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Hidden France

Part 1: Limousin

Domaine des Gables

 While California was my first wine love, France quickly caught up, and made me realise that it’s wines are unique and that for the rest of the world, imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. We’ve all heard about Bordeaux and Burgundy, we’ve sipped those vibrant Champagnes and pondered the beauty of life while staring at those wonderful Rhone reds, and I find the pleasure of a beautiful Rosé from Provence is a love that is continuing to unfurl. 

 I have pondered what might lie abroad if some of the lesser know regions of France have a wine industry that is worth writing about.

 In  a series of articles that I’m putting together, I’m going to be putting my tastebuds, and the wine of lesser known regions, to the test, and seeing if there are one or two viticultural hidden gems.

 Some of you might know these regions, and you might have sampled what’s on offer, but I’m thinking of the majority who tend to head towards the usual suspects. Nothing wrong with that of course, but what joy if one discovers something new?

 I’ve mentioned my house in the Limousin region, and I thought that this might be a good place to start because I’d heard that many years ago (pre-phylloxera) this area was producing some cracking wines that people used to seek out. The area had a renown that rivalled the best, but that was the past, or was it?

 While there might not be a major industry here any more, there are a small number of vineyards that cling on and gather plaudits and awards. I’ve decided that for this article I’m going to drop in on one of them.

 Domaine des Gabies lies a little to the west of Limoges on the wonderfully named Route du Vignoble, and I’m excited to be dropping by on a Domaine that is less than an forty minutes from my home. It’s in Verneuil-sur-Vienne, which was first given a wine namecheck in 1458. That's some namecheck!

 My host is the splendid Marie-Hélène, a woman who is driven by a desire to return to her roots, as a descendent of a family of winegrowers, and produce wine that upholds the traditions that have always been part of her upbringing, and as we chat, I realise that there's steely determination to make this enterprise work. The locals are supportive, the wines have potential, and the location is central. Most people couldn't ask for better conditions.

 The vineyard is situated on the slopes of the Vienne Valley, and the undulating hills seem built to hold the vine soldiers that stand guard on the landscape. The soil is a sandy, loamy mixture sitting on a bedrock of granite, gneiss or shale, that means, to me: it’s very, very interesting.

 They produce three varieties over their 6.5 hectares and these include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a predominance of Gamay. This leads to a collection of wines that include whites, reds, roses, and sparkling that is produced using the tried and tested method. There are times when rocking the boat might mean sinking it!

 In terms of age it’s still a baby, but you know how cute babies can be, and if you parent them well, how beautiful and well-mannered they can grow up.

 The wines have been awarded a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) designation of Haute-Vienne which means something is going right is this hidden region where a 

vineyard is harder to find than a bad steak! 

 These are harvested through a mixture of machine and manual, and this is where the ‘Friends’ get involved. It’s lovely to see that there is a local group entitled, 'The Friends of the Rose of Verneuil' (I might even join if the wines are enjoyable) and among their objectives are the wish to promote the wines of Domaine des Gabies. They don’t just sample wine and yak on about it, this group get into the vineyard and perform  a variety of tasks including bottling. Of course there’s fun at harvest time and a tasting of each new vintage, but this is a group that wants to get firmly involved.

 So, that’s the background, what about my visit? Like all good sat-nav devices it tries to send me down some spurious roads to nowhere, but I’ve been here before and ignore the recommendations, and thank goodness I did because Domaine des Gables a little further along the road.

 From the outside it’s got the sort of look I like in my wineries; a large type of farm building with a bunch of grapes painted by the door and an air of meaning business that tells me growing grapes is farming and not a vanity project. I make the mistake of thinking I know best and steering the car into the local petanque courts. Thankfully, it must be close season and nobody is about to rant and shout at the English fool. A quick manoeuvre and I’m in the right place where inside I find Marie-Hélène sat carefully placing labels on bottles of Chardonnay by hand!. It actually feels like the most mom and pop venture of all the mom and pop ventures I’ve stepped into, and the general feel is that this is a place of work; hard work. No automated thingamajig worked by robots designed by other robots here!

 As I’m directed to sit down, I look about and see a small collection of large tanks at the far end of the wall, various pieces of viticultural equipment, an upside down amphora which I’m later informed is made of ceramics. This being the Limoges area it comes as no surprise, and Marie-Hélène tells me that it gives the wines a smoother, more rounded taste.

 I ponder this as we chat, and I find out that the vineyard has been in her family since the eighteenth century, and that until she took over her father owned the land but didn’t want to make wine.

 The building we’re sitting in was erected in 2011 and I’m suddenly aware of what it’s like to meet a person who makes wine for the sheer love of it, and not because of the potential for glamour that haunts some areas of the world.

 I’m taken up to one of the tanks and Marie-Hélène pours me a glass of the latest red Les Graulas. There’s an almost medicinal tone to this wine with the addition of blackcurrant and blackcurrant stalks. Such potential in one so young!

 The taste is unusual and interesting, and I could see me spending an hour or two with this wine. When it’s ready, this could be a little stunner.

 The vineyard itself has the potential to bring out the nuances of the terroir, and these come through its whites, reds and roses; along with wine that is allowed time to doze in oak barrels.

 She tells me that her training was basic, and is still ongoing, and this cements the image of winegrowing as farming in my mind. This is a business built on passion, heritage and sheer hard-work, and it is obvious that Marie-Hélène faces the sort of challenges other winemakers might not even consider, and the more I talk to her the more I admire and respect what she thinks that she is about.

 I ask her about the role of the ‘Friends’ in producing the wines, and she tells me that this is becoming less and less (this is a great shame because it's a selling point. I was also going to join). It’s mainly down to the growing age of the members and the difficulty in recruiting new members. 

 Her wines sell well despite the lasting impact that climate change seems to constantly have on a business with small margins like Domaine des Gabies, and through her furrowed brow she tells me that it’s a constant problem, but that she has made up her mind to adapt.

 I do wonder about the future and ask if there are any children to take over the mantle of leading the business in future years. She tells me that there are none, yet!

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Les Graulas Chardonnay 2021

 The first thing that comes along is a mixture of cream and frosting, like a Chantilly cream that has been put over the cake and then covered in icing sugar.

 There's a green fruity youthfulness and I quite enjoy what I’m getting

3.5 out of 7

Blanc d'O 2021

 The nose is fresh with wafts of soft green fruit waiting subtly, and the taste is a tropical fruit salad with pineapple and banana leading the way. Take your time and you'll find a lightness that makes this a wonderful wine to have on a beautiful summer's day.

5 out of 7

Les Graulas 2021 Rose.

 This Gamay number is quite a pretty little wine and I found it enjoyable. The strawberries and cream lead a parade of red fruit that are so gentle. They appear undemanding, but then make you take your time so you can decipher a range of flavours. The gentle overtures continue and I’m now getting redcurrant is a very enticing way!

5 out of 7

Les Graulas 2021 

 This red beauty looks so soft in the glass. I was getting the scent of tomato plant, red cherries, plums and lovely red fruit (raspberries mainly). For a newer operation, this wine is punching above its weight, and if this can be produced when conditions aren't perfect, then I'm coming back when there's a great year!

 There’s an unusual taste and a zing in the mouth that makes its presence known and the fruit seems to know how much potential it contains.

5 out of 7

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