Dom. les Pentes de Barène
Domaine du Bois de Simon
This month we focus on a wonderful little pocket of Southwest France known for delicious cuisine, unpretentious wines, and rich history. This area is geographically defined by the Atlantic Ocean/Bay of Biscay to the west, the Pyrenees Mountains to the south (along the Spanish border), and the Garonne river to the North and East. It is a land of fertile rolling hills with a wealth of water and a rich rural identity. The largest city, Pau, is a paltry 75,000 people, meanwhile the historical capital of Auch has a population of just over 20,000 - in line with many of the other towns in Gascony.
Gascony, or Gascogne en français, is known firstly for its food and is considered one of the pillars of French cuisine. Iconic Gascogne dishes like confit de canard, cassoulet, foie gras, pigeon (squab), Bayonne ham, and Canelés are all common sightings on menus across France. The food is still innately French, but uses a heavy hand of duck or goose fat (rather than oil or butter), and local fare borrows some mild spices from neighboring Basque country. In addition to wine, the spirit Armagnac is produced here.
The history of Gascony is not quite as rich as its food, but still plenty to chew on. Pre-Roman times, it was a land of independent tribal people called Aquitanians, who spoke a non European language similar to Basque. (Today, it is part of the French department Nouvelle-Aquitaine). The Romans conquered the area in the 50s BC during Julius Caesar’s reign, and it remained a part of the Roman Empire for about 450 years. After that, in the Dark Ages, it was ruled by a number of different Germanic & Frankish kingdoms until roughly the 1000’s, when it's Gascone identity was formed and it became a more permanent fixture in English/French empires, getting passed back and forth between the two kingdoms several times. Eventually, after the end of the 100 Years War, Gascogne was firmly French. Bonus fact - this is also the land of everyone’s favorite musketeer - d'Artagnan (the real and the fictional).
But alas, I digress. The wines of Gascony are really what we are after. And, after all of that, I have to inform you that Gascony isn’t even typically defined as a wine region. Nope, this area is generally referred to as ‘South West France’ and includes wines from across the Garonne River, into historic Occidental / Languedoc, along both the Dordogne and Lot River Valleys. But I find that a bit too expansive and not as cool sounding, so in Gascony we shall remain. (Note, there is a Côtes de Gascogne region, which is designation for table wine producers within the Armagnac region.)
To understand areas like this is to understand the spattering of AOC’s that exist within it as well as the grapes that they use. It is incredibly helpful to have a map for reference, and I love the work that Wine Folly does. In an effort to not steal their hard work, I’ll direct you to their page instead.
Starting in Basque Country and moving west, we have three regions that are geographically independent and known for some of the most obscure grape varieties.
- Irouléguy - mostly reds from Tannat, Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The only ‘French Basque’ AOC, on the border with Spain.
- Béarn - reds from Tannat, Raffiat de Moncade, Cabernet, or Fer Servadou. Next to the city of Pau.
- Jurancon - a widely known French Sweet wine appellation. One of the finest Foie Gras pairings available. Made primarily with Petit and Gros Manseng grapes. Also next to the city of Pau.
Once we get closer to Armagnac, we have a few wine appellations that are known for quality wines, but are often overshadowed by Armagnac producers.
- Madiran - known as the home of the Tannat grape. As its name implies, it is quite tannic.
- Tursan - mostly red production from Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon. One of our club wines is a white from the unique Baroque grape.
- Saint-Mont - mostly red production from Tannat, Fer Servadou, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Moving further North to the Left Bank (south side) of the Garonne River, we have our final two appellations, both of which have more in common with Bordeaux down river than their Gascogne cousins to the south.
- Buzet - Reds and rosé made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, maybe a bit of Côt (Malbec) or the indigenous Abouriou.
- Brulhois - Same as above, but with more Tannat.
Pentes de Barène, Baroque Blend, Tursan 2020
We love supporting small producers and Pentes de Barène is about as small as you can get. Daniel and Gaelle Vergnes are the owners of this 3.7 acre estate and do everything just the two of them. They pick the grapes by hand, utilizing multiple passes to make sure each bunch is picked at optimal ripeness. They make all of the wines in their old stone barn, including all the pressing, pumping, and cleaning. Not to mention hand-bottling and labeling each bottle. On top of producing 5000 bottles of wine together, Daniel has a day job as a consultant and Gaelle hand-stitches linens to sell to visitors.
In the vineyard, they eschew Organic Certification like many (due to the costs) but farm organically, with cover crops growing knee-high and plenty of forest and polycultural farming providing biodiversity. They grow white grapes only - Baroque (50%), Gros Manseng (35%), Sauvignon Blanc (10%), and Petit Manseng (5%). With the exception of dessert wines in only the most special years, they just make this one wine, a field blend of all four grapes in quantities similar to above.
In the cellar, the duo is largely hands off, with wines being pressed early (no skin contact) and fermented in tanks (no oak). They lightly fine and filter, for presentation, and use a touch of sulfur before bottling to ensure stability. The end result is a lovely wine that showcases a honeyed, creamy nose with a hint of white pepper on the palate. It has a rich, opulent body that is framed by nice, bright acidity. I think it is a great winter white and would pair well with any Gascogne cuisine, namely the fattier bird dishes.
Below: Some pictures of the estate and the village, Pimbo, courtesy of the importer/distributor.
Mary Taylor (Domaine du Bois de Simon), Merlot Blend, Buzet 2017
We first learned about Mary Taylor Wines back in March 2022. As a brief recap, her business model is unique as she mostly acts as a negociant / importer who re-labels the wines in a clean, consistent style but is transparent about who produced the juice within the bottle. Therefore, while this is a ‘Mary Taylor Buzet’ it is also a Domaine du Bois de Simon Buzet. The Bois de Simon estate, which will celebrate its 100th year in 2029, has vineyards within both Buzet and Brulhois. They’re roughly 81 acres (25x the size of Pentes de Barène) and make red, white and rosé wines.
Christophe Avi, the great-grandson of the estate’s founder, has been a part of the team since 1992 and today heads the estate. He helped convert the vineyards to organic farming in 2018 and has maintained minimalistic winemaking traditions. This wine, called ‘Harmonie’ when bottled under their own label, is a mix of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. The Merlot is harvested earlier, in September, while the Cabernet hangs on until October. They are each macerated for about 2 weeks before being pressed off and left to age in stainless steel for ~18 months.
The 2017 is a particularly good vintage, as it was warm and dry in Southwest France. This bottle shows a ton of black fruit & cassis from the Cabernet and a spicy, herbal note from the Merlot. There is also a nice leather and tobacco note on the nose, which is unusual for a wine this young. On the palate it has a chewy structure, but remains lively and fresh.
Overall, this is a fantastic Bordeaux-style wine that delivers a ton of complexity for a pretty good value… that’s Gascony for you!