When I started looking into the wines of Saint Mont the only things I knew about it were that it was a small area I hadn't heard of and that it lay to the north of Madiran and to the north east of Tursan. Little did I realise what a treasure trove it is. Or what a contradiction. On the one hand you have a very, very old vineyard and on the other a dynamic – and determined - set of wine makers who are remaking history.
Saint Mont's origins go back to the 4th century BC and the village is perched on a cliff overlooking the River Adour. The old town is rich with Medieval Gascon architecture with narrow streets and picturesque half-timbered houses. It's name translates into English as Holy Mountain or Mountain of Saints but its roots are pre Christian. The Romans built a hill fort here as the attitude made it almost inaccessible and therefore easily defensible. A thousand years later in 1050 a Benedictine Abbey was founded over the ruins of the Roman fort.
The story goes that when the region was in the grip of the plague, the local lord, Raymond de Saint Mont, profoundly affected by a menacing dream, swore an oath to found a an abbey and to wear the monk's habit. Despite opposition from his mother and brothers, he carried out his plan thanks to the support of the Count of Armagnac, Bernard II Tumapaler. The Abbey became an important stage on the route to Santiago de Compestela with pilgrims finding board and lodging there. Pilgrims were not the only people who stopped off at Saint Mont. Close by the Monastery was a 'Sauveté', a sacred place represented by a cross, where any individual being hunted down, even if guilty, could find refuge and assistance from the monks for three days. The first written records at Saint Mont date back to the vineyards of the 11th century and reveal that religious congregations were the chief architects of the development of the region, particularly in terms of vine cultivation.
After the French Revolution the Revolutionary authorities confiscated the Monastery and expelled the monks. In 1795 Count Jean-Jacques de Corneilhan bought the property and the Monastery became a Chateau. The de Corneilhan family owned the property for almost two centuries and in 1995 it was bought by Françoise Laborde, the French author, journalist and television presenter. Having discovered where sections of the former vines were originally planted, the Producteurs Plaimont have now recreated the vineyard of the Monastery.
And this leads me on from the old to the new.
The forward thinking co-operative Producteurs Plaimont was founded in 1979 by André Dubosc, a local man determined to reinvigorate this wine producing region. Plaimont not only represents Saint Mont but the surrounding appellations Madiran, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh and Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. Dubosc has spent his life researching, replanting and promoting local grapes varieties which, without him, would have otherwise disappeared. A trained ampelographer (expert in the study of vines and grapes), he set up the Conservatory of Saint Mont wines and saved many grapes from extinction.
Saint Mont now holds a unique collection in France (around 116 different grape varieties) and this botanical heritage is now attracting attention from researchers, scientists and vintners alike. Much of Dubosc's work has focused on the vineyard of René Pédebernade, which, according to the French wine critic Michel Bettane, contains the oldest vines in France. Some of the vines are believed to be 300 years old, giving new meaning to the term Vieilles Vignes (old vines).
The vines survived the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out thousands of acres in the 19th century as they are rooted in ten metres of sand, making them invincible to the pest. What’s remarkable is that Pédebernade’s vines give a glimpse into viticulture hundreds of years ago, and they have preserved varietals long since forgotten. Added to this are over 30 unknown varieties – their names lost long ago - discovered abandoned, yet still thriving, in deserted plots.
These vines are of vital importance as they hold the genetic keys to today's grapes and can help winegrowers of the future. The grapes grown today are the red grapes Tannat, Fer Servadou, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and the whites are Arrufiac, Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu. However as the climate changes the old varieties may have qualities that come back into the fore and we might be drinking wines made from grapes named Arrat, Canaril, Aouillat, Chacolis, Miousap, Claverie, Morrastel and Morenoa in the not too distant future!
If you would like to find out more about the wines of Saint Mont there is now a new website up and running here.