Wine secrets of the Dordogne

Just east of Bordeaux, the small C�tes de Duras appellation is undergoing a quiet renaissance thanks to a handful of passionate wine-makers...

The Bordeaux vineyard area is vast. Its 8,500 growers work nearly 125,000 hectares of vines, more than four times the vineyard area of New Zealand, and when its top ch�teaux released their 2009 en primeur offers this year, merchants all over the world clamoured to receive their allocations of what promised to be yet another “best vintage in living memory!” Bordeaux dominates wine production in southwest France. But just to the east of Bordeaux’s Entre-Deux-Mers appellation, before the vineyards of Bergerac begin, lies a small enclave of vines called the C�tes de Duras. These vineyards are just as ancient as those of Bordeaux, and both were among the first in France to receive their Appellation d’Origine Contr�l�e in 1937. But with fewer than 200 growers farming only 1,800 hectares of vines, Duras has remained in the shadow of its famous neighbour. The red wines of the C�tes de Duras are often described as country cousins of Bordeaux, blended from merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and malbec grapes. Yet many top estates in the region believe that the future of the C�tes de Duras lies in the production of fine white wines, created from the Bordeaux varieties of sauvignon blanc, s�millon and muscadelle, sometimes blended with smaller proportions of mauzac, ondenc, chenin blanc and ugni blanc. One such estate is Domaine Mouthes Le Bihan, run by the magical Jean-Mary and Cathy Le Bihan. I met the couple in June this year and was bowled over by their dedicated, passionate and resolutely non-interventionist approach to winemaking. Jean-Mary is a self-confessed autodidact; from a family of farmers, he first planted vines little more than ten years ago, with no formal training in winemaking, just to see what kind of wine he could produce from his small parcel of vines, without the use of either chemicals in the vineyard or technology in the winery. The results of his first vintage, in 2000, were astonishing. The vineyard all over the C�tes de Duras, until they finally had 18 hectares. I accompanied Jean-Mary into his cellars to sample the 2008 vintage from barrel. He explained that as he only uses natural yeasts and makes no effort to hurry the wine-making process, many of his 2009s were still en pleine fermentation. When Jean-Mary bought his vineyards, most were planted with sauvignon blanc, and although he believes that the s�millon grape is better suited to the area’s best terroirs, a tasting of the estate’s white wines reveals very little of the characteristic grass and gooseberry character usually associated with sauvignon blanc. Instead, pure and complex aromas of minerals, lime, exotic fruits and even marzipan give onto a crisp and fresh, yet full and savoury, palate. “This is the magic of terroir,” Jean-Mary explained. “A grape will express its own simplistic character if grown in an average site. But if a great terroir is allowed to express its own complex character through the wine, the taste of the grape variety will be harder to distinguish.” After a fascinating barrel tasting, Jean-Mary and Cathy invited me into the kitchen of their newly renovated farmhouse for a hearty meal. Jean-Mary uncorked a bottle of his P�rette et les Noisetiers C�tes de Duras Blanc Sec 2002, only his third vintage of the estate’s top white cuv�e. The wine was still fresh, with savoury, intensely complex flavours and amazing length: one of the most interesting wines I have tasted this year. We were joined for lunch by the dynamic young Corinne Lacombe, director of the new Maison des Vins de Duras. I asked her why, with such impressive terroirs and dedicated wine-makers, the C�tes de Duras has not received the international attention that it so clearly deserves. “What we have historically lacked,” Corinne suggested, “are leaders, wine-makers who are able to champion our wines outside the region.” It is clear, however, that this is a vineyard area with great potential, and with wine-makers as passionate as Jean-Mary and Cathy Le Bihan, if it is leaders this appellation needs, then it might just have found two.

Estate details Domaine Mouthes Le Bihan 47120 Saint-Jean-de-Duras Tel: (Fr) 5 53 83 06 98 www.mouthes-le-bihan.com

Choice wine: P�rette et les Noisetiers C�tes de Duras Blanc Sec 2008 Price: €25 (at the estate) Taste: A fresh, pure, mineral, concentrated wine, from an old vine blend of s�millon (85 per cent), sauvignon (ten per cent), muscadelle (five per cent) Best drunk with: Exotic Asian dishes, rich fish, creamy goat’s cheese

Where to source: C�tes de Duras Maison des Vins de Duras 47120 Duras Tel: (Fr) 5 53 94 13 48 www.cotesdeduras.com Plan your wine route Domaine Les Hauts de Riquets Marie Jos� and Pierre Bireaud Les Riquets 47120 Baleyssagues Tel: (Fr) 5 53 83 83 60 www.domainelesriquets.com Marie Jos� and Pierre Bireaud have 20 hectares of vines, all farmed organically. The couple have bottled their own wines since 2003, and organise fascinating vineyard walks and rustic meals.

Choice wine: C�tes de Duras Rouge La Mugette’ 2007 A full-bodied, intense barrel-aged red  

Domaine du Petit Malrom� Genevi�ve and Alain Lescaut Le Lac 47120 Saint-Jean-de-Duras Tel: (Fr) 5 53 89 01 44 www.petitmalrome.com Genevi�ve and Alain Lescaut took over their family estate in 1990 and turned what was a polycultural farm into an estate focussed on the production of biodynamic wines.

Choice wine: C�tes de Duras Blanc Sec Blanc d’Alban’ 2006 A pure, dry white blend of 90 per cent sauvignon and 10 per cent s�millon.  

Domaine du Grand Mayne Perrine Negre, Michel Coutin or Jane Pounds 47120 Villeneuve-de-Duras Tel: (Fr) 5 53 94 74 17 www.domaine-du-grand-mayne.com Bought 20 years ago by Andrew Gordon, a canny British wine merchant, this hitherto dilapidated estate has undergone massive investment and is producing wines of real quality.

Choice wine: C�tes de Duras Blanc Moelleux 2007 A sweet, luscious late harvested white from the s�millon grape. Dominic Rippon is author of Dominic’s France: The Cool Climate, a narrative guidebook to the vineyards of northern France. He worked as Senior Wine Buyer for a large UK wine importer, after enjoying a stint making wine in the Loire Valley. Dominic is a passionate Francophile and a self-confessed gourmand, with an insatiable appetite for French regional cuisine. Contact him via www.strictlywine.co.uk

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