On our recent trip to France we had to be located near the town of Bergerac for business reasons, so we opted to stay in a self-catering cottage in the tiny village of Monbazillac, less than 10 kms away.
Another motivation for choosing to be near Monbazillac, was that it is the centre of a prime wine growing area, the Monbazillac OAC Appellation. Mark is very enthusiastic about sweet dessert style wine, I am less so, but appreciate the odd sip of a good quality one.
Two years ago we visited Sauternes in South West France and loved the experience, but Sauternes wines are rated as some of the most expensive in the world and so we seldom have the privilege of tasting them. The Monbazillac wines are as delicious and much better value. Strangely they are mostly sold in France and not widely exported.
The grape varieties are similar to those planted for Sauternes. Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadel are used, but to be classified as a Monbazillac, a percentage of the grapes must be affected by botrytis. Botrytis affected grapes are by no means attractive as they are covered by a grey mould, which partially dehydrates the grape berry, concentrating the sugars in the juice. Botrytis also lends a deeper and more complex flavour to the wines.
This mould is prevalent where the ripe grapes are exposed to damp conditions. Monbazillac and 3 other villages, Rouffignac, Pomport and Colombier are all situated between the Dordogne River and one of its tributaries, the Gardonette. One often wakes up to a very misty morning and by early afternoon the mist has burnt away by the hot sun, allowing perfect ripening. The moisture from the mist, the warmth of the sun and windless conditions are ideal for the development of the botrytis mould.
The grapes are harvested by hand, selecting the perfectly ripe, botrytised bunches, but as nature does not produce even ripening, the pickers may visit the vineyard 3 or 4 times to harvest the perfect fruit.
The wines are delicious. They vary in colour from rich straw yellow to a deep gold.
The flavours are complex. Apricots and dried peaches, ripe fig and ripe citrus or marmalade flavour are dominant. Botrytis often produces honey and nutty flavours and these develop as the wines age. The sugars are high, starting at about 80g and as high as 160g sugar per litre! What is remarkable is that the wines normally have a good amount of acidity to balance the sugar. The alcohols ranged between 12,5%-13,5%.
In the Barsac (Sauternes) and Bordeaux wine areas it is difficult to taste the wines when visiting the area, without having a formal introduction and an appointment. In Monbazillac every producer advertises that they are open for tasting (degustation) and purchasing of their product.
As you approach the hilltop village of Monbazillac you cannot miss the beautiful 16th century Chateau de Monbazillac that sits proudly amongst the finest vineyards. The Chateau is open to visitors and there is a modern wine tasting centre and shop.
The Chateau wine shop represents about 50 co-operative producers that have a huge cellar in the valley below. Wine tasting is free of charge and is limited to a few wines every day.
A few meters from the Chateau the other local producers are represented by the Maison Tourisme et du Vin. Here a tasting is hosted by a different producer every day, except Sundays and Religious Public Holidays. We found this most useful as we were able to pop in for a quick tasting every day, allowing us to select what we will buy after a week! Most of the winemakers could not speak much English, but the manager of the centre, a charming young lady, Melissa, did a wonderful translation job!
So more about these fabulous wines!
They are perfect to serve well chilled (between 4-8°C) as an aperitif. It will be perfect to accompany a canapé with foie gras. We were in foie gras country, so we treated ourselves to a block of pâté and most evenings we indulged with a glass of this beautiful wine.
Other fruit based starters such as parma ham with melon or figs will be a perfect match.
I am not too keen on serving sweet wines of this nature with a main course, but there are suggestions that it can compliment white meats such as veal or pork, or poultry, especially game birds. Spicy foods such as Indian, Middle Eastern or North African dishes may work well, but I prefer a lighter fruity dry wine with these dishes.
Monbazillac wines are a perfect match for strong cheeses, especially the blue-veined ones or a strong goat cheese.
Fruit based desserts or dark chocolate could also marry well.
Or simply enjoy a glass, well chilled, at the end of a meal.
When there is no botrytis, lighter sweet wines are produced under the Moelleux category. These, I feel were more ‘main course friendly’ than the Monbazillac style. But can be served with the same foods as Monbazillac. I served one with duck breast and poached apricots and it was a wonderful marriage.
Most producers also made a dry Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc or a blend of these. We enjoyed these wines that had interesting fruity or mineral structures and were mostly bone dry. In general they were more ‘gentle’ on the nose and palate than the South African wines, where we prefer the more upfront grassiness and fruit.
Merlot appeared to be the most common red produced, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, some as single cultivars and others as blends. Many young reds were unwooded, making them easy to drink as they had no harsh tannins. We also noticed much more use of 2nd fill barrels, producing more accessible wines.
Nearly every producer makes a rosé. The French sure know how to produce beautiful rosés.
We tasted one interesting sweet red (rouge doux) made from 100% merlot with 11,5% sugar and 11,5% alcohol. One or two producers made a method champagnoise-style bubbly using sauvignon blanc.
If you spot a bottle of Monbazillac or Moelleux style wines in your local wine shop, do try it. Or even better, when planning a French holiday, spend a day or two in this area to experience the wines and the scenery!