich ripe plummy fruit and a moderate alcohol level. Alc 12%
Bergerac: CHATEAU TOUR DES GENDRES 2014
(£7.95 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
Just a shade more complexity here than with Waitrose’s La Chandelle (above). Tour des Gendres is a well-run chateau making a very acceptable Merlot & Malbec blend; a typical example of Bergerac’s brisk crunchy reds with their plummy fruits and soft structure. Alc 12.5%
Monbazillac: MONBAZILLAC, LES PINS 2012 Chateau Tirecul La Graviere ***STAR BUY***
(£12.99 for 50 cl bt Raeburn Wines, Edinburgh)
The clear winner in our Dordogne tasting: deep burnished gold colour, toffee and nut aromas, rich honeyed sweetness with caramel hints, mature but still fresh and vibrant. Very good. Alc 12%
Monbazillac: MONBAZILLAC 2014 Domaine du Haut Rauly
(£6.99 for 37.5cl bt Co-op)
Youthful citric fruits, fresh vibrant sweet cheap alternative to Sauternes.
Monbazillac: MONBAZILLAC 2011 Chateau Pech la Calevie
(£11.95 for 75cl bt The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
Licquorice aromas with odd sherbetty undertones, improves on the palate with minerally hints and an interesting mellow roundness. Alc 13%
Join Rose’s South West France Wine & Charcuterie Tasting at Abode Hotel, 129 Bath St, Glasgow on Thurs 26 May £40 www.rosemurraybrown.com