Wine By Region Europe France Southwest Béarn Bergerac Buzet Cahors Côtes du Duras Côtes du Marmandais Fronton Gaillac Irouléguy Jurançon Madiran Marcillac Monbazillac Montravel Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Pecharmant Rosette Saussignac
A vineyard in Cahors. This photo is in the public domain.
In the complex and dense world of French wines there is much debate over which region produces the highest-quality wines, in general and in particular. Some experts tout Burgundy, others advocate for Bordeaux, and still others promote the Rhône. A much easier question, however, is which wine region makes the most diverse wines. Despite competition from the Languedoc, the Loire, Provence, and, increasingly, the Rhône, Southwest France is clearly the region of France whose wines are the most diverse.
Southwest France has no less than 18 subappellations, which are surprisingly hard to categorize. Some bear resemblance to the appellations of Bordeaux, such as Monbazillac, which makes wines often considered "poor men's Sauternes." Then there are wines that are closer to Spanish in style, such as those from the Basque region of Irouléguy, and the varietal Malbecs of Cahors. Other appellations make unique styles without parallel elsewhere in the wine world.
The reason for this great diversity is, not surprisingly, the great diversity of the land in Southwest France. The land is composed of a number of noncontiguous regions that do not fit into any other French subregion. The fragmented histories and disparate climates of the regions within are what guarantees the diversity of the wines.
While the great diversity of the wine here can indeed be confusing, in general the consumer is the one who benefits. Almost any style of wine made in the world can be found here, and the region's lack of glamor and fame can often mean that bargains are easy to find.
The southwest portion of France has had a long history and many of its appellations were planted before anything in Bordeaux. Due to the region's proximity to the important Dordogne and Garonne rivers, the climate was excellent and shipping to other regions easy. But the introduction of the railway system allowed better appellations that had not been in the limelight, like Bordeaux, to come to the forefront and overshadow Southwest France.
Though landmark Southwest France appellations like Bergerac became AOCs in 1936, most of the others were officially recognized later. Southwest France is a region that is still developing in terms of the quality of the wines and their world recognition.
Climate and Viticulture
The climate of this region is difficult to describe, although not in the way that the climate of Burgundy is hard to describe. It isn't that the Southwest has extremely defined, distinct terroirs. Instead, the noncontiguous regions have very separate climates and soil types. Out of all the other French regions, Bordeaux has the climate most similar to Southwest France, but differing production styles in various areas mean that the wines are not always similar. Intricate climate descriptions will be found on the pages of the specific appellations of Southwest France.
Although Bordeaux grapes are traditionally favored here, just about every grape in existence is used here, including some that aren't found anywhere else in France. In fact, Southwest France's use of rare, obscure local grapes is part of what makes the region's wines so diverse.
The regions for wine are too diverse in Southwest France to list major producers from each, and no producers make wine in all of Southwest France. So please see the subregion pages for details.
The 18 major regions of Southwest France are all distinct. They are listed below with a detailed description for each.
- Béarn: Béarn surrounds the smaller, more well-known Jurançon region. The Béarn region itself has some good red wines, although they are rarely exported.
- Bergerac: Bergerac is one of the powerhouse regions of Southwest France, making darkly flavored, Cabernet-based red wines that compete with middle-market Bordeaux. The wines are mainly produced in and around the town of Bergerac. Within Bergerac AOC, there is a separate appellation for rosé, designations for sweet white styles, and a higher-end Côtes de Bergerac AOC.
- Buzet: Reasonably priced, big wines are made here from Bordeaux grapes.
- Cahors: Cahors is one of the appellations that truly shows the versatility of Southwest France as a wine region. The appellation idiosyncratically combines the Bordeaux and Argentinian styles, making Bordeaux-like robust, masculine wine, but using the Argentine flagship grape Malbec. The reds are intended to be aged, and provide excellent flavors when they are.
- Côtes du Duras: This appellation is located near Bordeaux, and produces high-quality dry and sweet white wines and some good fresh reds.
- Côtes du Marmandais: Right outside Bordeaux borders, this obscure appellation uses a few unusual grapes in its interesting wines.
- Fronton: This historical, unusual, completely underrated appellation has vineyards on the northern borders of Southwest France. The local grape Négrette makes up the majority of the red and rosé blends, making silky, feminine, highly ageable wines.
- Gaillac: One of the oldest wine regions in France, Gaillac is also a Southwest France leader, making diverse styles: bone-dry whites, ultra-sweet whites, Beaujolais Nouveau-style Gamay, and also more powerful reds.
- Irouléguy: This is the only French appellation for Basque wine; the others all are regulated by Spain. Needless to say, these wines are pretty distinctive. Made from Tannat grapes planted on high terraces, the red wines are powerful and tannic, more Spanish in style than French.
- Jurançon: From several obscure local grapes, the Jurançon area (centered around the eponymous village) produces probably the most sought-after sweet wines in Southwest France. These botrytized sweet wines have flavors of tropical fruit and floral elements, and the wines can occasionally approach Sauternes in quality. Dry wines are also good; both styles are surprisingly ageworthy.
- Madiran: Madiran produces berry-rich, powerfully earthy red wine from Tannat. These robust, affordable reds are gaining in popularity worldwide, and Madiran is quickly becoming one of the most important regions of Southwest France.
- Marcillac: This appellation is the new kid on the block, designated only in 1990, but the reds are intriguing styles, made mostly from a local grape.
- Monbazillac: Monbazillac, something of a satellite of Sauternes, is one of the more prestigious appellations in Southwest France. The vineyards lie on the banks of the Dordogne river. Intense, rich and powerfully flavored, the sweet white wines are impressively consistent in quality despite the large size of the appellation.
- Montravel: The Merlot-based reds from this region can be remarkable, but the whites are better. All styles of white wine are made, from completely dry to totally sweet. For sweet whites, Côtes de Montravel and Haut-Montravel are separate distinctions.
- Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh: Made in the same geographical region as Madiran, these wines are white only. Styles vary from sweet to dry to sparkling.
- Pecharmant: The historical appellation of Pecharmant produces solid, Bordeaux-like wines from Bordeaux grapes.
- Rosette: Probably the most obscure Southwest region, Rosette makes sometimes mellow, sometimes powerful sweet wines.
- Saussignac: Saussignac produces ultrasweet fortified wines from Sémillon. The wines are exclusive and promising, but have not yet become popular.