Raise a glass to jazz
Ancient Gascon vineyards are producing stylish new wines that hit all the right notes at the annual Marciac jazz festival
The exquisite expanse of rural Gascony between Pau and Agen, west of Toulouse, is one of France’s last great unspoiled wildernesses. In this sparsely populated region where most people work on the land, village communities have fought hard to stem the flow of young families to the big cities. Among Gascony’s largest employers is the Plaimont group of cooperative wine cellars, which has spent 30 years resurrecting the ancient vineyards of Saint-Mont, just north of the more famous Madiran wine appellation. The cooperative is also a long-term sponsor of the nearby Jazz in Marciac festival, which coincided with my visit – but that musical pleasure was still to come.
I entered the Saint-Mont vineyards from the east, through the sleepy village of Lupiac, birthplace of the 17th-century military hero Charles de Batz de Castelmore; otherwise known as d’Artagnan. I peered through the trees at the modest château that was once home to the musketeer famous in both history and fiction, before continuing along the vineyard road towards the hamlet of Couloumé-Mondebat. My home for the next few days would be Château d’Arlens, a grand yet cosy chambre d’hôte run by its British owner Sally, the Countess of Mayo (see feature on 30 Great French B&Bs at www.completefrance.com). After a brief tour of the grounds, she introduced me to Étienne de Rességuier, export director at the Plaimont cellars, who had prepared a tasting of Saint-Mont wines on the sunny terrace behind the château.
Scents of summer
“Saint-Mont is an appellation for red, white and rosé wines,” Étienne explained, as he poured me a glass of bright liquid from a bottle of Rosé d’Enfer (Hell’s Rosé), a fresh, summer-scented blend of Madiran’s signature tannat grape with cabernet sauvignon and the local pinenc. The label sports a playful devil disguised as a vigneron, attempting to steal grapes from the Saint-Mont vineyards.
“When our founding director André Dubosq began to resurrect Saint-Mont, he insisted that the nascent appellation make stylish wines based on indigenous grape varieties. On enlêve les sabots, mais on garde le béret (we’ve removed our clogs, but we still wear our berets!),” grinned a bereted Étienne, summing up Plaimont’s fusion of antiquity with a dynamically modern approach.
“This is Saint-Mont’s signature white wine,” Étienne announced, uncorking a bottle with a loosely attached wooden label that bore the name Le Faîte (meaning rooftop). The wine is made from gros manseng, petit manseng and petit courbu grapes, and is blended every year in a peculiarly democratic way: journalists, sommeliers and importers from around the world select their favourite barrels of wine from vineyards all over the appellation, which are used to create the perfect Saint-Mont cuvée. “It is an attempt to show that the best wines are not always the products of single châteaux,” Étienne said.
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The crown jewels
The last wine, however, did come from a single estate, Château de Sabazan, the vineyards of which were bought by Plaimont in the mid-1980s, and quickly became the jewels in its crown. The wine was a red blend of tannat, pinenc, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, with brooding aromas of spicy wild fruits, and a concentrated, grainy palate; a wonderful accompaniment for the rich stew with which Sally had just appeared at the kitchen door.
The next morning, I made my way to Château de Sabazan, a few kilometres away, where I found a small group of winemakers in black berets acting as traffic ushers. I parked among the vines and strolled to the lawn in front of the château, where tables and chairs were already set for lunch. Barbecues had been ignited and loaves of bread were being delivered from the boulangerie.
A ‘vertical’ tasting of Château de Sabazan’s wines had been prepared, beginning with the 1998 vintage. Chief winemaker Patrick Azcué explained how the château’s first vintage, in 1987, marked the beginning of Plaimont’s production of fine wine. Then Plaimont’s charismatic managing director Olivier Bourdet-Pees led a free guided tour of the château’s vineyards, to demonstrate the importance of its unique fawn-coloured sandy soils. “The best soils are deep below ground,” Olivier explained, as he jumped down into a trench that had been dug to illustrate his point, “so it takes up to 20 years for the roots to penetrate deep enough to make fine wines.”
Back at the château, a second grassed area had filled with guests and a jazz band were tuning their instruments. The Plaimont growers have sponsored the Jazz in Marciac festival since its inception in 1978, but this was only the second year Château de Sabazan had hosted a free concert in its own grounds.
A small stage had been erected and behind a grand Steinway piano sat virtuoso jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson. In an unforgettable open-air performance, Jacky entranced the audience with numbers from his album Gouache, accompanied by the trumpet of Stéphane Belmondo. When the final applause had subsided, the Plaimont growers presented Jacky with a young tannat vine from Saint-Mont, and a lime tree, which he was invited to plant in the grounds of Château de Sabazan – to sow the seeds for the château’s future collaborations with the jazz festival.
I visited the small bastide market town of Marciac. Its population is around 1,200, so I was expecting its festival to resemble a charming village fête. Instead, what greeted me was an entire commune given over to the joyful celebration of music. The narrow streets buzzed with restaurants and wine bars, offering pre-performance menus and samples of wine from Saint-Mont. In the main square, a concert tent was surrounded by stalls selling everything from ice creams to second-hand clothes, while a petit train carried tourists on free vineyards tours, organised by the Plaimont growers. “Visitors can even sponsor their own young vines,” communications manager Diane Caillard told me, at the Plaimont stand in the market square.
We strolled back through Marciac towards the lakeside restaurant Café Zik, where we dined in the company of André Dubosq, founder of Plaimont Producteurs. We had barely finished our desserts when a taxi whisked us off towards Marciac’s main concert venue: an enormous marquee capable of seating and refreshing 6,000 jazz-loving souls. The opening performance featured New Orleans musician Wynton Marsalis, who introduced his take on John Coltrane’s My Favourite Things to a roar of approval from the audience. The tent fell quiet again with the appearance of Ahmad Jamal, regarded by many as the finest jazz pianist of his generation – a dazzling end to my first visit to France’s most endearing summer jazz festival.
Jazz in Marciac 2014
28 July to 17 August
28 July: British guitar hero Jeff Beck and his band play in the main marquee on the opening night.
31 July: French violinist Didier Lockwood plays a free open-air concert at Château de Sabazan. He also appears at Marciac on 2 August.
5 August: The legendary American pianist Ahmad Jamal, who is now in his eighties, appears at the main marquee.
8 and 11 August: Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis makes two appearances, firstly with French accordionist Richard Galliano in a tribute to singers Billie Holiday and Édith Piaf. And then in his own right. Other international stars include Jamie Cullum, Stacey Kent and Gregory Porter.
Matinées Découvertes: Free visits of Château de Sabazan and Château Saint-Go (also owned by Plaimont Producteurs) every Thursday in July and August, from 10am to noon.
Take the petit train touristique from the centre of Marciac to the vineyards of Saint-Mont, where you can sponsor a young vine for free.
By air: The nearest airport to Marciac is Toulouse-Blagnac, just under two hours’ drive away.
By rail: Toulouse is on the west-east TGV line from Bordeaux to Nîmes.
By road: Marciac is a ten-hour drive from the northern ferry ports.
WHERE TO STAY
Tel: (Fr) 5 62 69 40 36
Rooms from €50 per person per night, including breakfast, drinks and nibbles.
Or stay with the growers through Plaimont Producteurs’ Réseau Accueil Vigneron.
Tel: (Fr) 5 62 61 79 00
WHERE TO EAT
Le Café Zik
Lac de Marciac
Tel: (Fr) 5 62 09 88 72
Relaxed lakeside dining. Set menus from €14.
WHERE TO VISIT
Tel: (Fr) 5 62 69 62 87
Jazz in Marciac 2014
For a full programme of concerts visit www.jazzinmarciac.com
Marciac tourist office
Tel: (Fr) 5 62 08 26 60