Gaillac: ideal, idle, idyll

POSTED ON 22/03/2010

Snow had fallen on the runway on the Thursday evening before last week at Toulouse airport but by the following Wednesday, four days before the vernal equinox, it was perfectly clear and sunny 50 minutes drive away in Gaillac. There to help make the selection for the South West at this year’s London International Wine Fair, I had been staying at the luxurious Château de Salettes at Cahuzac sur Vère (, a comfortable, beautifully restored property with its own (rather good) wine and Michelin-starred restaurant run by the brilliant Pascal Auger, originally from La Rochelle. His food is not only aesthetically pleasing, but portions are just the right size and combine classic local ingredients with subtle Asian influences. They are not remotely as fussy as they sound in French.

Château de SalettesChâteau de Salettes

There was no noise on this most perfect of Spring mornings, only the twitter of birdsong and the distant voices of vineyard workers on the last lap of winter’s pruning before the buds appear and the sap rises in the local vines. And very local the vines of Gaillac are. A short drive to the south east of the pretty medieval town of Gaillac on the Tarn River, I arrived at Domaine Rotier to meet Alain Rotier, one of Gaillac’s best producers and the president of the local syndicat. I also met his business partner Francis Marre for long enough to shake hands.

Domaine Rotier, imported in the UK by Vine Trail in Bristol, is on the left bank of the Tarn, where the soils are predominantly gravels, in contrast to the clays and chalks of the right bank (remind you of somewhere?) It can be windy here. The Vent d’Antan blows from the Mediterranean but the intervening hills create a Föhn effect, a dry rain shadow, that is, that protects the vineyard from excessive moisture.

Gaillac on the TarnGaillac on the Tarn

The pervasive sense of calm and quiet, punctured by a few chattering pigeons sitting on telegraph wires, was enhanced by the tranquil dormancy of the property's vines. At over 30 years old, planted by Alain's father in 1975, these vines have the impressive gravitas of thick bush vines, which is what they look like till closer inspection reveals their sturdy arms to be trained on wires.

Alain RotierAlain Rotier

M.Rotier senior pulled out all the old vines, gamay among them, when he arrived in 1975, planting the local duras and braucol for red, along with syrah, and loin de l'oeil and sauvignon blanc for white wine. Alain explains that since his father's arrival and his own management of the vineyard, there's been a gradual move towards using the traditional grape varieties of Gaillac for both reds and whites. Changes in the vineyard include conversion to organic viticulture for which Rotier will be certified in 2012. Planting cereals between rows and picking the grapes later has also brought benefits and no less freshness, according to Rotier.

Since 2001, new plantings have been at a higher density of 6,200 vines per hectare compared to the more traditional 4000 vines. He’s even planted some prunelart, said to be the father of malbec, and he believes that this variety and Fronton’s négrette were the principal pre-phylloxera red grapes. The rules on what can or can’t go into the AC seem typically confusing. As I understand it, the vineyard has to be made up of a minimum or 40% of braucol and duras or 60% of braucol, duras and syrah, but the percentage of local varieties required in the actual wines is different (don’t ask).

Loin de l'oeil - a close-upLoin de l'oeil - a close-up

Alain Rotier has seven hectares of the local loin de l’oeil, also spelt l’en de lel (the Occitan name) and even luen de luelh in the local dialect. It’s a variety with big bunches which grow at some distance from the vine and it’s that fact, coupled with harvesters sometimes missing a bunch because it’s out of sight, that gives the variety its idiosyncratic name. There are some nice dry whites made from loin de l’oeil including his own, which has a third of sauvignon blanc for vivacity and aroma. Its retention of malic acidity lends itself to sweet wines too. Rotier’s 2005 Renaissance Doux, with its rich peachy fruit and orange zesty freshness, is remarkably seductive.

Alain takes us into the small cellar of cement fermentation tanks and mostly larger 400 litre casks and, with his long glass wine thief, pulls out some reds from the barrel. First the Renaissance range, 2009 – 2007, a blend of duras, braucol and syrah, whose proportions vary slightly from vintage to vintage. The 2009, matured in 400 litre older oak, is quite delicious, perfumed with dark cherry fruit, nicely rounded out by oak, and wonderfully fresh. The 2008 is excellent too, a little less duras and more syrah giving it a spicy, floral character, with lovely succulent dark fruits. And the 2007, showing vivid black fruits and juicy fresh acidity, is the one now on the market. Superb value at €8.80 a bottle.

From Renaissance to L’Âme, the soul of Rotier. We go through the same sequence of vintages, although here the fruit is entirely based on local grapes, 80% duras and 20% braucol. Fermented in 400 litre new French oak casks, l’Ame 2009 is superb, vibrant, textured, authentic and fresh. The 2008 shows a touch more obvious new oak but its peppery qualities bring a redeeming sense of almost Rhône-like spice and fruit. The dark blackberry fruit heart of the first vintage, the 2007, is framed by oak and subtle spice now but is now beautifully balanced and just about ready for drinking. At €21 a bottle, it's more than double the price of Renaissance but an exceptional wine.

Fer servadou: aka braucol in GaillacFer servadou: aka braucol in Gaillac

Remembering to pick up the bag of goodies I’ve deposited in the cool of the cellar after buying them at the local super-deli Côte à Côte (confit de canard, boudin, jambon persillé and two goats’ cheeses called figuettes because they’re moulded into the shape of figs - they become cowpats by the time I’ve got them home in my suitcase) we drop into the Cave de Técou, the smallest of a union of four co-ops which include the Cave de Rabastens, also in Gaillac, and the Cave de Fronton and Cave de Côte d’Olt in Cahors. What interested me most was their Astrolable range which I’d encountered at the pre-selection tasting the previous day. Basically Astrolabe is a premium blend from each of the co-operatives, using the local grape varieties with no oak to show off the character of the fruit. Excellent idea and at €8.90 a bottle, good value.

The Cave de Técou's Astrolable BraucolThe Cave de Técou's Astrolable Braucol

So the Cave de Técou makes a braucol, Rabastens a loin de l'oeil, Fronton a négrette and Cahors, as you might expect, a malbec. And they’re all really good, not least Rabastens’ fine 2007 Astrolabe Loin de L'Oeil, with its slightly sémillon-reminiscent waxy, lemony aromas, nice smooth, opulently rich fruit, leesy freshness and crisp, minerally acidity, while the excellent 2008 Astrolable Braucol is concentrated and delicately herbal with a fresh, slightly herbaceous fruit character that’s not a million miles in style from a fine Loire red.

From here it was a hop and a skip for a light, pre-flight lunch at the new wine bar in Gaillac's main square, La Vigne en Foule (a jeu de mots on the traditional local style of planting higgledy-piggledy and a crowd, in case you hadn’t clicked). We cracked open a bottle of Robert et Bernard Plageoles’ 2008 Prunelart, an ideal spring-like accompaniment with its clean, vivid dolcetto-like freshness to our tapas lunch. I have no idea if Confucius really did say anything of the sort (you decide), but according to the back label, he is supposed to have said ‘ce n’est pas le vin qui enivre, c’est l’homme qui s’enivre’. In his best Mandarin French of course.

Not a bad place to taste: the Maison du Vin to the right of the Eglise S.Michel across the Tarn in GaillacNot a bad place to taste: the Maison du Vin to the right of the Eglise S.Michel across the Tarn in Gaillac

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