Thursday, 9 September 2010

Madiran – the Pilgrim's Wine

Hugh Johnson said of Madiran that it: "is Gascony's great red wine... After seven or eight years, fine Madiran is truly admirable: aromatic, full of flavour, fluid and lively, well able to withstand comparison with classed growth Bordeaux."

Like Bordeaux these wines have Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend but the third grape is where they differ: Tannat. Tannat makes a dark, strong flavoured red wine, rich in tannin with an aroma of ripe raspberries that ages gracefully. Interestingly Tannat was used in Bordeaux hundreds of years ago and was reputedly brought to the area from Bordeaux by monks. Fer Servadou is sometimes used in the blend and is locally called Pinenc.

Madiran wine is named after the village of Madiran in Gascony which lies east and south of Bordeaux, and is a part of the South West France wine region. Madiran is one of the oldest wine-growing regions in France and before it was classified as an AOC in 1948 it was known as Vic Bilh. The vineyards lie on the gentle rolling slopes at the foothills of the Pyrenees and the countryside is dotted with oak and chestnut forests. For a long time, the red wine produced here was known as the pilgrims wine, referring to the pilgrims who walked the famous pilgrims path Camino de Santiago to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in Spain ever since the 11th century.

Wine making in the area goes back even earlier to Roman times and a 3rd century mosaic in the Roman villa of Taron depicts a grapevine. Wine making began in earnest with the founding of the monastery of Madiran in 1030 and for a long time, the red wine produced here was known as the pilgrims’ wine, referring to the pilgrims who walked the famous pilgrims’ path Camino de Santiago to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in Spain ever since the 11th century.

It's thought that the name Madiran comes from the Latin Dona Maria (Lady Mary) which was the name of the patron saint of the church and the great monastery which existed there. However it's more likely that it comes from a Roman noble named Materius who ruled the lands.

Legend has it that the occupation of Beam by the Black Prince (the eldest son of King Edward III of England and Philippa of Hainault), who became the Prince of Aquitaine in 1360, lead to the English discovery of the wines of Madiran. He encouraged extensive trade with the valleys of the Pyrenees. King Edward III considered it as a wine for special occasions and the heavy oak barrels were transported by cart to Saint-Sever, and then by flat bottomed barge on the Adour to Bayonne. From the port of Bayonne, the wine made the long journey to Northern Europe. From 1688 the Dutch were importing between 1000 and 7000 barrels, followed by other Northern European countries with between 500 and 2000 barrels.

In the 1970s, the INAO limited the share of Tannat in the blend to a maximum of 40%, favouring the use of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Fer Servadou in order to make the wine taste milder and more approachable when young. However, the wine producers fought against this change, their main spokesman was the young winemaker Alain Brumont, who planted 4/5ths Tannat vines on his by now famous estate Château Montus. He experimented with extremely low yields, long skin contact, frequent racking and long barrel maturation. In 1985 he launched the first varietal Tannat red wine to have the format of a Bordeaux, he called it Prestige Cuvée, and attracted a great deal of attention.

In the meantime, many other producers have followed his example, and are experimenting with new methods, such as micro-oxygenation, which was invented here. The technique of micro-oxygenation, was developed by Madiran grower Patrick Ducournau in 1990 and is now widely used across France. It involves bubbling tiny amounts of oxygen through young wines, reducing the ferocity of the tannins and making the wines much smoother. The wine makers have adopted the symbol of the Roman God Janus as their emblem, January is named after him and he had two faces - one looking forward and the other looking backwards.

If you would like to hunt out some wines from Madiran to try for yourself try Wine Searcher – it is a wine search engine that will list all the suppliers and their location of the wine you are searching for. Happy hunting!

No comments: