First: Even though the Bordeaux region is in the southwest of France, when we refer to “southwestern France” we mean the southwestern part of the country excluding Bordeaux, to the east and south of that famous region. The southwest has a number of extremely diverse regions. Some mirror the grape configuration we find in Bordeaux—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon—while others have local grapes seen nowhere else. The southwest is an interesting mix.
We start in the Dordogne region, the back door to Bordeaux. Here the Côtes de Duras borders Bordeaux’s Entre Deux Mers section, producing wines from red and white Bordeaux grapes. Bergerac further east is a similar Bordeaux mirror. Nearby Montravel is more varied, producing sweet white wines from Sémillon and dry whites from Sauvignon Blanc, sometime with oak aging. Bordeaux’s third white grape Muscadelle is also grown. Red Montravel is largely Merlot. Saussignac, Monbazzilac, and Rosette produce sweet wine from the three white Bordeaux grapes. In the case of Monbazzilac, the wine might be botrytis influenced, depending on the weather and climate in any particular year. The Côtes du Marmandais is bisected by the River Garonne. North of the river, adjacent to Bordeaux’s Entre Deux Mers, Merlot grows on clay and chalk soils. South of the river, abutting Bordeaux’s Graves region, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc prosper on alluvial silt.
Cahors is the original home of Malbec (called Côt here), but one hundred and fifty years of geographical separation make this wine nothing like its Argentinean offspring. The Malbec is fuller and more rustic than it would be in Bordeaux. Vines here are planted on alluvial terraces looking down on the River Lot.
Way inland, Marcillac glories in the local Fer Servadou grape, making a light peppery red wine. This appellation is a final vestige of a once-vital wine region in France’s Massif Centrale. Gaillac to the south is another red wine appellation using Fer Servadou, Syrah, and some Gamay, as well as the Bordeaux red grapes. North of the city of Toulouse, Fronton produces the red and rosé wine, from the local Negrette grape with perhaps some Syrah or Gamay, favored by the Toulousians. Lavilledieu and Brulhois are similar to Fronton. Brulhois may see some Tannat. On the banks of the Garonne, just north of the Armagnac region, Buzet produces Bordeaux varieties.
Haut Armagnac, Ténarèze, and Bas Armagnac grow the grapes used to make the wine that is distilled into Armagnac. These include Baco22A, Colombard, Folle Blanche and Ugni Blanc. South of Armagnac, Tursan is known for light, fruit-driven red and rosé wines from Cabernet Franc and Tannat, as well as some complex, aromatic white wines from Baroque and Gros Manseng. The full-bodied tannic wines of Saint-Mont are made from Tannat blended with Cabernet Franc and Fer Servadou.
Madiran’s red wines are rich and tannic, the better to cut through the region’s rich cuisine (think magret de canard and cassoulet). The tannic grape here is Tannat, which comprises 60 to 80% of the mix. The rest is Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Fer Servadou. The white Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, a distinct appellation, is nevertheless identical in scope to Madiran. Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh is made in both sweet and dry styles and is considered the perfect companion for the local foie gras. Bring your cardiologist along if you visit here.
Béarn around the town of Pau includes two parts that are not contiguous. The appellation makes big tannic red wines primarily from Tannat and white wines from the almost extinct Raffiat de Moncade grape.
Jurançon is a white wine specialist, producing distinctive sweet and dry wines from the local Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng grapes. The wines, which have been produced since the Middle Ages, show aromas of fresh passion fruit in the dry wines, mango in the sweet wines and dried bananas, vanilla and beeswax in the late-harvest wines.
Irouleguy in the Basque country by the Spanish border, produces fruity, tannic red wines from Cabernet Franc and Tannat, full-bodied, tangy whites from Courbu, Petit Courbu, Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng, and intensely fruity and deeply colored rosés from Cabernet Franc and Tannat.