Famous since time immemorial, the wines of our region, whether Madiran reds or Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh whites, owe everything to the men and women who, ever since the 11th- century Benedictine monks, have put its unique origins to such sublime use.
The history of the region’s wines dates back to well before the 11th century. In the 5th century, a monk of Lérins Abbey called Salvien, wrote of Gascony “the entire region is covered in vines”.
The Madiran wine-growing area is today made up of lands which, in the 11th century, belonged to a Benedictine Abbey whose ruins were used in the construction of Madiran’s parish church of Sainte Marie. These Benedictine monks planted grapes widely in the area and it was they who brought the wine to the attention of the outside world by giving it to their many visitors and passing pilgrims. For a very long time, the wines of Madiran were served as communion wine in the dioceses of Tarbes, Oloron, Bayonne and Auch and even today Madiran is still referred to in south-western France as “church wine”. According to the Hautes-Pyrenees départemental archives, the wines of Madiran were of considerable importance from as early as the 14th century.
So, it is abundantly clear that the vineyards are extremely old. Vines, not to mention wine, were part of everyday Gallo-Roman life as can be seen from local ruins dating from this era, most notably the Taron mosaic* which displays tooth-edged vine leaves decorated with five fan-shaped veins, coloured green with yellow and black tints. The wine trade also flourished during this era although remained predominantly local.
* This mosaic can be visited at the church called “Assomption-de-la-Bienheureuse-Vierge-Marie”. Dating from the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th centuries and built on an ancient Gallo-Roman villa, it houses fragments of 4th and 5th-century mosaics, essentially images of vegetation (acanthus, bay, vine and ivy leaves) that are remarkable for the quality of their decoration. In the 11th-century chapel are a Roman alter, a stone shrine and a curious inverted chrism, or Holy Oil, vessel.
The real structuration of the region’s vineyards began with the foundation of Madiran monastery in 1030 when the monks of the Abbey of Marcilhac-sur-Célé, (in the Lot) settled and dedicated a monastery to the Virgin Mary.
The reputation of Madiran wines very quickly became established by pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostela along the road linking Aire-sur-l'Adour to Lescar and therefore through Saint Mont and Madiran. It consequently naturally became a pilgrim’s wine and a communion wine.
Legend has it that the occupation of Béarn by the Black Prince, who in 1360 became the Prince of Aquitaine, allowed the English to discover Madiran wines.
In the early 17th century, the priory was taken over by the Jesuits of Toulouse. The crisis of the 18th and 19th centuries brought the wine-growing area’s expansion to a halt while the onslaught of phylloxera almost wiped it out.
Around 1880, trade was still flourishing. Thanks to the archives of the Dartigaux-Laplante Maison at Castelnau-Rivière-Basse, we know that Madiran was being sold as far away as Le Havre, Rouen, Dunkirk and even Belgium and Hamburg. Customers wanted four or five or even ten year-old bottles of wine. However, the phylloxera blight combined with various successive crises that hit the France’s vineyards until the Second World War, reduced to next to nothing the immense progress that had been made in the production of high-quality wines since the 18th century.
Later, winegrowers replanted, selected their best parcels and grouped together to form a syndicate in 1906. They obtained the first delineation of Madiran terroir in 1909.
Since 1948, Madiran has been classed AOC, Appellation d’origine contrôllée (which has now become AOP, Appellation d’origine protégée). The production area straddles three départements: the Gers, the Hautes-Pyrénées and the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Many parcels which had been abandoned in the past, are now once again cultivated by undaunted, resolute winemakers who, with their deep understanding of exceptional terroirs which are just begging to be brought back to life, are bringing a shine back to the wines of Madiran …
Extracts of the Monograph produced in 1889 by Félix Contraire, a teacher in Madiran (all teachers in France were required to do this work at the time):
“Monuments – the church is very unusual: its foundations date from the 9th to the 10th century; there exist a few ruins of the priory’s monastery which the Benedictines and the Jesuits occupied successively. There would be a lot to say on this subject but one would have to have time on one’s hands to be able to peruse all the documents. In the municipal archives there is an old land registry map or livre terrier, a register containing the cadastral references as well as the rights and obligations of the population. But that is all there is.
Origins – It was founded such a long time ago that it is impossible to give even an approximate date. Its current name seems to have changed completely from the original. We should not pronounce it “Madiran” but rather “Maridan” from the Latin, “Maria Dona”, patron saint of the church and the great monastery that existed and about which we shall have more to say later.
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“ The study of the history of religion teaches us that, in the very early centuries of Christianity, our religious forebears took over pagan temples and turned them into churches dedicated to the worship of the saints and the Virgin Mary.
Tradition has it that a pagan temple was built in the Moundio (Mons Jevis) quarter of the town of Madiran. In the crypt below the existing priory church, there is a Roman capital that could only have come from a pagan temple. It stands alone, surrounded by the Romanesque capitals of the crypt and sanctuary.
At what era did worship of the Virgin Mary succeed worship of Jupiter? Immediately following the disappearance of pagan divinities, around the 4th century, or maybe even earlier.
The town of Madiran is extremely old. Dom Estiennot, a Benedictine monk, born at Varenne in 1649 and died 1699, was sent by his superiors to travel around France collecting all the documentation he could to compile a history of the Order. From 1673 to 1648, he produced 45 folio editions of precious information, from which many other Benedictine monks then worked.
In the few lines dedicated to our monastery, he gives its original name: “Monasterium de MANSO IRANI SEU de MADIRANO”.
It is impossible to say when the original monastery of Madiran was founded, nor by whom. Madiran church is one of the oldest and the most interesting of the Gers.
It is worth looking at a document that records the rebuilding of the Benedictine Monastery written circa 1080 according to Mr Caddu, architect of the département’s Historical Monuments and in charge of the restoration of much of the church (a listed Historical Monument).
From the writings about Madiran Church, we can see that a few years after the death of Sancieus, the third Prior, Guillaume Par, “built a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the monastery, which was much more spacious and beautiful than the one which already existed.
As we know that Guillaume Par had left the monastery by 1080, we can deduce that the second reconstruction of the monastic church took place between 1030 and 1080.”
Taken from the summary preceding the Madiran Cartulary in the Doat Collection, Bibliothèque nationale de France (French National Library).*
“Circa 1088 – link between the foundation of Madiran Priory in the diocese of Tarbes with the donations given to said priory recorded in an ancient parchment register found in the archives of the Jesuit Fathers of Toulouse who occupied said priory. The donations are, with the exception of two, not dated, but the counts, archbishops, bishops and other notables who lived at the time the said donations were made, are named. The donations made by said persons are noted with particular signs.
Link between the foundation of Madiran Priory with Sautius Chevalier who was descended from the Seigneurs of Madiran and son of Garsan, son of Loup, nicknamed Picoth, arriving from Spain as the first knight to take refuge in Madiran with the permission of Raymond, Count of Bigorre who frequently went off to fight the enemy with Garsie Arnaud, Count of Bigorre, whose reputation, having been named Consul of all of Gascony, extended far and wide and who received many visits including from Etienne, Abbot of Marcillac, who took him to his abbey wherein he clothed him in religious garb; whereupon, on his return to Madiran he extended the monastery and built a church and then went to find Bishop Ricard and said Count Garsi Arnaud to ask them to ensure that the Seigneurs of Madiran free the monastery from its feudal tithes and obligations; these persons gathered with the knights and prudent men of the region and agreed that, for this to happen, said count would bestow on Arnaud and Santius Arnaud, the principal seigneurs of said region, the right to 50 knights that they would pay him for every year. Several years later on his deathbed, said Santius sent for his cousin, Bonus Par, to tell him that he had bequeathed the monastery and all his property to said Abbot of Marcillac and to tell him to leave his wife and to shave and to cut his hair and that, after having taken orders in Marcillac Anney, to take over said monastery; that, following the death of said Santius, said Bonus Par, wishing to take possession of the monastery went, with the two Levite brothers, his cousins Count Bernard and Bishop Eraclius and begged them to go to Madiran with Aimeric Count of Auch, Bernard Count of Armagnac, Gaston Count of Foix and the neighbouring knights to render Madiran free and safe and that once done, said counts, bishops and knights swear not to do any damage or harm to the place; said Bonus Par left on his death, said monastery under the supervision and authority of Guillaume Par, his son who, having received from a certain Guillaume Donatus the tithes of the churches of St Léon, St Marie de la Grasse and St Michel de Sault, killed Raymond Lupus de Lidos in a duel for the Forest of Médiana where he built various hamlets and lived miserably for a while but Bishop Pons and Count Centullus, having learned of his wicked life, chased him out and installed in his stead a certain Bernard who bought the church of St Michel de Hagedet from its Abbot, Etienne; a little later, Gombert, the fourth Abbot of Marcillac after said Etienne his predecessor, remembered that said Santius had given said Monastery of Madiran to said Etienne so went with Vinald Abbot of Moissac to find Guillaume Archbishop of Auch and showed him before the council how he had been usurped from his rightful place in Madiran where Bernard was now installed, following which the archbishop consulted Pons, Bishop of Bigorre and said Gombert, gaining possession of said monastery, named B… as its abbot.”
* The Doat Collection consists of 258 bound volumes of copies of old deeds relating to the Guyenne and Languedoc. The copies were made between 1664-1669 under the supervision of Jean de Doat for Jean-Baptiste Colbert. It was acquired in 1732 by the Royal Library and forms part of the collection of the “History of Diverse Provinces”.
Monasteries “overran” Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries: in medieval France there were nearly a thousand monasteries including 251 Cistercian abbeys and 412 Benedictine abbeys. The abbeys housed from twenty to four hundred monks at Cluny in its heyday but the economic and intellectual influence of the abbeys was not necessarily dependent on their size. During this period, monasteries were effectively places of stability and of remarkable technical innovation.
Monks and nuns were the intellectual élite capable of reading and writing unlike the vast majority of medieval Europeans. The religious community comprised a high quality, “free” labour force with the monks, a multitude of lay brothers, nuns, peasants and paid artisans. Even if prayer time was important, the work of monasteries was often more efficient, and therefore more economic, than that the work of the artisans and peasants in the secular community.
This explains why monasteries were, at their height (in the 12th century) often very rich institutions. It is true, however, that running costs were high as monasteries were responsible for the upkeep of the monks and lay brothers, caring for the sick, teaching, helping the poor, and providing shelter for pilgrims… A monastery had to be able to feed all those within its walls as well as those who gravitated around it. As donations were not sufficient to this end, monasteries also grew plants and raised animals both for its own food and to sell to the outside world.
Over time individual monasteries gained reputations for the production of a particular product. This monastic fare is what we would now refer to as “local produce”.
Catholicism, the dominant religion of Europe in the Middle Ages, uses wine in the celebration of mass when representing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the priest and the congregation commune with Jesus by eating bread, the body of Christ, and drinking wine, the blood of Christ. Wine is also very present elsewhere in Christian symbolism. There are numerous references to wine in the Bible: Jesus turning water into wine at Cana and blessing wine during the Last Supper. In a parable in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “ I am the true vine and my Father is the winemaker. I am the vine and you are the branches. ”
Thus, in the early centuries of Christianity, bishops and abbots of monasteries throughout Europe were transformed into winegrowers. They both developed existing Gallo-Roman vineyards which had managed to escape destruction during the period of the Barbarian Invasions or planted vineyards from scratch on virgin lands. The monasteries, which were in a period of expansion and development, were big consumers of wine. Not only was wine used for liturgical purposes but it was also present at table. Even if, effectively, some very ascetic monasteries forbade its consumption, wine was generally considered to be one of the basic daily foodstuffs of the Middle Ages. It was also used for healing the sick and the old. Equally, the production of wine presented an economic interest to the monastery, as any surplus to its needs would be sold to the outside world.
• Canons of Autun Cathedral: Aloxe, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Chassagne
• Cluniacs : Beaune, Vosne-Romanée
• Cistercians of St Vivant Abbey : Romanée, Romanée-Conti
• Cistercians of Pontigny Abbey : Chablis
• Cistercians of Cîteaux Abbey : Clos Vougeot
• Bèze Abbey: Chambertin
• Saulieu Abbey: Corton-Charlemagne
• Cluniacs of the Priory of La Charité sur Loire : Pouilly Fumé
• Bourgueil Abbey: Bourgueil
• Abbey of Notre Dame de Filly: Crépy and Savoie wine, Marignan Cru
• Cluny Abbey: Roussette de Savoie, Frangy Cru and Monterminod Cru.
• Arvières Abbey: Seyssel
• Bishop of Grenoble: Savoie wine, Cruet Cru
Côtes du Rhône
• Clergy of Tournon: Cornas
• Cistercians of Valcroissant Abbey: Die wine (which subsequently became Clairette)
• Popes of Avignon : Châteauneuf-du-Pape
• Knights Templars: Banyuls
• Elne Abbey: Rivesaltes
• Benedictines of St Michel Abbey: Gaillac
• Benedictines of Madiran Abbey: Madiran
• Cistercians and hospitallers: Moissac, Jurançon
• Montmartre Convent: Wine of Montmartre (Paris)
• Benedictines of the Congregation of Saint-Vanne: Champagne