Grapevine Archive for Saint Mont
Here Society buyer Marcel Orford-Williams tells us the story of this remarkable rediscovered wine region.André Dubosc, winemaker and ex-president of the Plaimont group of co-operatives in Gascony, really needed a Tardis to go back in time. Yet he had more of an inkling than most of what this part of Gascony had been like; before phylloxera, which killed off so many vines, and just as importantly the Great War which in turned consumed so much of Gascony’s manpower.
The landscape in Gascony, memories in older generations and the presence of old, forgotten bottles revealed an atavistic glimpse into the past. And from around 1970, André and others began dreaming of recreating a lost vineyard which we now know as Saint Mont.
It took ten years for Saint Mont to gain any kind of status and a further generation before Saint Mont was granted full appellation status. Along this incredible journey, the vignerons of the region continuously had to prove themselves.In pre-phylloxera times, the vineyard had been vast, but to recreate it in the 20th century the surface area had to be chosen much more selectively, slope by slope, encompassing 42 villages over 1,000 hectares of vineyard on several types of soil, ranging from sand to clay.
Forty years before it became fashionable to talk about such thing as green harvesting, ploughing the soil, managing the vine’s leaf canopy, Saint Mont producers were already doing all of these things.
There had to be a choice of grape variety and this was largely influenced by what was being planted in neighbouring Madiran and Pacherenc. André Dubosc came from Madiran and the Plaimont group would eventually include Madiran’s leading co-operative. The reds would be fashioned from a majority of tannat with pinenc (also known as fer servadou), cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. And for the whites, gros manseng, courbu and aruffiac were planted.
But the story doesn’t end there: André created a nursery at Plaimont to identify and propagate yet more varieties that had been found growing wild, last survivors of the catastrophe that befell this region and others beside between phylloxera and the Great War. Intriguingly they have found varieties that may be immune to phylloxera and resistant to disease, and have even found varieties that are capable of ripening at lower sugar levels and therefore lower alcohol. Some of these vines are 150 years old, maybe older and so among the oldest vines in France.
The name Saint Mont derives from the village that is perched on rocky promontory above the river Adour. There is a monastery there, founded by the Benedictines in 1050. It is they who planted the vines, supplying vinous sustenance to passing pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.
Saint Mont is in the South West, covering a scattered vineyard among rolling hills to the south of the River Adour and along one of the routes to the shrine of Saint James at Compostela. On a clear day, one can just see the Pyrenees on the horizon. The terroir is fairly complex with clays, sands and limestone all contributing to slightly different styles of wine.
The vineyard however had to be recreated from scratch as all that was left after phylloxera were a few isolated vines. The process was painfully slow and was very much the work of people like André Dubosc, a keen ampelographer who would eventually become president of the Plaimont group of cooperatives.
Saint Mont wines exist in three colours with rosé being possibly the least interesting. The reds are based on three varieties: tannat, which is the main grape of nearby Madiran and accounts for about 70% of any blend. Then there is cabernet sauvignon and pinenc. These are full bodied, dark, dense wines that are fruity but also quite tannic, broadly similar in style to Madiran but a little softer.
The whites are based on the Gros Manseng grape, the same as in Jurançon but Saint Mont is always a blend of varieties and the other two are petit courbu and arrufiac. The whites are clean tasting, bright and refreshing
Saint Mont covers some 42 villages and everything is made by the excellent coop. Most of the wines are blends, some barrel aged and sold at different price points. One or two single estates are made separately and sold under a Château name. In the past we have listed the wine from Château de Sabazan which lies of sandy soils and makes a wine of real elegance. The 2008 vintage will feature in the January list.
What amazed me however was just how well these wines keep. To celebrate their 30th, Saint Mont put on a brilliant tasting in London for the trade and journalists. There at the heart of the tasting was a vertical tasting of Château de Sabazan, back to the very first vintage ever made which was 1987, and delightful it was too.