Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Tursan – Wine of South West France, Cellars of Sand and a Michelin Chef Saves the Baroque Grape

Tursan is one of those wine regions that you never seem to hear of outside France – which is a shame as it is home to some fascinating practices and long forgotten grapes. Wine has been made in Tursan for over a thousand years – gracing the tables of Roman Emperors. In the Middle Ages Tursan wines could be found in major Spanish cities such as Cordoba, Seville and Valencia as well as in England or Flanders.

Tursan lies in the western foothills of the Pyrenees mountains in the back-reaches of the Landes department, surrounding the walled town of Geaune and pretty villages of Eugénie les Bains and Samadet. Part of the region just spreads into the Gers and Tursan takes its name from an historic area of the region which survives in the names of two local parishes - Castelnau-Tursan and Vielle Tursan. It is bordered by the River Ardour in Landes, on the west by the Chalosse, south of the Béarn, and east by the Armagnac.

The River Adour has been an important water highway for the region – it in High-Bigorre in the Pyrenees, and flows into the Atlantic Ocean via the Bay of Biscay near Bayonne. This region was first cultivated by the Romans and had a flourishing wine trade long before the Bordeaux area was planted. As the port city of Bordeaux became established, wines from the "High Country" would descend via the tributaries of the Dordogne and Garonne to be sent to markets along the Atlantic coast. The climate of the inland region was generally warmer and more favourable than in Bordeaux, allowing the grapes to be harvested earlier and the wines to be of a stronger alcohol level.

Many Bordeaux wine merchants saw the wines of the "High Country" as a threat to their economic interest and during the 13th and 14th century a set of codes, known as the police des vins, were established which regulated the use of the port of Bordeaux for wine trading. The police des vins stated that no wine could be traded out of Bordeaux till the majority of Bordelais wine had already been sold.

The winemakers of Tursan circumvented this set of codes in the 17th and 18th century by shipping their barrels down the River Adour through the port of Bayonne to Europe. Since the late 1990s Tursan has resurrected an old custom from these times. Whilst the wines were waiting for shipment at Saint Sever the barrels were taken to the seaside town of Hossegor Landes and buried in the sand dunes. This ancient method of storage ensured the best conditions for the wine to mature – the sand maintained a temperature conducive to the wines' preservation. Nowadays this revived practice once more takes place and barrels are stored for 6 months under the sand.

Sand also plays an important place in the terroir of Tursan's vineyards which are made up of tawny sand, limestone and clay. During the Mid-Miocene epoch, between 11 and 16 million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean invaded the Aquitanian Basin. The sea laid down continental deposits that include molasse - sandstones, tawny sands, shales, or even gravel that were laid down as shore or fore land layers containing fossils of many terrestrial species. The fine clay is now used for making earthenware in the village of Samadet in the heart of Tursan's vineyards.

Tursan makes very dry white wines and subtle, smooth rosés and red wines. The red grapes used are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat and Fer Servadou. The white wine grapes are Baroque, Sauvignon Blanc, Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng. Grapes such as Claverie, Cruchinet, Raffiat, Chenin Blanc, Claret du Gers and Clairette can be found there as well. The production zone covers potentially 4.000 hectares (but less than 500 hectares are covered by vineyards) and includes around 40 communes.

The Baroque grape is rare and is isolated to this area. Not much is known about this white grape but apparently it was widespread in the 1800s. According to the French ampelographer Pierre Galet , it was introduced to the region by pilgrims returning from Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. Essays written in the 1700s record the variety.
There seem to be several types or mutations of Baroque – a black, rose and beige version are known to exist. The black variety is thought to be genetically closely related to Manseng Noir and Tannat according to a study published in 2007 demonstrated that the varieties Baroque, Manseng Noir and Tannat are genetically very closely related (Etude historique, génétique et ampélograpfique of cépages Pyrénéo Atlantiques by Louis Bordenave, Thierry Lacombe, Valérie Laucou and Jean-Michel Boursiquot). They also found a striking similarity to the variety Malbec and the variety Claverie.

However the white variety is thought to be a cross between Folle Blanche and Sauvignon Blanc.
The white Baroque (often spelled Barroque) can make full bodied wines, high in alcohol and has nutty flavours. Interestingly it has amongst its synonyms Bordelais Blanc (I wonder if it was ever used in Bordeaux?) and Sable Blanc (meaning White Sand – is this a hark back to the soils it is grown in or to the Sand Cellars?).

Luckily the Baroque grape has been saved from extinction by Michelin starred chef Michel Guérard, one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine, and the inventor of cuisine minceur. In 1974 he moved to the spa town of Eugénie les Bains, with his wife Christine (the daughter of the founder of the Biotherm range and the owner of a chain of spas and hotels). Not only do they run a highly successful spa hotel and restaurant but they also bought the 13th century Château de Bachen in 1983. From these restored vineyards they produce the award winning wines Chateau de Bachen and the Baron de Bachen from Baroque grapes.

The Hachette Guide describes them as “chiselled shiny pale gold with a complex nose where floral and fruity blend with elegant oak vanilla, lemon zest confit, blond tobacco, pepper, woodland, cappuccino and, pineapple notes . . . A sophisticated wine that has substance.”

These little known wines sound well worth discovering and you can check out Tursan's website and newly established Route de Vins here.


lostpastremembered said...

What a fine new years present... another region I have never thought of for wine... and I love the idea of antique grapes! My wine store guy is really interested in you at this point... I make him look things up all the time for me! I think he learns things too. I must find this Baron de Bachen... looks glorious!

Sue said...

Thanks Deana! I am so pleased that these wine regions are finally getting websites sorted out and that the wine world is starting to appreciate these great wines!