One of the better wine merchants in my area has a section near their checkout register where they put wines that are moving especially slowly. I think they may have had a buyer who liked the esoteric, but perhaps their customers didn’t share his tastes. I, on the other hand, love getting to try something rare and unusual, even if it means I have no idea what to expect. At least three past posts, the German Silvaner, the Swiss Chasselas and the Burgundian Sauvignon Blanc, all came from that area, and I’m adding another to that list with this Château Bouscassé Jardins 2008.
The front label has the name of the producer, wine and vintage, but it’s otherwise opaque to those without prior knowledge. Some quick research revealed this to be a varietal Petit Courbu from Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec. That clears up everything, right? Actually it does, though looking back at my study guide from the WSET Diploma, we are officially beyond the syllabus, but not by much.
First, the nearly familiar. Yesterday was a Tannat from Uruguay, and I mentioned that it is associated with the southwest of France, in particular Madiran. Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec is the AOC in the Madiran region for white wines. (Without the Sec it is another AOC for sweet white wines.) It has the same geographic footprint as Madiran, so why it isn’t just Madiran Blanc is a mystery to me.
As I said, Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh / Madiran is the southwest of France, about 60km from the border with Spain and 120km from the Atlantic, or about twice that if you head in the opposite direction toward the Mediterranean. The geography is dominated by hills with clay and limestone being the major soil types. The climate is generally considered continental, though the Atlantic does provide a moderating, if distant, influence. Hot days and cool nights are the norm in the summer, autumns are dry, and winters are cold and dry. While Tannat and partners to blend with it dominate the area, the whites that make up Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh are predominantly Corbu and Petit Manseng, with Gros Manseng, Sauvignon Blanc, Arrufiac being permitted in smaller quantities.
Courbu is slightly less than familiar, but it’s a family of grapes of the southwest of France. The AOC documentation I found just lists Courbu as a grape without being more specific, but I believe within Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Petit Courbu is the grape in question. Courbu Blanc is a separate grape, though generally found closer to and within Spain. There’s also a Courbu Noir though it is thought to be nearly extinct.
Petit Courbu is light skinned and its name translates to “little curved one” which could refer to the small bunches or the grapes themselves. It can give high yields, but is susceptible to grey rot. It’s used in the region to make both sweet and dry wines, but is not well travelled beyond that.
The region surrounding the French / Spanish is rich in local varieties, but in terms of grapes I’m finding it something of a difficult area to understand. We encountered this when I wrote about the Getariako Txakolina where the white grape of that wine can be called Hondarribi Zuri, Hondarrabi Zuri, or Ondarrabi Zuri depending on where you are on a particularly stretch of road, and not a long road at that. It doesn’t get any better when you take the border crossing into account, as Petit Corbu is sometimes known as Hondarrabi Zuri Zerratie in Spain, which is not the same as Hondarrabi Zuri Zalla, also known as Courbu Blanc in France. To further complicate things, there may have been a variety of Hondarrabi Zuri which was actually a North American hybrid grape called Noah. There are conflicting accounts online as to which grape is which, all the more confused by the fact that you can say Courbu or Hondarrabi Zuri and mean several different grapes for each. Jancis Robinson should have a big book of grape varieties published sometime in the next year, and I’m really hoping that it clear up some of this.
One other thing I would like cleared up relates perhaps a bit more directly to this wine. I found the French legal document that lays our the rules for the Vic-Bihl Pacherenc of Sec AOC, and in terms of grapes it specifies that Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu must be at least 60% of the blend, but neither may be more than 80%. (Note, Google translate replaces Petit Courbu with “curvatures”.) Then I have the technical sheet for this wine from the Brumont website which says that this wine is 100% Petit Courbu. Is that why the front label doesn’t really have much to say about the wine? It could be that it’s not an AOC wine, or it could be that the technical sheet relates to a different vintage, or I might just not understand the AOC rules.
In any case, researching this wine and grape has left me with at least as many questions as answers. About midway through my Diploma I started to think that the factual part of the course wasn’t all that bad. Of course, there are many, many things that one is expected to know, but the vast majority of it could just be memorized. So if you could rattle off the location, climate, soil, grapes grown, types of wine produced and some example producers for 1,000 regions, and then list the colour, when it buds, when it ripens, how it yields, to what is it susceptible, what type of wine it makes, some example producers, and where it’s made for a couple of hundred grapes, that was that. Yes, quite a big pile of flashcards, but it was all knowable. However, while I don’t really have even a small percentage of that information at ready access in my brain, I’m finding that even if I did, that’s not enough.
There are in fact many things that are not known, or at least not well known, within the study of wine. DNA profiling will continue to show that varieties believed to be unrelated are in fact the same thing. It will also do the opposite and reveal that what might have been thought to be a uniform variety is actually partially one variety and partially another. On top of that, things are always changing. Varieties are being planted in places far from their origins, new techniques are being pioneered in terms of viticulture and winemaking, laws and regulations are constantly being changed, and new ventures are springing up left and right. It could be a bit depressing if your goal was really to be on top of everything there is to know, but I quite like the fact that it’s a moving target. In truth, I’ll probably never be able to rattle off details for a thousand regions, but I’ll never get bored trying to keep up.
So to get back on the topic of this wine in particular, just a quick word in an already overly long post. The producer, Alain Brumont, is worth a full post on his own, but I’ll give you the quick summary. He’s an extremely innovative producer, and had almost single-handedly returned Madiran to the wine world from obscurity. Having worked in Bordeaux in the 1970s, he returned to Madiran determined to make fine wine that expressed the unique terroir of the region. In particular he worked with Tannat which was an unfashionable grape of an unfashionable region. He has rehabilitated derelict vineyards under organic practices, with high vine density and native varietals. In addition to Château Bouscassé he also runs Château Montus and a venture in Gascogne.
Finally, I need to talk about this wine itself. In the glass it’s clear and bright, medium lemon green colour with quick legs. On the nose it’s clean, with medium plus intensity, a developing character, and lime, lemon curd, yoghurt, capsicum, and sunflower notes. On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium plus body, full flavour intensity, medium plus length, and medium alcohol. It has an interesting texture – something fuller than oily, but not sure what that is. Flavour notes were lime, a hint of salt, green apple, white pepper, and creamy yoghurt. It had a fair whack of oak, but it’s not that shavings flavour you get from new oak.
This is a very good wine. It has loads of character, with great intensity and a curious texture. It’s a very robust white, and I’m sure could handle a few more years in the cellar without any trouble at all.