By Celia Strong
Weird grapes and funny names make great wines. Well, of course, that’s not exactly true, but it is the case for the two wines featured this week. Good wines, no matter what grapes they’re made from and no matter what they’re called, are good wines.
Our wines this week both come from the same region of France, the Cotes de Gascogne. This is an IGP area, legal French wine designation, located in the Armagnac region in southwest France. In English, we call the area Gascony. It is a very picturesque area with green rolling hills, sunny skies, medieval towns and views of the Pyrenees Mountains. For 2,000 years, a lot of the agriculture here has been wine grapes. Historically, because of this area’s location just south of Bordeaux, its wines were not as good or as famous as their neighbor’s. One claim to fame, though, was the baptism of Henri IV, in 1553. His lips were rubbed with garlic and Juraçon, a local wine. Today, about 10 percent of the wines made here are red, about 10 percent are white and the rest are all white wines. Of the 100 million bottles made here each year, about 75 percent of them are exported out of the country. (That really is a huge number of bottles, one of the few areas in France that produces this many!)
On September 13, 1968, a decree was passed that distinguished wines that could be labeled “Cotes de Gascogne” as different, meaning better, from those labeled as “Vin de Pays.” Those with the Gascony label must follow stricter rules and standards for production, another decree enacted on January 25, 1982. There is an Association of Producers, founded March 15, 1979, that works to protect its members and the reputations of their wines. There are about 1,400 grape growers as members in the association. And, most of them are co-op members, meaning they join together to make their wines — shared winery facilities, trucks, export agents, etc. The soil in Gascony is alluvial with clay and sand. The climate includes a wet spring, lots of sun, and some influence coming off the Atlantic Ocean (breezes and humidity). Local grape varieties, for the white wines, include Colombard and Ugni Blanc. Cotes de Gascogne white wines are generally dry, crisp and aromatic with citrus and exotic tropical fruit notes.
Looking at our two grape varieties, one we have studied before. But in an Italian wine, and we only mentioned that it was also used in France. That’s the Ugni Blanc, and it’s in both our wines. The second variety is Colombard, regularly partnered with Ugni Blanc. Also in both wines, the predominant partner. Starting with the Ugni Blanc, we might remember that it is called Trebbiano in Italy. This is the second most widely planted grape in the world. In Italy, it accounts for about 30 percent of all the white wines they make. We taste it every time we drink a glass of Orvieto, a white wine from Umbria, and every time we use balsamic vinegar, also made from Trebbiano.
But, our wines this week are French, so back tothe French name, Ugni Blanc, we go. This is the most widely planted white grape in France, although it is known by other, unfamiliar, names in some areas. (It is also the main grape used to make Cognac.) Ugni Blanc vines are vigorous and yield a lot of grapes. Its wines have good acidity and are fresh and fruity. They do not, however, age well. Typical aromas and flavors are citrus, white-fleshed fruits, like apples, pears and quince, flowers, like magnolias and jasmine, and hints of minerality.
Colombard is our second grape this week. Going back several years, some of us may remember big, three liter jugs of wine from California that were labelled as “French Colombard.” Coming from California, these wines would have to be labelled “French,” but in France I suspect they know it’s French and just label it as “Colombard.” This grape is related, somehow, to Chenin Blanc and is also used in the production of Cognac. It also has good acidity and more structure than Ugni Blanc and adds what is called “backbone” to its wines. It is also a bit fuller bodied and adds some weight to its wines, as well.
Our first wine is Domaine de Pouy (pronounced “pooooo-eeeeee”). Yves Grassa is the proprietor who makes this wine. It is made with 60 percent Colombard and 40 percent Ugni Blanc. Skin contact and cold fermentation are used to maximize the aromatics of this wine and enhance the fruit flavors. Grassa is considered to be one of the most innovative and progressive producers in the Cotes de Gascogne area. He owns almost 1,000 acres and makes a total of about 15,000 cases — 180,000 of that million bottles. Almost a fifth. Domaine de Pouy first came into the United States more than 15 years ago, and it has been loved by wine critics and drinkers ever since. Clean and crisp and dry with lemon, apple and floral notes, it is one of the easiest drinking wines for summer. Great no matter how cold you make it. For $9.99.
Our second wine is from Domaine Uby, (just say “ooooooby”), called “Uby” for short. This domaine has been growing vines for over a century. They own about 395 acres of vines, sandy loam and clay soil. For their Colombard-Ugni Blanc wine, they harvest the grapes at night which augments the fruit flavors in this wine. It, too, is more Colombard with lots of lemon zest flavors mixed in with pears, ripe quince and floral perfume. Each bottle of Uby can be traced back to which plot of land its grapes came from. The quality that comes with this much precision definitely shows in the wine and is responsible its reputation getting better every year. This is one of the few vineyards in Gascony that wins awards year after year, in France and around the world. For $9.99 too. Can’t choose which one we like by the price, can we?
So, now we have Pouy and Uby — I told you that we’d have fun with the names this week. Good news is we also have two new good wines. The fun part is trying them with friends and family. (Having tried them both, already, I can’t wait to discuss our favorites after you have too.). A new good wine is what we’re all here for. Yay! Enjoy.