Producers Find a Niche in the American Market for This Up-And-Coming South West France AOP
Saint Mont is at once a very unusual location for an emerging wine region and, at the same time, the most natural place in the world for one to be found.
Saint Mont vines at Lupiac. PHOTO COURTESY OF SOPEXA
Saint Mont is named after a town so small—only 350 people live there—that it can only be found on the most detailed of French regional maps. But for the record, Saint Mont is about equidistant between Toulouse, 95 miles to the east, and Bayonne, 95 miles to the west on the Atlantic, 105 miles south of Bordeaux and 33 miles north of Pau at the foot of the Pyrenees. Officially, Saint Mont is part of that intriguing collection of far-flung wine islands grouped under the banner of "South West France."
And yet Saint Mont, spread across a low range of hills that are precursors to the Pyrenees as one travels south from the flat plains of the South West, has the perfect climate and terroir for growing grapes and making wines and has been doing so since time immemorial. When Benedictine monks founded the Saint Mont Monastery in 1050, they brought new savoir-faire to the region's vernacular wine culture. That monastery's vineyard, a beautiful plot, is still in production today.
Plaimont, the Super Co-op
In spite of its winegrowing heritage, Saint Mont as a defined wine appellation was a late bloomer. It was only recognized as a region of superior quality in 1981, and then largely as a result of the merging of three regional wine cooperatives in Plaisance, Aignan and Saint Mont. In 1979, the three joined forces to create Plaimont, a super co-op whose goals were to make better wines and to market them to the rest of France and to the world. Saint Mont was given AOP status in 2011.
The dynamic founder of Plaimont, André Dubosc, also successfully spearheaded the drive to have the region officially recognized as Saint Mont. Today, about half of Saint Mont's more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of vines are used to make red wine, with Tannat as the lead grape. The remaining half is split between rosés (30 percent) and whites (20 percent) from regional grapes. Export activities to the U.S. are now being ramped up.
At the Center of Ampelography
I met Dubosc a couple of years ago at Château de Projan, a hotel/restaurant near Saint Mont, where he was wearing the distinctive black beret he has adopted both for the region and for Plaimont and flashing a winsome smile beneath a neatly trimmed mustache in the manner of the late actor David Niven.
"Plaimont makes more than 90 percent of the wine in Saint Mont," the ebullient Dubosc explained, "and is the only exporter from the region." Now retired as head of Plaimont but still an ambassadorial presence, Dubosc is fanatic about ampelography-the study of grape vines-and fervently believes that Saint Mont, with its dozens of rare and old vines, is at the center of it. According to Dubosc, genetic testing has traced two primary strains of vinifera in France-one a Muscat family and one a Sauvignon branch-as having originated in the Middle East, while the Saint Mont section of the Adour River Valley gave birth of the precursors to most of today's "Bordeaux" varieties, including Tannat and the Mansengs.
Later we tasted the whites and reds of the appellation. In general, the whites had pleasant green-fruit flavors, a light chalkiness and good acidity, while the reds had a range of cherry flavors from crisp to plummy with mostly moderate tannins.
The day after meeting Dubosc, Eric Fitan, head of the Saint Mont appellation, led us on a tour of Plaimont's Conservatoire Ampélograhique in Pouydraquin, a living library of around 60 vines. "About half are grape varieties used to make wine in the South West and half rediscovered vines," Fitan explained, many of which are still unnamed. Then we moved on to a small vineyard of 150-year-old pre-phylloxera vines at Serragachies, also now owned by Plaimont and recently recognized as one of France's coveted historic landmarks.
All this is testimony to the passion for both grape history and grape growing at Saint Mont. Altogether, there are about 200 growers in the region, some of them historic châteaux who mostly either sell grapes to the Plaimont cooperative or make wine in conjunction with it. All told, the region produces about 50,000 hectoliters of wine, with Plaimont responsible for 98 percent of that production. (This excludes Plaimont's more recent ventures into wine production in other regions: Madiran, Pacherenc de Vic-Bilh, the Côtes de Gascogne and smaller appellations).
Geography & Grapes
The soils of Saint Mont fall into three classifications: the gravelly, reddish, sandy soil around the town of Aignan, clay and limestone in the Plaisance region and the pebbly, denser clay soils of Saint Mont itself. The hilly landscape was formed at about the same time that the Pyrenees were being born, in the Tertiary Period that began 66 million years ago.
The Adour Valley weather is primarily dominated by the presence of the Atlantic Ocean, yet it is far enough inland to have some aspects of a continental climate. Winters are typically wet and are followed by moderate, damp springs, hot summers and mild autumns with wide diurnal temperature swings.
As with most wine regions, the grapes grown and the wines made are a combination of traditional heritage and current market conditions. The primary red grape is Tannat, which is currently getting much New World attention in Uruguay, and Pinenc, variously known as Fer Servadou and Braucol and widely grown throughout the South West. Other primary varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (which are not known here as Bordeaux varieties!). The primary whites are also grapes well-known in the South West, but less so elsewhere. They include Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Petit Courbu and Arrufiac.
During a visit to the conservatoire, Oliver Bourdet-Pees, now Managing Director for Plaimont, explained there are practical aspects of the company's grape studies. "I have been looking at red varieties that give more aromas at lower levels of alcohol," he said. One such grape is Pédebernade, a local Pyrenean grape found in Plaimont's historical landmark plot that has shown these high aromas/low alcohol properties during micro-vinification trials. "Tannat is the best grape for the terroir right now," Bourdet-Pees says, "but I'm not saying that something else couldn't be dominant in the future."
Even with the presence of Plaimont winemaking and marketing activities, Saint Mont is still a relatively small part of the constellation of 29 regions that make up the South West (alternatively spelled Southwest and South-West). Saint Mont and 16 others are AOPs, including Cahors, Fronton, Gaillac, Irouléguy, Jurançon and Madiran, while 12 are IGPs (Indication Géographique Protégée); only 12 of the AOPs and six IGPs are represented in the U.S. market.
"Saint Mont's best wines are from Tannat, and Tannat is one of my favorite wines," says Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer, who has served as U.S. spokesperson for the wines of South West France, spending considerable time traveling and tasting in the region. "Saint Mont wines hold people's attention."
Finding Saint Mont's Treasures
Plaimont total sales in the United States last year were a modest 50,000 bottles, but it is restructuring its marketing partnerships and sees greater growth during the current year. Its Saint Mont brands in the U.S. (the importer of record is in transition at press time) include Château de Sabazan, Beret Noir and Les Bastions, all red blends.
During my visit to Saint Mont, Dubosc handed me a different bottle of wine sealed in wax with no paper label but only a wired-on wooden tag stamped "Le Faîte." He explained it was a commemorative bottling in recognition of the days when a family's best bottles of Saint Mont (or those being saved for weddings and other special occasions to be celebrated years later) were buried in the clay soil for cool-and safe-storage.
Behind every good wine region is at least one good story, and Saint Mont certainly has a great one of its once-buried wine treasures now being rediscovered.