I have never walked the long roads to Santiago de Compostela, and perhaps I never will. Were time to jolt, though; were I to tumble back six centuries through a crack in the floor and find myself hauled up before a buzzard-eyed bishop; were he to order me to follow the tracks from St-Guilhem-le-Désert to Compostela as a penance for my sins, well, then I might find myself tramping into St Mont one evening. Several of the routes to Compostela funnel through here before the high passes to Jaca or Roncevalles beckon.
My legs would ache; appetite would be sharp. I’d tug off my sweat-soaked hat and give the tonsured hosteller a few coins in return for food and shelter in St Mont’s high-chambered monastery. There would be bread and beans, some scraps of meat, bitter herbs—and wine. And this is just what I would want the wine to be: black, sturdy, restorative. Wine that fulfills just a little of the function of blood, so that drinking it seems a kind of transfusion. (No heresy intended.)
It smells of plums, prunes, sloes; of clustered half-wild fruits from the edge of the forest, and it tastes of those same fruits—but not fruits alone. It also seems to taste of the hot sunlit stones, the thick hedges, the warm woods, the trodden dust—of the way itself. I’d drain every drop, and any other drops I might be allowed, then step slowly up to some dormitory bed whose hardness would not keep sleep at bay for long. The black wine would work in me all night so that, come dawn, the next day’s rigors would not daunt but (as the bishop in part intended) salve. I would walk out a better person.
A kind of fantasy, of course: Six centuries ago, all dry wines were thin and most pale. (Cahors’s “black wine” was black by dint of the boiling of its must.) In other respects, though, the threads of past and present gathered together by this wine and its fellow bottles are not fantasy at all; they constitute one of the most remarkable stories in French wine.
If you ever see a wine from St Mont, it has been made by Plaimont (which produces 98 percent of the appellation). This remarkable cooperative was led for many years with great vision and aplomb by André Dubosc until his retirement; Olivier Bourdet-Pees has since grasped the vine-wood baton. This is a cooperative for growers who truly need a cooperative: Many of them also grow maize or kiwis, feed ducks, milk cows; grapes are just a part of their farming picture. It’s fueled by IGP Côtes de Gascogne: a soft, fresh, pretty, and highly commercial white wine grown in former Armagnac vineyards. The colossal success of Côtes de Gascogne permits the rescue of forgotten grape varieties: The Pyrenean foothills are stuffed with genetic treasure. It also permits the restoration of ancient vineyards.
The only French vineyard to be classified as a monument historique lies in St Mont (at Sarragachies; mixed vines, some unknown, dating back to 1830 and ungrafted, thanks to sandy soils). La Madeleine, too, is antique. It’s a little clay-soiled parcel (4,000 bottles a year or fewer) planted straight after phylloxera in the 1880s with the hybrid Noah—onto which Tannat (plus a little Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinenc, or Fer Servadou) was later grafted. The grapes are hand-harvested, and after a month on skins (with gentle pump-overs and punch-downs), it undergoes malo and ages for up to 14 months in 400-liter casks, most of them second fill. The label shows a 14th-century walled arch through which the vineyard is accessed.
Plaimont has other brilliant wines, too—notably the white Le Faite, with its dangling clackety wooden label, and the oaked white Cirque Nord. These are blends of Gros Manseng with Petit Manseng and Courbu: taut, pristine balances and innate complexity and length. Drinking them is like washing in a stream—an experience familiar to all pilgrims. And Plaimont’s varietal researches have given us Manseng Noir, salvaged from a single vine, an iron-and-raspberry red that, even harvested in October, only deigns to give 12% ABV. A climate-change gift.
Plaimont members, when on public duties, always wear black berets; Olivier Bourdet-Pees even wears his beret to Zoom. And in non-pandemic times, members are bidden by rote to leave home and travel long roads of their own in order to meet the yet unenlightened, as Mormons and Witnesses do; failure to do this does not involve the penance of pilgrimage, but it does see the imposition of a token fine as a smack on the wrist. The cooperative, needless to say, owns St Mont’s Monastery; another of the red wines is called Monastère, from monastery vineyards, shown on the label beneath a medievally star-clustered sky. You can stay, now; the beds are a little softer.
I once mentioned to a friend that I would like to walk the long roads to Compostela. “I take it,” she wrote back, “that all of life is the road to Compostela.” A road, she intimated, often dreary, through dull landscapes under leaden skies; a road truffled with wrong turnings and errors to be retraced; a road to make your legs and your joints ache daily. Just so—but there is a salve. Restorative black wine.