The first four vintages of Plaimont's single vintage Cirque Nord Saint Mont – 2014, 2016, 2017 and the yet to be bottled 2019
I was planning to write more on what’s been happening at the Plaimont co-operative group in southwest France, having caught up with some of the latest developments and new wines over a virtual tasting with MD and former technical director Olivier Bourdet-Pees. But instead I made Les Vignes Retrouvées my Wine of the Week and am highlighting another white here, Cirque Nord Saint Mont, not just because it’s an exceptional wine but because it’s an extraordinary story. I’ll come to Saint Mont reds and a new rosé in future posts.
Just to give a brief background for those who aren’t familiar with Saint Mont and Plaimont. The former is an undeservedly little-known appellation for dry whites, reds and rosés in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the Gers department in Gascony. The vineyards cover 1,200 hectares on slopes either side of the Adour river. Plaimont, an amalgam of three wine co-ops dating from 1979, is responsible for a remarkable 98% of Saint Mont (together with 55% of Madiran, 65% of Pacherenc du Vic Bihl and 30% of Côtes de Gascogne – 5,300ha and 800 growers in all).
More remarkable are Plaimont’s philosophy, strategies and achievements. To start with, it’s committed to indigenous grape varieties and old vines – and not just fostering the known local varieties but rediscovering and propagating lost and unknown. In 2002, it created the first private conservatory of ampelography in France – a living library of grape varieties. Currently it has 37 grape varieties, 12 of them completely unknown to the world and some so low in evolution that they’re female-only, not hermaphrodite. The current focus is on 12 of the 37 for potential future plantings.
"It emerged as the silver lining of crazy authoritarian blindness"
Three years earlier, the Plaimont team had discovered a vineyard dating from the early 1800s or perhaps earlier (it’s mentioned in the 1810 Carte de Cassiani, the first detailed map of all France): the Sarragachies vineyard has 21 grape varieties – seven completely unknown – and all the vines are on their own (prephylloxera) roots. No wonder it’s been classified as as a Monument Historique, the only vineyard so honoured.
As far as winemaking is concerned, Plaimont’s aim is to bring out the individuality of each grape variety in the different terroirs. The starting point for most of the white wines is vivacious, intense fruit aromas and flavours, including citrus, pineapple and quince, mouth-watering acidity and often a streak of minerality, all of which may be enhanced by fermentation and/or ageing in oak and/or on lees, depending on the wine.
Which brings us back, after not quite such a brief detour, to our story: Plaimont’s top dry white, Grande Cuvée Cirque Noir, a wine that emerged in 2014 as the silver lining from an episode of crazy authoritarian blindness by INAO, the appellation authority.
"The madness is that the grapes of the Cirque Nord plot are of very high quality"
In 2010, on a visit to Saint Mont regarding the redefining of its territory, INAO announced that, unless Plaimont stopped using the grapes from one particular, steep, two-hectare amphitheatre-shaped plot at the top of a hillside – the Cirque Noir vineyard – Saint Mont would not be AOC (meaning it would be relegated to IGP/Vin de Pays). The reason? INAO no longer wanted any AOCs in France to have a northern exposure. Cirque Nord is northwest.
The madness is that the grapes from Cirque Nord are of such high quality they were almost invariably among the five hectares that went into Le Faîte Blanc, Plaimont’s top blended white wine each year. The key to the Cirque Noir terroir is that, while the exposure makes it a very cold site, the variegated clay soils are very warm – perfect for Saint Mont’s principal white grape variety Gros Manseng. The other two varieties in Cirque Nord Grande Cuvée, Petit Courbu and Petit Manseng (the latter rare in Saint Mont) are on a milder, sunnier south-westerly slope which suits them much better.
Plaimont had no option but to concede to INAO’s ultimatum. Remember, we’re talking about Saint Mont more or less in its entirety: 1,200ha of land cultivated by 200 growers – 200 livelihoods. So, from 2010, the Cirque Nord grapes were excluded. But they didn’t go to waste: they were vinified separately, and in a different way, and bottled as vin de table for the next three years.
"Red grapes wouldn't ripen properly; the wine would be horrible"
Then in 2013 Olivier Bourdet-Pees went back to INAO and asked them to reconsider, essentially asking whether this vin de table was worse than all other French AOC whites. INAO took his point and allowed Cirque Nord back into the AOC, but Plaimont decided to carry on making it separately.
Is there any excuse for INAO’s 2010 ultimatum? Of all people, Olivier Bourdet-Pees allows them a let-out clause: the existing appellation is for red, white and rosé, without distinguishing between sites suitable for red and white grapes. So, in theory, red grapes could be grown on Le Cirque Noir for red wine. The grapes wouldn’t ripen properly; the wine would be horrible. Bourdet-Pees has proposed that the Saint Mont AOC specify which colour(s) of grapes may be grown where. Fingers crossed that INAO sees his point again.
Cirque Nord AOC Saint Mont was born in 2014. Ironically, it was too cold to make it the first year it was allowed, so the 2013 grapes were used in other blends. The same applied in 2018. But in 2014, 2016, 2017 and the yet to be bottled 2019, it’s a triumph, a great wine – not for nothing called Grande Cuvée. “For me, it’s the essence of Saint Mont,” says Bourdet-Pees. “If I had to choose one wine from Plaimont, it would be this one. I love it.” I’m with him there.
Gros Manseng accounts for half the blend, from yields of around 45hl/ha. The rest is equally divided between Petit Courbu and Petit Manseng at yields of only about 30hl/ha. And currently only fruit from vines averaging 30 years of age on 1.5ha of the 2-ha plot goes into Cirque Nord. The other half-hectare has eight-year old Petit Manseng which is deemed too young. The harvest is one to two weeks later than for other whites: around 10 October for the Gros Manseng and 25 September for the other two.
"You can drink these wines as soon as they're released, but they really are vins de garde – keepers"
The distinctive winemaking involves a long slow vinification in old oak barrels (a minimum of ten years old) using indigenous yeasts and very low sulphur levels. The wine is bottled after about 18 months (maybe 16 months for the 2019) and then kept a year before release. The current vintage is 2016 but it’s just coming to an end, so will be followed soon by 2017.
You can drink these wines as soon as they're released and they're delicious, but they really are vins de garde – keepers – like great white Bordeaux and Burgundy. If you have a cellar, it deserves some Cirque Nord: I've put conservative suggested drinking windows below. As for scores, they're all comfortably into the 90s.
As for food, MD Olivier Bourdet-Pees says, it's the best white wine with cheese, especially goats' cheese from the Pyrenees, and is good with fish. I agree with the goats' cheese and would expand it to hard sheep's cheeses such as Ossau Iraty and Manchego and cows' cheeses such as aged Comté and Parmesan. Fish also seems an obvious pairing, although I didn't try it. The 2014, with its extra evolution, was very good with risotto (made with quite a rich goose stock) and pork fillet wrapped and baked in vine leaves.
The current vintage, soon to be succeeded by 2017, one of the finest vintages for Saint Mont white wines
Cirque Nord 2014, Saint Mont
The first vintage and the classic Manseng fruit notes of pineapple, pink grapefruit and quince are still unmistakeable but they're beginning to recede behind creamy, savoury richness and intense, mineral complexity. Meanwhile the signature acidity is still pristine and weight-bearing. Delicious now but has plenty more to give. 13.5%. Now to 2030.
Cirque Nord 2016, Saint Mont
A very hot year. Intense quince and pineapple, with honey, beeswax, smoky-toasty notes, a hint of bitter chocolate, a voluptuous, creamy texture, fine-tuned minerality and juicy, bright acidity, although perhaps not as steely as other vintages. Big, open and wears its heart on its sleeve, giving lots of pleasure but perhaps speaking more of the vintage than the terroir. 14%. Now to 2032.
£39.50, Corney & Barrow; £39.99 (on offer), Gusto Wines
Cirque Nord 2017, Saint Mont
Rainy and quite cold, but one of the best vintages for Saint Mont whites and also one of the biggest. Thrilling intensity of citrus fruit, quince and pineapple, a hint of honey and nuttiness and a powerful saline seam. Very fine, silky texture; spine-tingling acidity. More tightly structured than 2016. 14%. Now to 2037.
Cirque Nord 2019, Saint Mont
Tank sample. Perfumed apples, pink grapefruit and quince. Textured, long and neat with pivotal acidity. On release to 2037?
Photographs by Joanna Simon