The Madiran appellation covers five hills which are orientated from north/north-west to south/south-east. We work on parcels planted on the three principal terroirs of the Madiran appellation: the stony Nappe de Maucor, clay-limestone and gravelly-clay.
Areas of the Appellations
The Madiran and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh appellations are situated in the Vic-Bilh region, nestled in a meander on the left bank of the River Ardour, straddling the borders of three départements, the Gers, the Hautes-Pyrénées and the Pyrénées Atlantiques.
Approximately 1 300 hectares are declared in Madiran annually and 260 hectares in Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh. Total production is approximately 65 000 hectolitres per year of red wine and 9 000 of white.
In the Gers, three municipalities (or communes) are listed in the appellation decree: Cannet, Maumusson-Laguian and Viella.
In the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the Madiran appellation counts twenty-eight municipalities: Arricau-Bordes, Arrosès, Aubous, Aurions-Idernes, Aydie, Bétracq, Burosse-Mendousse, Cadillon, Castetpugon, Castillon, Conchez-de-Béarn, Corbère-Abères, Crouseilles, Diusse, Escurès, Gayon, Lasserre, Lembeye, Mascaraàs-Haron, Mont-Disse, Moncla, Monpezat, Moncaup, Portet, Saint-Jean-Poudge, Séméacq-Blachon, Tadousse-Ussau and Vialer.
Finally, in the Hautes-Pyrénées, six municipalities have appellation status: Castelnau-Rivière-Basse, Hagedet, Lascazères, Madiran, Saint-Lanne and Soublecause.
The original and ancient name, Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, comes from the Gascon “Bi de Bits Pacherads” or “wine from staked vines” planted in the “Vic-Bilh” or “Old Country”.
Nappe de Maucor at high altitudes
The Nappe de Maucor, the soil type most characteristic of the summit parcels, is littered with pebbles left behind by rivers and is found in two types of terroirs. The first is the Nappe de Maucor-Plateaux (or Plain) which is found at altitudes of 230m or higher. This represents approximately 7% of the wine-growing region and receives more sunlight than any other area of the appellation. The sheerness of the hillsides facilitates drainage. Below these plains lie a terroir known as the Nappe de Maucor-Hauts, composed of steep south facing or south-east facing hillsides, this represents about 6% of the wine-growing region. Water cannot collect on these steep slopes which are high in solar energy despite receiving little sunlight.
Ancient gravelly-clay soils mid slope
As you go down the hill, the Nappe de Maucor gives way to extremely old gravelly-clay soils. The gravelly-clay plains (5 % of the wine-growing region) and the gravelly-clay slopes of the south facing or south-east facing steep hillsides (4 %) meet on the edges of the plains, particularly in the Montpezat, Crouseilles and Madiran sectors.
Over time the hillsides have been eroded by streams and rivers, creating new valleys. On the eastern slopes, the new formations stretch from east to west with each slope having its own characteristic terroir.
On the north-facing slopes, a gravelly-clay mid-slope, northern terroir constitutes 3.25% of the wine-growing region. Its northern exposition limits reception of solar energy. The relatively steep slopes are responsible for the good drainage conditions.
On the south/south-east facing slopes, more than 10% of the wine growing region is characterised by a gravelly-clay, lower slope, south/south-easterly terroir. The steepness of the slopes and the hours of sunlight and of solar energy are fairly average in relation to the other categories of terroir.
Variegated clay further down the slopes
The division of terroirs relative to their exposition continues on the eastern slopes. Where the gravelly-clay soils extend outwards, they meet variegated clay soils. Two terroirs with different expositions can be discerned: variegated clay, lower, south to south-east slopes (4% of the wine-growing region) and variegated clay, mid, northern slope. The latter type is the least present, representing only 2% of the wine-growing region.
The majority of the wine-growing region is planted on the lower slopes on colluvium, ‘hardpan’ soils.
The majority of the wine-growing region’s parcels are classified as colluvium hardpan on south to south-east facing, lower slopes (11%). Further down, the colluvium hardpan, foothills terroir claims 10%. On the opposite, north-facing slopes, there are fewer parcels and only 4% of the wine growing region falls into the category of colluvium hardpan, mid slope terroir. The colluvium hardpan is also found on the west-facing hillsides but to a lesser degree (2% for the category colluvium hardpan, mid steep slope of the 66 south to south-west facing hillsides). Upriver, the gravelly-clay, mid, steep, south to south-west facing slopes account for another 2%.
Clay-limestone on the west-facing slopes
The western faces of the hillsides are sheerer and are mainly defined by two categories of terroir of the same geological type:
- Clay-limestone, mid steep slope, south to south-west facing (3.79 % of the wine-growing region) characterised by the sheerness of the slopes and a convex curvature.
- Clay-limestone, lower slopes, south to south-east facing (3.40% of the wine-growing region)
The region is heavily influenced by the oceanic climate of the Atlantic, due to the proximity of the ocean although the north-eastern part of the wine-growing region has a more continental climate. Winters are mild, summers hot. Rainfall, which is important for vines, is evenly spread over spring and autumn. A high level of sunshine and only a moderate amount of rain during the summer months is an important climatic factor for the maturation of the grapes, so long as the exposition and topography of the parcels are favourable too.
The decree indicating the specificities of the Madiran appellation names Tannat as the principal grape variety and Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon as secondary grape varieties. It specifies that Tannat must represent between 40% and 80% of the winegrower’s estate. When the cuvees are blended, Tannat has to make up a minimum of 50% of the volume; there are no maximum levels and 100% Tannat wine is authorised.
In the olden days, local grape varieties were Manseng Noir, Pinenc (local name for Fer Servadou) and Bouchy (local name for Cabernet Franc). Dr Guyot announced Tannat as a recently introduced grape variety in the 1860s.
Vines have to be planted to a density of 4000 vines per hectare with at least 0.80m between the trunks in the row and 2.50m between the rows. For terraced vines, the amount of space devoted to each vine cannot exceed 2.5m2.
Pruning methods include single or double Guyot and Cordon training. In both cases, the number of eyes (fertile buds) cannot exceed fifteen and must be reduced to ten for Tannat and twelve for other grape varieties after de-suckering. De-suckering must take place before flowering.
The maximum weight of grapes allowed, measured on a parcel basis, is 10 000kg and these grapes cannot produce more than 55 hectolitres per hectare.
The maturity of the grape is measured by its sugar level in order to plan the vinification process. Tannat must have at least 198 grams of sugar per litre. For the other grape varieties, 189 grams of sugar per litre is sufficient. The difference is due to the quantity of polyphenols present in the Tannat grape; if the grape is not mature enough, they will give the wine a hardness and astringency that will make their organoleptic appreciation difficult. Once vinified, these grapes must make a wine whose degree of alcohol is a minimum of 11.5% by volume.
Harvesting can only start once the ‘Harvest Bans’ have been published. Winemakers’ representatives and INAO (Institut national des appellations d’origine) representatives set a date dependent on the particular characteristics of the vintage. Grapes can be harvested by hand or by machine.
The name “Tannat” comes from the Langue d’oc, “Tanat” from “tan”, ie tannin. The name is either representative of the grape’s high level of tannins or reflects the deep purple colour of the grapes, or possibly, the dark leaves.
The grape forms part of the Cotoïdes family of varieties that are indigenous to South-West France. It was perhaps originally crossed with a Pyrenean grape variety as, in his book “Grape Varieties of South-West France”, Guy Lavigac writes “the median lobe of its leaf is very similar to those characteristic of the Pyrenees. It is doubtless a cousin of the Lauzet grape variety which is indigenous to the Béarn.”
It is also sometimes called Moustroun (or Moustrous) in the Landes or the Bordelais Noir (which refers to the bordes or farmers’ cottages in Tursan and not to Bordeaux).
The first reference to Tannat can be found in a survey conducted by the Administrator of Guyenne Dupré de Saint Maur (1783-1784) in south-western Gers. Also interesting is the fact that so few grape varieties actually figure in the survey.
Only two red varieties are mentioned, one of which is Tannat, “a black grape with a round, slightly toothed, red-coloured leaf. It had probably only been introduced (circa 1700?) shortly before the survey was established as it corresponded well to modern cultivation methods, to a need to increase the productivity of the vine and to the taste of the Pyrenean valley locals who were the main consumers of Madiran at the time.
In 1841, Mr Dartigaux-Laplante of Castelnau-Rivière-Basse sent the Prefect plants from Madiran for the Duke of Cazes’ Jardin des Plantes.
Tannat has cylindrical, compact bunches with blue-black, thick-skinned grapes and is late-ripening and productive. It flourishes in gravelly, sandy soils.
We must again note Tannat’s exceptionally high level of antioxidant polyphenols that make it the best ambassador of the now famous “French Paradox”. The antioxidant properties of the Tannat grape play an essential role in the protection against cardiovascular disease.
In his book, “The Wine Diet”, which came out in 2009, (published in French under the title “Boire mieux pour vivre vieux”) British author Roger Corder, Professor of Experimental Therapeutics at William Harvey Research Institute, Queen Mary University of London, published the results of a scientific study showing that the average longevity of men over 75 years old in the Gers, South-West France, is the highest in France - thanks to a daily diet of fresh produce and… a glass of Madiran!
For further information:
• Raymond Nadine, Categories of Madiran Terroir and their Influence on Wine Production
Engineering School Thesis
Purpan Ecole d’ingénieur, May 2013