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South West France at the London International Wine Fair - Part I: the tasting

This week is, of course, the most gruelling in the UK wine trade's calendar. The LIWF takes place over three days at Excel in east London. Each year I try to attend a special regional tasting or a seminar - this year it was a bit of both.

The session began with a tasting of nine very different wines from all over the South West of France which, when lumped together, is the fourth largest viticultural region in France (after Bordeaux, the Rhone and the Languedoc) with 18 distinct appellations, we were told by Anthony Rose who lead the tasting.

First was a white from Gaillac (Domaine Rotier), a blend of 50% Loin de l'Oeil and 50% Sauvignon Blanc. These were cropped low for concentration and partially oak fermented to reveal a wine with medium body and tangy, peachy, juicy fruit with a slightly herby finish. A revelation for me as my previous experiences have been of rather dilute wines from this region (except for Rotier's sweet wine).

Next, from Domaine des Cassagnoles, a 100% Gros Manseng wine which had all the characteristics I would normally associate with a New Zealand Sauvignon: musky aromas, zesty with grapefruit nuances. Not exactly my sort of thing (I do like the sweet wines from Petit Manseng though) but I can understand its popularity and this is clearly a good example.

The one pink wine came from Gaillac's Ch. Candastre to demonstrate the Duras grape which presented a fresh berry nose with bubblegum and raspberry/cranberry fruit on the palate in a refreshing, dry style.

The reds started with a 100% Fer Servadou wine known in the 180 ha appellation of Marcillac as Monsoir apparently. I didn't enjoy the stalky, herbacious nose but there was some good, fairly intense raspberry fruit which was pleasant although I found the wine slightly lacking in the mid-palate and on the finish of the "Lo Sang del Pais" from Domaine du Cros.

Negrette is one of the reasons I attended the session as it is the main grape in the wines of Fronton, just north of Toulouse. I started importing wines from Château Montauriol last year when I became facinated by the contrast between their mid range "Mons Aureolus" cropped at 40hl/ha and their top of the range "Caprice d'Adrien" cropped at only 28hl/ha. The first has much in common with a good Beaujolais as I discovered most of this appellation's wines do; the second wine could double up as a first growth Bordeaux!

Ch. Marguerite's wine which included some Syrah and Malbec was in the first camp: not too tannic, slightly rustic, bright and fresh with just a touch of oak. Very much a glugging wine - Anthony Rose suggested we needed some Toulouse sausages to really appreciate it.

Heading north to Cahors, another region whose wines I have begun to appreciate more since I started visiting the captivating Lot valley a couple of years ago and have imported the wines of Château Lamartine which surely must offer some of the appellation's best values. I also visited Ch. du Cedre and bought some of their superb 2005 "Le Cedre" so I was pleased to taste this again today. Whereas Malbec can be rustic, even astringent unless handled well in both vineyard and winery, there was none of this here. The wine has a deep colour and quite an oaky nose with lots of pure black fruit character. The superb ripeness all but masks the fact that this wine really needs another five years or more for the tannins to soften and will easily last through the next decade.

The final trio of wines all had Tannat in common. The first from Saint Mont, next to Madiran, a VDQS which has improved radically over the last several years but still has some way to go. The excellent cooperative produces some of the best wines (actually, I've never come across wines from this region made anywhere else!) and the "Monastere de St Mont" is a good example with a core of dark fruit and chocolate, savoury tannins and some astringency and vibrancy. Not at all bad. The Madiran from Ch. d'Arricau-Bordes was more to my liking with big, sweet black fruits (damson, mulberry) and a massive, chewy structure which desperately needs 3-5 years more to soften despite the fact it is almost certainly micro-oxygenated to help achieve this. Finally from the Basque country, the wine from Domaine Arretxea in the Irouleguy appellation had a herbacious Cabernet France character amid the intense red plum/black cherry fruit. Quite rustic and tannic, I think I'll stick with Madiran (and Cahors and, occasionally Fronton) based on this tasting.

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