By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 15 July 2017
If you head to a bar in Toulouse and ask for a glass of red wine, you will probably end up drinking the local wine, Fronton.
Fronton, once called Cotes du Frontonnais, just north of Toulouse in Haute-Garonne has some of the oldest vines in France. Today this small appellation (just 4,000 acres) is not well known outside Toulouse – yet it is becoming one of the most dynamic burgeoning regions in the south west – certainly more so than its rustic neighbour in the Tarn, Gaillac.
Fronton’s sappy young reds have a distinct flavour, best served with the local cuisine with a touch of Basque – they work particularly well as refreshing summer reds. The flavour derives from the local grape, Negrette (meaning black in the local dialect). Grown on the wide gravelly river terraces near the Tarn, they make lipsmackingly juicy perfumed reds, which taste like a cross between Beaujolais and Cotes du Rhone – often best drunk in their youth.
Vines here date back to before the time of Charlemagne. By C12 Fronton was already associated with ‘negret’ – which, according to grape geneticist Jose Voumailloz, was possibly introduced from the Near East by the Knights Templar returning from Crusades.
In case you were wondering, Negrette is rarely found outside the Fronton region in France – there is a tiny planting in Cienega Valley in California where it used to be known as Pinot St George.
Grown on the ‘boulbenes’, acidic sandy pebbly soils, with iron and quartz bedrock, Negrette makes deep coloured aromatic roses and vibrant juicy reds. Growers must have 50-70% of Negrette in their vineyards, but they can blend in other grapes: Syrah, Malbec and Cabernet Franc are most popular.
Fronton is midway between the Atlantic and Mediterranean, so both oceans influence the climate here along with cooling southerly winds during ripening, which help to moderate the semi-continental climate in this inland region. You don’t get quite the same ripeness as you do in the hotter vineyards of the Aude to the south of Toulouse.
Times are changing in Fronton. Once a remote backwater where the local Cave Cooperative de Fronton dominated, now this appellation is home to a new generation keen to experiment with their local Negrette and its blends.
Pierre Selle of Chateau Bouissel is a good example. Based near the town of Montauban, the birthplace of Ingres, Pierre took over his family estate in the late 1970’s. Like many other estates in Fronton, they sold their grapes to the local co-operative. But by the mid 1980’s he and his wife Anne-Marie decided to go it along. Anne-Marie gave up her nursing job and qualified in viticulture and oenology so that she could help him.
Domaine Le Roc is another ambitious family affair with a modern touch. Jean Luc and Frederic Ribes took over from their parents (pictured right) in 1981, a domaine which had been set up as recently as 1974. Today they focus on Negrette with Syrah and Cabernet Franc. They ferment the grape varieties separately and experiment with maturation using a combination of 20 hectolitre oak foudres and large 400 litre barriques, as they believe older larger oak gets the best out of Negrette.
If you happen to be visiting Toulouse, other Fronton estates worth searching for include: Domaine de Callory, Domaine Plaisance, Chateau Baudaire and Chateau Bellevue La Foret, who have one of the largest plantings of Negrette in the region.
Taste the Difference Fronton Negrette Rose 2016
Grape: Negrette, Cabernet Franc & Syrah
Taste: Pale rose in colour, violet and blackfruit aromas with a hint of cherries on the palate, very dry with a lightly spicy finish; suit those who like very dry rose for aperitif served with a spicy charcuterie platter.
Fronton, A L’Origine 2014 Chateau Bouissel
(£8.50 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
Grapes: 55% Negrette with 45% Malbec & Cabernet Sauvignon
Taste: Enticing plummy aroma, crunchy blackcurrant fruit flavours with a tangy juicy edge, peppery undertones, slightly rustic finish – this unoaked red would be best served with coarse pate, saucisson or mature cheese. It would benefit from opening a good hour before serving and decanting.
Fronton, Cuvee Don Quichotte 2012 Domaine Le Roc STAR BUY
(£17.49 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)
Grapes: 50% Negrette, 50% Syrah
Taste: Very popular with tasters who loved the lush generous blackfruits and silky texture of the palate with its fresh acidity and ripe soft tannins. Its peppery smoky hints come from 18 months maturation in large oak foudres which has helped soften the palate – serve with rich cassoulet or spicy roasted peppers and saucisson.
Join Rose’s Loire & Rhone wine & French charcuterie tasting at Abode Hotel, Bath St, Glasgow: Friday 1 September: £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com