Tue 22 Apr 2014

Madiran: à votre santé!


Research suggests that not only is red wine good for you but that traditionally made wines are better still, and that Madiran is best of all.

Madiran is a beautiful, sleepy, wineproducing region in the south west of France among the gentle foothills of the Pyrenees, south of Armagnac. The region is known locally as ‘the heart of darkness’, not apparently due to any similarity to Joseph Conrad’s nightmare vision but, some say, after the Black Prince who frequented the area in the 14th century. Others, myself included, prefer to believe it’s because of the deep, dark, brooding colour of the wonderfully individual local red wine.

Grapes, Tannat in Madiran ©Photo:Claes Lofgren/winepictures.com

The thick-skinned tannat grape

The name of the favoured local grape, tannat, betrays the character of the wines it produces: often coarse, earthy and rustic with rough tannins, perfect for washing down the deliciously hearty duck, goose and cassoulet cooked locally.

US filmmaker Woody Allen reputedly once recommended ‘elephant burger’ when asked to suggest a suitable food to go with Madiran. I know what he means; Madiran calls for something BIG. In days gone by, the wines were guardedly closed and harshly tannic for most of their youth before eventually opening up to reveal structure, depth and spicy complexity alongside the inherent strength.

This lack of approachability meant that Madiran was little known, or loved, outside its home. Indeed, ravaged by the twin horrors of phylloxera and war, vineyards covered just 15 acres in the early 1950s.

Modern fashion, however, dictates that wine should be approachable much earlier and Madiran growers have cleverly managed to create a far more acceptable modern wine without compromising the individuality that makes it unique. The technique of micro-oxygenation, developed by Madiran grower Patrick Ducournau in 1990 and now widely used across France, involves bubbling tiny amounts of oxygen through young wines, reducing the ferocity of the tannins and making the wines much smoother.

The introduction of Bordeaux grapes, cabernets sauvignon and franc, to the blend (they can account for up to 40 per cent) have added structure. These factors and the picking of riper grapes and a warmer climate, have convinced devotees that the best examples can now match some of the finest wines of all of France.

Heart of the matter

But Madiran is also winning plaudits for its health benefits as well as its style and taste. ‘Wine is a food, a medicine and a poison – it’s just a question of dose,’ noted 16th-century Swiss physician Paracelsus. A truism followed closely by Professor Roger Corder of the William Harvey Research Institute, London. Corder led a study by British scientists that examined the health benefits of wine consumption. ‘Wine drinkers are generally healthier and often live longer; have less heart disease and diabetes, and are less likely to suffer from dementia in old age,’ says Corder, encouragingly, in his book The Wine  Diet (Sphere, 2007).

Corder and his team wanted to get to the bottom of the ‘French paradox’ – the statistical phenomenon of a relatively low level of heart disease in France despite a high level of saturated fat in the diet. He was attracted to further examination of the Gers region of France because it had double the national average of men aged 90 or above, despite it being the home of foie gras, cassoulet, saucisson and cheese. Had he found the home of the real French paradox?

Fit pickers in Maridan. The Gers region of France has double the national average of men aged 90 or above and many believe the local red is to thank

Fit pickers in Maridan. The Gers region of France has double the national average of men aged 90 or above and many believe the local red is to thank.

Yes. In a word. And it was, he concluded, all thanks to the local red wine, Madiran. Corder’s research had revealed that while moderate consumption of red wine was beneficial to health, certain red wines were more beneficial than others. The secret is the amount of procyanidins, a polyphenol thought to protect the blood vessels and thus reduce the risk of heart disease, in the wine and the amount can vary enormously in different wine styles.

‘The best results I’ve had in my laboratory have been from Madiran wines,’ says Corder. ‘These have some of the highest procyanidin levels I’ve encountered, as a result of the local grape variety, tannat, and the traditional long fermentation and maceration.’

Corder says long fermentation and maceration are important wherever the wine is grown, and wine from grapes grown at high altitude and with low yields also score highly. ‘The basic, mass-produced, branded wines generally don’t conform to these criteria and have disappointingly low levels of procyanidins,’ Corder adds. ‘I believe the types of wine that are best for health are those designed to be sipped as an accompaniment to food, not those made for casual quaffing.

‘Madiran is a genuine heart-protecting wine and this is the real French paradox. One small glass of this wine can provide more benefit than two bottles of most Australian wine.’

In a world where wines taste increasingly alike, wines such as Madiran that dare to be different lift the soul and could well be protecting your heart into the bargain.

Our current South by South-West offer features some highlights from the south of France including Madiran Odé d’Aydie 2010, a lovely well-balanced modern example of the tannat grape and a great partner to the south-west’s classic cassoulet. Click here to read Marcel Orford-Williams’ cassoulet recipe

To find out more about the rich panoply of indigenous grapes in France’s south west, read wine writer and former member of The Wine Society’s tasting team Jane Parkinson’s guide here.

A vôtre santé!

This article first appeared in Societynews, The Society’s newsletter.



  1. Frankie Cook says:

    Great piece. For many years I would only venture to open a Madiran at a barbecue, but now they are becoming much more approachable.

  2. Peter Brennan says:

    More approachable, yes – but much less interesting and complex. If you want early, ‘easy’ drinking, you must inevitably give something up – and what you lose is the subtlety that comes with age; all of the fascinating secondary flavours that are – for some – a vital aspect of the interest of wine.
    I would like the Society to offer both the old- and new-fashioned styles [of Madiran, and of other classic styles], but increasingly the listings seem to favour the ‘made yesterday, drink today’ approach. At least, I suppose, this keeps the accountants happy!
    Those who are prepared to be patient are left with few options, with the previous ‘halfway house’ styles, such as Domaine Pichard (under the old regime) no longer available. As Mr Trelford observes, “Modern fashion dictates.” Maybe I’m alone in wishing that the Society were not so very beholden to the dictates of fashion!

    • Thanks for your comment, Mr Brennan. Point taken, but what I was trying to get across was that the most impressive aspect of modern Madiran is that they have embraced new techniques but without losing their soul, the very characteristics that made us want to drink Madiran in the first place.
      We do list some more traditional examples too, such as Montus 2007.
      Thanks again, Paul Trelford

  3. Peter Brennan says:

    Thanks for your response, Mr Trelford. Obviously it’s a matter of taste, but my experience is that you can’t have your wine and drink it. Something precious is lost in the movement from an essentially rustic tradition to the production of wine dependent on sophisticated technological intervention. In my opinion Chateau d’Aydie, for instance, has quite definitely lost its soul, offering highly alcoholic, plush wines in line with Parkerish expectations. The visceral dryness, restraint and balance of traditional Madiran have been diminished in the attempt to achieve an ‘international’ style. Montus I like – though not its price – and if it’s drinking after six years, it’s not the wine it should be!

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