In the same way that we aptly describe our cruise area in south west France as being the “Hidden Corner of France”, so the wines of South West France can be described as unexplored – but definitely worthy of exploration!
The history of South West (Sud-Ouest) France wines is in itself an amazing story. This official wine area can be divided into a number of specific wine regions, including Gaillac, Fronton, Cahors, Saint Sardos, Côtes du Brulhois, Côtes de Duras, Buzet and Jurançon. These wine regions are ancient – most of them date back to Roman times, and Gaillac is the second-oldest wine region in France. It was wines from these ancient vineyards that were exported by sea from Bordeaux, and indeed they were known as Bordeaux wines, or sometimes ‘claret’. In the late 1800s land owners around Bordeaux itself started to plant their own vines, and all the small producers in the hinterland faced great difficulty marketing their product when faced with the industrial-scale production that then was established around Bordeaux.
Particularly in the last 30 years, the development of wine production in South West France has been remarkable. The region is characterised by small-scale producers, many of whom have a high quality product, but they do not have the marketing budget of the big chateaux of international acclaim. On the Saint Louis, we of course specialise in the wines of the region in which we cruise, and our guests often take great pleasure in their journey of discovery of wines that they had never heard of before.
In some cases the distinctiveness of the wine is the result of the use of very specific grape varieties, such as for example the Tannat variety found in Fronton, or the Malbec used in Cahors. In many cases also it is the skill of the wine-maker that results in something quite distinctive and exceptional. It is for this reason that producers of wines in South West France are increasingly winning national and international awards.
On the Saint Louis, we carry over 50 wines from South West France, many of which are award-winning wines. We have also developed some very interesting wine visits. These include a visit to the producer who is making wine to a formula that her ancestor used in producing wines for the court of Louis Quatorze. We also visit the descendent of d’Artagnan, of three musketeers fame. His motto is “Un vin pour tous, tous pour un vin!” (One wine for all, all for one wine!)
In south west France, traditionally-made local drinks go well beyond wine, important though it is. During our second week, between Agen and Castets-en-Dorthe, we come into Armagnac country. Armagnac is a distillate from fermented grape juice – the up-market artisan-produced version of brandy. Even better, most Armagnac producers also make Floc de Gascogne, using Armagnac as its base. These two drinks are of great influence in the culinary tradition of south west France, and can often be found with such varied products as foie gras and prunes.
A further drink-based visit that always goes down well is to the remarkable 84-year old artisan distiller in Montech. This charming gentleman producer makes eau-de-vie and liqueurs from just about every fruit imaginable.
In many ways, the wine and other drink production that we find in south west France parallels the other charms of this area – high quality, small scale, deeply rural, essentially genuine, and largely undiscovered. This is one of the many reasons why a cruise on the Saint Louis into the Hidden Corner of France brings with it so many unexpected discoveries.