France’s “Disco Wines” Are Not Dead

Once shunted to the uncool fringe of French wine, Gaillac is now a perfect match for modern taste—and a model for its Southwest neighbors.

You know you’re in the south when you arrive in Gaillac, either because of the deep southern twang in everyone’s accent—you want a glass of vang, hein?—or because you’ve gotten here by passing through Toulouse. Toulouse has grown into a great southern city, France’s fourth-largest, prosperous but still compact and unhurried. After all, it’s still the land of duck confit and cassoulet, of soft open fields—and if you’re in Toulouse, for local wine from Gaillac.

One April day I’m driving through the countryside, when I pass a sign on the side of a cinderblock roadside shed. Three overlapping curves, yellow, green and red, meant to represent those rolling fields, and then “Vignoble de Gaillac” in the sort of plump, bulbous, sans-serif type that arrived in the 1960s and didn’t make it far into the ’80s. It’s the sort of thing that would look right in a roller rink, if there were an Asteroids console nearby. So disco, baby.

Gaillac should be feeling pretty disco. It is one corner of France that can satisfy nearly every hipster quotient in wine right now. Unusual grapes? Check. It has a bevy of varieties of which it can claim ownership, and which make its wines unlike any others. Quirky sous-voile wines that approximate the unusual methods of the Jura? It’s an old local tradition. Pét-nat? It might be a stretch to say Gaillac unilaterally invented the stuff, but its sparkling ancestrale, here called méthode gaillacoise, evidently goes back at least to the 1500s and predates Champagne. And that doesn’t even encompass the full depth of its history: Gaillac was one of the early Roman outposts of viticulture in France, and by the 14th century, its wines were being shipped to England and Holland via Bordeaux, the casks stamped with the town’s mark, a rooster, to prevent fraud. In other words, today’s wine avant-garde, which sometimes is accused of being mere fad, has been deeply woven into Gaillac’s fiber for centuries. It is the embodiment of French wine’s past serving as the basis for its future—carried not by vague nostalgia but by legitimate tradition.

But one truism about the French and their wines? Tradition, no matter how good, isn’t always appreciated. And so, whatever Gaillac’s strengths, it was subject to centuries of setbacks—notably Bordeaux’s passive-aggressive blockade of any upstream markets, which all but stopped Southwest France from shipping its wines to the outside world. But also the inevitable shrinkage after phylloxera, and the sidelining of smaller, regional wines. Gaillac was ultimately subject to the French equivalent of “Disco sucks!” and receded into the role of humble country wine.

It’s the Southwest that shows both how widespread change is across the New France today, but also how progress can get tripped up when the record skips a beat. In other words: Look at a roster of what’s French and fashionable today, and these wines are the ones that seem to be missing—not just Gaillac but other hoary appellations like Cahors, Fronton and Jurançon, Bergerac and Buzet.

To be fair, these always struggled for attention, given that French wine tends to overvalue the poshness of the north. But I suspect the Southwest has also been punished because of its mostly unwanted ties to Bordeaux, which spent centuries effectively governing the region’s trade—which is to say, blocking its wines from the wider market. And yet somehow the Southwest, despite centuries of being exploited, has largely kept its connective tissue intact, in large part because of those local grapes—not just mauzac or fer (aka fer servadou), but also the mansengs found in the Jurançon and elsewhere, to say nothing of malbec in Cahors.

While the Southwest isn’t exactly overrun by cohorts of natural-minded, or more broadly new-wave, vignerons, they’ve been appearing with increasing regularity. In Cahors, you’ll find a growing bunch, including Fabien Jouves at Mas del Périé (the creator of “You Fuck My Wine”) and Maya Sallée and Nicolas Fernandez at Domaine La Calmette. Go to the Marmandais, literally 10 kilometers past Bordeaux’s southern edge, and you’ll locate Elian Da Ros and Sandrine Farrugia. In Bergerac, there are Jonc Blanc and Tour des Gendres, and so on. While all can speak fluent RAW Fair, they in fact have a deep appreciation for the nuance and depth of southern traditions, from the Périgord all the way to the Pyrénées.

But it’s Gaillac, in particular, that has managed not to abandon its heritage through the lean years, which in turn has made it a hot spot for the new southern avant-garde. Among other things, it’s the rare spot that has maintained its bounty of local grapes, most notably mauzac, the sole variety allowed in ancestrale. There’s also len de l’el and ondenc, white grapes found almost nowhere else, and much the same with reds: duras, thought to be indigenous here, and fer, the unheralded red of the Southwest, locally known as braucol. It wasn’t by coincidence, after all, that even the famous vine scientist Jules Guyot lauded the Tarn, Gaillac’s home department, for “the best climate one could possibly want”—able to grow nearly any variety, from pinot noir to cabernet.

One key reason Gaillac has succeeded is because of the fierce determination of the Plageoles family—Bernard, his father Robert, and now his sons Florent and Romain—to preserve local traditions. Indeed, Gaillac’s modern revival has largely followed a path that they forged. Robert, for instance, was fixated not only on preserving mauzac but the wider palette of local grapes, including the white grape ondenc, which tastes like a Rhône white if you added some iodine and peat moss, and the red grape prunelart, one of malbec’s parents, which resembles gamay with a horseradish bitterness. Robert planted ondenc, for instance, “while everyone was planting sauvignon,” he recalls—mostly because it was an essential piece of patrimoine, but also as a reactionary step, preserving the virtues of that four-on-the-floor rhythm when everyone else wanted to tear the disco ball down. For that matter, the Plageoles family realized each grape had a role to play (ondenc, for instance, makes a great sweet wine). But this was not a view shared by all their neighbors.

“They’re all fucked up,” Bernard says of some of the more bureaucratically minded Gaillacois. “When my father went to the syndicat, they shooed him away.”

That sort of tension—between quality-focused pioneers demanding change and the local trade groups that would prefer a more blandly commercial path—is actually a leitmotif found throughout the Southwest. Gaillac remains a model for how to get your groove back. Plageoles has helped nourish a nucleus of curious new vignerons, all of whom saw the opportunity to connect the area’s reputable past to the future. This includes Virginie Maignien and Patrice Lescarret at Causse Marines; Marine Leys, who debuted on her own in 2014 after two years at Plageoles; and Laurent Cazottes, known better for his sublime eaux-de-vie, including one from 72 varieties of tomato, but also a catalyst for great contemporary winemaking.

Part of the local inclination to bend the rules, and taunt rulemakers, dates back nearly two decades, to when Lescarret of Causse Marines’ first wine was refused by local tasting panels. “When I left the appellation, I decided to play a little game with them,” he tells me. He allowed his two cheapest wines to be labeled as Gaillac and moved the rest to “vin de France,” the most basic classification. A few years ago, he wrote a letter to authorities, including the INAO, after they failed one of his wines, accusing them of “sitting in an ivory tower” while consumer tastes had changed.

Lescarret is unabashedly right on this point: The quirks of modern taste match the avant-garde view of Gaillac remarkably well. But while the wines are certainly informed by tradition, they’re hardly living in the past; rather they mesh today’s sensibilities with an enlightened interpretation of the south’s raw materials. For example: Many white grapes in the region have woefully low acidity, which makes for mellow, generous sparkling wines, but not necessarily enough vitality in still wines. Hence the new guard has been planting grapes that retain freshness—not just petit manseng, a properly southern variety, but also chenin blanc—which, as it turns out, has a long southern history too (namely in Limoux, just over the hills). They’ve done the same with gamay, which has been in the area longer than anyone would care to admit. The Plageoles also chose to revive the old local tradition of vin de voile, a southern analogue to the Jura’s vin jaune, which had effectively disappeared; it’s a tradition similarly adopted by a handful of their neighbors. All this is indicative of a masterful grasp on modern tastes—perhaps enough to overturn that lingering anti-southern bias in French wine.

My hope is the strength of their case quashes that northerly fetish, because Gaillac is doing everything right—not least, having beaten back the French obsession with planting more vineyards when there’s already an excess. The appellation has shrunk dramatically since the disco era—to around 3,600 hectares from a relative high of 10,000 in 1980, consciously choosing higher quality over sheer volume. As vigneron Stéphane Lucas points out, small suits Gaillac. He should know, having spent a decade working for the local co-op and running the syndicat before establishing his own tiny property of less than 2 hectares, all planted to braucol. He notes with a particular satisfaction that his banker recently told him they’re less interested today in financing large properties than small ones. Rarely has a French bank uttered such a thing. But, he says, “They get it.”

The same could be said of so many people in Gaillac. They realized how easy it is to fade away and instead, like disco and its true believers, have opted to evolve into something new.

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