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  1. Tasting Notes
March 27, 2024

Madiran: France’s uncut diamond

A rewarding panel tasting of the best examples of this famously rugged and powerful red wine.

By Andrew Jefford

The Tannat-based red wines of Madiran in Gascon South West France are famous for their high tannin and acidity. But is their rugged structure a key part of their charm or a barrier to fine-wine status? Andrew Jefford is joined by Simon Field MW and David Williams for a revealing tasting.

This is an extract from an article first published in WFW83. For full tasting notes and scores for all 25 wines tasted by the panel, subscribe to The World of Fine Wine.

What the hell is Madiran? This question (I suspect) is regularly asked, at more than one location around the globe— and for two reasons. The first is that a bottle is purchased by chance with this appellation name on the label, and no one save the host—and perhaps not even the host—has much idea about Madiran’s origins or nature. And the second reason is that the mysterious bottle is then opened, and the wine proves so extraordinary, strange, titanic, and horizon-altering that the drinkers look at each other in astonishment, shock, and perhaps panic before blurting out, “What the hell is this?”

So, here are a few answers. Madiran is little known, first of all, because there isn’t much of it—just 1,400ha (3,450 acres) planted for red wine in this appellation zone, making it around the same size as Vacqueyras in the southern Rhône. (White wines planted in the same zone are known as Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh—see WFW 80, pp.210–17.) Madiran forms part of disparate South West France: a collection of 29 AOC wines and 13 IGP wines, some of stupendous obscurity, spread over a vast area between Aveyron and Millau and Basque Country—certainly the French wine region that struggles most to communicate a unitary identity.

Further hurdles loom. Madiran is little exported: 80 percent of production is consumed in France. One in every five bottles in sold directly from the cellar. The appellation zone finds itself in as many as three different French départements (Gers, Pyrenées-Atlantiques, and Haute-Pyrenées); multiple administrative complexities result. The region is far from being monocultural, and other agricultural activities here (notably duck-raising and the production of kiwis, cereals, and seed maize) can be as profitable as viticulture. 

Nor is its terroir context easy to describe. The appellation lies in an elbow of the Adour River, and the vineyards are sited in a series of north–south valleys that run down to the Adour from the Plateau de Lannemezan; red varieties are planted on the east-facing slopes of these valleys. There are officially three main soil types: rolled pebbles, clay, and clay-limestone, though the differences are not always clearly apparent from a vineyard stroll. Pure clay is locally disdained—but there’s no doubt that the signature of wines grown on clay, and in particular their weightiness, density, and “stickiness” on the palate, lie somewhere close to the heart of Madiran’s appeal; the combination of clay with propitious limestone boulders in well-positioned sites may constitute the Madiran optimum. The rolled pebbles, counterintuitively, tend to lie at the top of the slopes and give lighter and more delicate wines here.

Madiran’s principal grape variety, and the appellation’s chief glory, is the indigenous Tannat. This sub-Pyrenean foothill zone is warm though wet (with 40in [1,000mm] of rain or even more annually); Tannat’s thick skins are the response. The variety gives wines prolific in color, tannin, and acidity to a degree unmatched by any other French peer: disconcerting for the unwary, slow to age, greedy for oxygen (a 24-hour decant is always a good idea), and incomprehensible to many, as David Williams suggested in his conclusions, without hearty food. The Tannat is complemented (especially for less expensive wines) by the two Cabernets, and Fer Servadou. Perhaps it’s a consequence of the fact that Madiran doesn’t yet command much of a global reputation, but the lesser wines of the region can be a great disappointment—rough and ready reds of exaggerated earthiness and rusticity. 

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The best, however… Hell, I should make a confession at this point. Whenever I’m asked whereabouts in France the finest red-wine value for money can be found, or the location of France’s least well-known fine wines, my answer is always the same: Madiran. The greatest Madirans seem to me astonishingly impressive: dense, profound wines of shattering force and complexity, ready to age for 30 years or more without difficulty, and rewarding throughout that period (especially, though for me not exclusively, in the Gascon gastronomic context). I never open a bottle of ambitious Madiran without a frisson of excitement, and no wine cheers me more in dark hours than this one. All are modestly priced. If French wine hides an uncut diamond, it’s Madiran.

The complexity, personality, and quality of Madiran

Hence my nervousness before this tasting. Would the wines live up to my expectations? More importantly, would my two objective and fair-minded co-tasters respond enthusiastically? When I talk to other wine folk about Madiran and its unsung magnificence, patient smiles and half-humorous skepticism tend to follow, as if worldly nephews were indulging the strange tastes of an eccentric country uncle. Perhaps my enthusiasm is misguided? Perhaps this wine is, finally, just too singular and too demanding ever to exert wide appeal? Madiran may be a distant peak of the wine world—commanding respect, difficult of ascent, not somewhere to tarry long.

I needn’t have worried. Simon Field MW found “a beguiling complexity” composed of “dark fruits, Asian spice, and a Stygian smoky persistence. The intensity is life-affirming and resonant from the very early years,” he felt, and “the quality on display was consistently excellent.” David Williams, too, noted “so much that enchants in the best Madiran: the slightly austere, autumnal cast to the flavors, the sense of a kind of dark but propulsive energy, the sheer inky, sometimes bloody, intensity.” When you look at the numbers, you’ll see that four wines won aggregate scores of 93 or more (making them “outstanding wines of great beauty and articulacy”), while Simon and I both went higher still: He noted four wines scoring 94, one at 95, and one at 96, while I found two 94s, four 95s, and one 96. These are very strong results indeed for a smallish tasting of 25 obscure regional French wines.

David Williams nursed the deepest reservations about Madiran’s stylistic ruggedness, which he felt might be problematic in contexts other than Gascon feasting. This is the key Madiran question, it’s true. My own view is that the human palate is a more accommodating organ than we think. A world that tucks into andouillettes, pigs’ trotters, tripe, sea cucumbers, and Big Mac triple cheeseburgers and a drinking universe whose outer planets include Fernet-Branca, Cynar, cask-strength Laphroaig, and a double ristretto can probably cope with a glassful of fruit-drenched fire, fur, and fury. Give one a try. 

The top five: The best of Madiran

Domaine Berthoumieu Charles de Batz Madiran 2017 (14.5% ABV) | 94

SF | Deep saturated color. The nose demonstrates intimations of maturity already, but with plenty of red and black fruit, too. There is a very enticing and encouraging bond here: The elements that one may discern as “sauvage” appear tame; the elements that are merely ripe fruit take on an exciting complexity, albeit hard to read. Food-friendly, dense, and satisfying; robust of spirit and purpose. | 94

AJ | Dark, saturated black-red; still opaque to the core. Fresh, vivid, and lively; pure and refined, too. Nothing coarse or rustic here at all. Open, welcoming, upholstered, and resourceful: forest plum and prune, smoke, fire, earth, and stone. A wonderful Madiran nose, just the way it should be. Deep, rich, textured, and long, with a little more ripeness than many of the more ambitious wines here, but honestly that is no bad thing. This really rings out, sings, vibrates, reverberates in the mouth. It’s dense, full, exciting, stony, powerful, and long, a super wine with 20 years ahead of it, no problem. A little less focused and refined than some, but pure Madiran pleasure all the way. The quality of fruit makes its case. 2024–44. | 94

DW | Another six-year-old barely showing its age, this is still opaque, dark, dense, tightly packed, and stuffed full of burly tannins: grip and contrast and a gust of mountain freshness that keeps hold of the fruit through the long, salty-savory, chewy finish. | 93

Château d’Aydie Famille Laplace Madiran 2017 (14.5% ABV) | 93

SF | Deeply saturated color and an impressive, sophisticated nose, understated in a mineral-scented, smoky kind of way and with an evocative subplot, which tells tales of pine forests and mothballed furniture in old buildings. The architecture on the palate is impressive, with acid and tannin harmoniously interfaced and a clean crescendo on the finish, which underwrites quality. Gloriously layered and beautifully constructed—a wine for the ages. | 93

AJ | Dark, dense, saturated black-red. This is very good: earthy, deep, stony, quite sensual for Madiran, with flesh and belly-fur tickling out the fruit. Perhaps not the most refined aromatic profile today, though; just a little bit sweet. Well, after ten minutes I take this back as premature and simplistic; the aromas have responded very well to air (as they always do—this wine ideally needs 24 hours’ decanting), and all manner of fruit resource is opening up here: splendid and resourceful sloe and damson and plum, all done with a profundity that (by the way) Pomerol doesn’t always attain. No evident oak intrusions (though the wine may be sagely oaked); pure, refined, nuanced, and long. On the palate, this is very deep, serious, searching; perhaps a little bit difficult in its dryness and innate austerity, but very fine, packed with aromatic resource, and exploding with triggered flavors that unwind and ignite as you hold the wine on your tongue. A serious, dense wine of splendid purity, length, energy, force, and drive, and certainly a reference (for the initiated) over the next 30 years. 2025–55. | 95

DW | Still dense and brightly colored in the glass at six years old. The nose has a slightly exotic/incense aspect, before a densely packed palate filled with black fruit, tapenade, and meat; tannic gutsiness and power and a long, savory finish. Gastronomic and barely at the beginning of its drinking life. | 92

Domaine Labranche-Laffont Vieilles Vignes Madiran 2015 (14.5% ABV) | 93

SF | Charming episcopal color, near translucent, if that is possible, through a glass darkly. Aromas of woodsmoke, quince, and dark fruit. The palate rejoins chocolate, bay leaf, and mushroom; a whisper of umami in the background. Texturally, this wine is velvety and rich, generous and plush—rather bright descriptors, one may think, for such an uncompromising beast. But rest assured, it is uplifting, even as it takes us to the saturnine depths of muscular intensity. | 92

AJ | Astonishing colors for an eight-year-old wine; you’d need an LED flashlight to get any light through this. Powerful, furry, and intriguing on the nose—half teddy bear, half wolf—which is to say, the sweet and the savage are perfectly blended here, and they combine to make a kind of aerial embrocation-like scent of honey and herbs and forest plants and danger, which both seduces and disconcerts. A wonderfully exciting nose, and quite unique in the wine world. Super work here: bravo! Powerful, deep, and packed with resource on the palate, though the inevitable tannins are a little bit vertical—more up-and-down than they are wide, giving the fruit a kind of sheer quality, which is a little bit aggressive. Super wine, and the oak is not too obtrusive. It’s still young; there are certainly 25 years ahead. It is also quite pure, with less of the packed-in countryside and rusticity of some of the other top wines; you decide whether you think that is a good thing or not. But pretty awesome either way: a great, driving, dramatic draft of the French countryside. 2024–50. | 95

DW | Still vivid and bright and opaque in the glass. The palate is densely packed, with small dark berries and black cherries and the darkest, driest chocolate. A Carignan-like, animal wildness, too: meaty, mysterious… Then a hit of intense tannin. Many, many more years to come for this confronting, substantial wine. | 92

Domaine Berthoumieu Aulet Madiran 2020 (15.5% ABV) | 93

SF | Dark at both core and rim, no secrets given away here. Aromas of hothouse plants and the garrigue; fireworks and dark chocolate; layered and slowly disclosing its secrets, a highly successful blend. The austerity of the Tannat is thereby tempered and given a broader, more eloquent expression by the minority shareholders. Still hugely tannic and hugely powerful, this is one to chase down the years. | 94

AJ | Saturated, dense, opaque black-red. Another prodigious aromatic prospect: powerfully scented with autumn wild-plum fruits, but also rich with undergrowth, humus, and leaf litter. Just a great noseful of the Gascon autumn in a glass, and again without any overt oak to spoil the show. Excellent and exciting—I can’t wait to sip. Dense, deep, rich, vivid, and searching, another mouthful of unbridled Gascon power. It marks a kind of midway point between the all-out rugby-man muscle of [Château Barréjat Cuvée des Vieux Ceps 2020] and the refined, plunging purity of [Domaine Berthoumieu Madiran La Fé 2020], without quite matching either in intensity—but this is very good Madiran, for all that, and a perfect place to gauge the measure of this extraordinary wine. It’s also much less dense than the audacious [Château BarréjatTradition 2020], but the fruits are perhaps purer and more refined. 2025–40. | 92

DW | Fragrant: cassis and crème de cassis, lovely, high-toned, fresh, dark fruit in a wine of light-and-shade contrast, with concentrated damson and mulberry fruit on the palate, coursing mineral acidity, and then plentiful, sinewy, ripe tannins and a refreshing, red-fruited finish. | 93

Château Barréjat Cuvée des Vieux Ceps Madiran 2020 (14.5% ABV) | 93

SF | Onyx black. Nose of soot and cassis, the medicine cabinet and the medieval apothecary. The tannins are a little softer, at first blush, maybe the result of microoxygenation, but then they kick in and refuse to concede any ground at all. Younger than youthful, this is an embryonic statement of intent, taking fewer than no prisoners and intent on spreading the Tannat gospel with vigorous impetuosity and vice versa. | 91

AJ | Saturated, dense, midnight black. Very much the pure Tannat fruits that shimmer from this, like mist gathering on the water in the evenings: fine-contoured, pure, and alluring. All scented damson and sloe: a super nose. Dense, profound, tight-knit, and resonant on the palate—the rustic Gascon baroque in all its glory. A splendid wine, and ready for 30 years’ aging. Not everyone will like it, since it may seem intimidating, but if you want to see what the region can offer, then this is a great place to start. Pure, long, smoky, fiery, uncompromising: a great mouthful of twigs and roots, woods and stones, streams and meadows. Opulent and big in the mouth, and there is oak here, though happily not obtruding, helping it march through time, and it will eventually self-efface in this case. The Terminator, and a grand wine with which to see out the coming climate apocalypse. Where else can you find extracts like this? Nowhere, not even in Piedmont. 2025–55. | 95

DW | Dense, intense, opaque, tight in appearance, taste, and texture. Tautly packed with extract, almost impenetrable at this stage; some gentian, aniseed, and mulberry—lots of just ripe, dark cherry-like acidity, a sense of thick skins giving up just a little juice. Furled concentration, energy, and potential. | 92

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