Cloudless skies reign azure blue above vines whose leaves are turning autumn gold, with grapes ripe for the picking. It’s late August in Gascony and at the Domaine du Tariquet, just east of the small town of Eauze that serves as the capital of Armagnac, everyone is making final preparations for the harvest that will begin the following day—a week or so earlier than is customary in this beautiful region of southwest France. The same summer sunshine that has brought forward the vendange will make this year a vintage to be cherished. So much can go wrong in the cycle of wine production, from spring frosts to late summer hail storms, that when the grapes are safely gathered under enough sun to banish mildew and other blights, there’s a universal sigh of relief.

It’s a sigh that lasts less time than it takes to say vinification, the next and most important stage in the process of converting grapes into wine. At the château they are already preparing to receive the produce of 2,350 acres of vines—thousands of tons of grapes that will produce enough wine to fill more than eight million bottles. Owned by the Grassa family, Tariquet is France’s largest independent wine producer, and processing the harvest is a mammoth task. Most French wineries—even the fabled châteaux of Bordeaux—have a modest pressoir where the grapes are crushed and the resulting juice pumped into wooden casks or stainless steel containers to begin the miraculous process of fermentation that turns grape juice into wine.

At Tariquet, however, Europe’s largest pressoir boasts a lineup of eight giant pneumatic presses, each of which could handle the output of a standard-sized winery. Just across the yard, in a new, hangarlike structure nearing completion, they are installing a state-of-the-art mechanized bottling line that can fill, cap and capsule 10,000 bottles an hour. The near-laboratory sanitary conditions ensure that there is no contamination of the wine. Samples are taken regularly and subjected to four days of microbiological tests to confirm quality. Bottling is the final event—the coup de grâce—in a vinification process that is as old as the hills and, at Tariquet, as modern as the computers and sensors that monitor the flow of juice through the winery as it is converted into that alcoholic commodity we treasure as wine.

At a time when France’s tradition-bound wine industry is facing tough competition, particularly from the New World, Tariquet is ample proof that French winemakers can move with the times, embrace new ideas and technology, and compete with the best in the business. And, happily, the one person who can best appreciate what Tariquet has become is still around to witness it—the complete transformation of what was once a rundown, barely surviving Armagnac property with a scant dozen acres of vines. Pierre Grassa, now 95, was a French soldier who escaped from a POW camp in Germany and arrived in Gascony to fight with the Resistance. After the war he met and married Hélène Artaud,whose family owned the Tariquet estate, and together they set about reviving the business and restoring the small 17th-century château at the heart of the domaine. They are both still there, surrounded by a family that includes their son Yves, daughter Maïté—who now handles the estate’s finances and serves as company president—and grandsons Armin and Rémy, who manage the family affair.

Looking back it’s difficult to say just who was responsible for transforming Tariquet from a successful Armagnac business into a world-class winery, but many would agree that Yves Grassa can claim the lion’s share of the credit. By the time he and his sister Maïté took over in 1982, the Tariquet estate was ticking over nicely and the next generation could have settled for a steady but staid future as Armagnac producers. But the family motto, they say, is “let’s teach our children to disobey their parents,” and Yves did just that. Armagnac, like Cognac, is the product of distilled wine. Back in the 1980s, the Tariquet estate’s vines, like those of its neighbors, produced grapes solely to make wines that could be distilled into Armagnac. But Yves, who had studied winemaking in California, Australia and South Africa, had other ideas. Against his father’s counsel, he broke with the family tradition and decided to produce wines for their own sake, not just as the raw material for Armagnac.

It was a bold and risky move. The grapes that are used to make Armagnac—mainly ugni blanc and colombard—are not a winemaker’s favorites because of the same acidity that makes them a distiller’s dream. But Yves’s decision to start making wine luckily coincided with developments in vinification technology and know-how that would enable him to get away from traditional Gascon winemaking methods to make affordable, drinkable white wines that would showcase the essential freshness and lightness of his grapes. Temperature-controlled fermentation, reduced use of sulphites, and other modern improvements in winemaking enabled Yves to make light, fruity wines that rapidly found a market both locally and farther afield. Yves’s first experiment in 1982—a 100% ugni blanc wine—even made its way to the United States, where it was sold successfully under the Domaine de Pouy label, still one of Tariquet’s subdivisions.

Not satisfied with producing wine, Yves rolled the dice again and raised eyebrows in the region by acquiring more land to plant vines never before seen in Gascony: chardonnay, sémillon, chenin blanc, sauvignon and later the hybrid marselan.  And when he came to bottle the products of these grapes he put the varietal names on the label. Although Grassa was voted International Wine Challenge winemaker of the year in 1987, many predicted it would all end in tears. Some members of the French wine establishment scoffed that Grassa was seeking to become Gascony’s first Australian wine producer because of his willingness to break the rules. Others waited and watched, and during the 1992 harvest the doom sayers nearly had a catastrophe to savor. As pickers were finishing off the chardonnay harvest, black clouds rolled in from the West and a huge storm threatened. Next up were the sauvignon blanc grapes and in their rush to get them in before any damage was done, the harvesting crew mixed the two cépages—not all the grapes, but enough to cause a disaster if—as wine lore has long had it—chardonnay and sauvignon blanc just don’t get along with each other. As it turned out, the result of the blunder was an entente cordiale that worked so well Tariquet is still producing it—albeit with a few tweaks here and there to make sure each grape gives of its best. Now bearing the name Côté, the chardonnay-sauvignon blend is a firm favorite in French restaurants where its versatility allows it to be married with a wide range of dishes.

Since those experimental days, the Grassas have not looked back. Iconoclast Yves retired in 2008 and his sons Rémy and Armin continue in his footsteps with their aunt Maïté. Today the domaine’s range of both wines and Armagnacs has been expanded. Tariquet wines can now be found in some 54 countries, starting with Norway—for historic reasons Tariquet’s main export customer—and the US, which remains the second largest export market, with sales of around 600,000 bottles last year. “That’s good for us,” says export manager Julien Ducos, “because although wine consumption here in France is declining, in the States it’s on the up.”

For many winemakers the goal is to move upmarket, so they can make less wine and charge more. But Armin Grassa, whose responsibilities at Tariquet lean more towards the production side of the winery (although he and brother Rémy work together when it comes to the all-important vinification and assemblage side of things) is content to keep the focus at Tariquet on affordable, accessible wines that deliver value for money. “Wine,” he says, “is no longer an indispensable part of people’s lives as it was in times gone by. It’s an option and we must win our customers. That means mediocrity is not an option.”

That approach is evident throughout the winery, where the emphasis is on employing the latest techniques to ensure that Tariquet wines show at their best. Take, for example, the winery’s entry-level wine, sold under the Classic label. It’s a direct descendent of the 100% ugni blanc first produced by Yves back in 1982, although these days it contains 30% colombard. This bracing, crisp wine is at its best when drunk young, and it can lose some of its zest if it spends too long in the bottle. To prevent that, Tariquet refrains from bottling the year’s output of Classic all in one go. Instead, some of the wine is held back and stored at below-zero temperatures—but above wine’s freezing point of -5º C (23º F)—to keep those youthful flavors and aromas locked in. It is then bottled later, as it’s needed in the marketing year. “That makes for consistency,” explains Armin. “Customers get the same experience each time they open a bottle of Classic.”

Tariquet’s approach to Armagnac is much the same. Although the château is now bottling some of its Armagnac as individual vintages (the earliest currently available is the 1988), the mainstays of the Armagnac business are the consistent blends that range from a VS (as with Cognac, VS indicates “very special”, or three-star brandy) through to the award-winning flagship bottling called Le Légendaire, a beautifully crafted assemblage of spirits derived from ugni blanc, folle blanche and baco grapes. The baco is a hybrid varietal unique to Armagnac that imparts a smoothness found in no other brandy.

Today one problem is to satisfy its growing market in China while remaining faithful to its long-standing fan base in Europe and North America. “Everybody says that Armagnac is no longer fashionable, but that’s not our experience,” says Armin, noting that last year Tariquet sold 120,000 bottles of it. Still, since current trends seem to favor clear spirits over amber, Tariquet has pioneered a potion it calls simply Blanche—a clear white Armagnac based on folle blanche wine, bottled straight from the still, meant to be drunk chilled, either neat or in cocktails—not unlike vodka, but with more character and bite.

Next year family patriarch Pierre Grassa will preside over Tariquet’s centenary. The Grassa name was not yet associated with the property back in 1912, when Hélène’s grandfather—a one-time bear tamer from the Pyrenees returning home after living for many years in New York—bought Tariquet with the help of his New York-based son, Jean-Pierre Artaud. Jean-Pierre later fought for France in World War I; severely wounded, he suffered from amnesia for several years, and was only reunited with his wife Pauline in 1922. They eventually settled at Tariquet, Hélène was born, and when she married Pierre Grassa in 1946, a dynasty was launched.

Pierre Grassa’s parents were from the Pyrenees too, but from the other side, in Spain. It’s hard to know what all the forebears would make of newfangled technology, cold-storage wines and colorless brandy, but were they to see Tariquet now, they would undoubtedly raise a glass or two—Armagnac or wine—to its 21st-century success.

WINE

Only white wines, all classified as Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne, are bottled under the Tariquet label. Some red wine, mainly a merlot-syrah blend, is sold as Domaine du Mage. Other wines, in particular an ugni blanc-colombard blend, is sold in the US under the Domaine de Pouy label. The starred wines here are all available in the US, thanks to the enthusiasm of wine importer Robert Kacher (www.robertkacherselections.com).

Classic* The signature bottling of Domaine du Tariquet, a direct descendent of Yves Grassa’s first winemaking effort—now 70% ugni blanc, 30% colombard. “Respect for freshness and fruit characterizes all our wines,” says Armin Grassa.

Sauvignon* Floral as well as fruity. Tariquet wines are not made to be bottle aged.

Chenin-Chardonnay* The chenin grape (75%) dominates this blend, combining mineral notes with the roundness of the chardonnay.

Les 4 Réserve* After six months in barrels, four wines—gros manseng, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and sémillon—are blended to make this mellow, characterful wine. Hints of peaches and exotic fruits.

Chardonnay* Partly matured in oak barrels, buttery smoothness with a floral bouquet.

Côté* The famous chardonnay-sauvignon blend launched as a result of a blunder in the winery. These two grapes are not supposed to work together. This wine proves they can.

Rosé de Pressée* A blend of merlot, cabernet franc, syrah and tannat, with just enough skin coloring to produce a pink wine that shouts summer.

Chardonnay Tête de Cuvée A Burgundy-style chardonnay from old vines, aged in new oak barrels. Produced in small quantities and only in special years. Most recent vintage is 2009.

Les Premières Grives and Les Dernières Grives Two late-harvest wines, named for the thrushes that arrive with the first chills of autumn. Les Premières Grives is the first to be made, using very ripe gros manseng grapes that are nearly bursting their skins. Les Dernières is made in small quantities from petit manseng, the southwest’s answer to the sémillon of Sauternes.

Marselan Another rosé, made from the hybrid marselan grape, a cross between cabernet sauvignon and grenache noir. A more complex wine than Rosé de Pressée.

 

ARMAGNAC

The Grassa family have been building up their Armagnac stocks since Pierre and Hélène relaunched the business after World War II. Most of the spirit goes into various blends ranging from the entry  level Classique VS (aged for at least 3 years), through VSOP (7 to 8 years in 400-litre oak casks) to Hors d’Age or XO (at least 10 years in cask). At the top is the splendid Le Légendaire. In exceptional years Tariquet releases a single-vintage Armagnac that is not a blend of years—Armagnac’s answer to the single malts of Scotland. It also has a range of bottlings using only one type of grape (for example, classic Folle Blanche), while its so-called color collection spotlights Armagnac of a certain age: Orange (8 years old), Purple (12 years old) and Green (15 years old). All are 100% folle blanche-based and come—as do all of Tariquet’s brandies—from the domaine’s own vineyards in Bas-Armagnac.

Originally published in the October 2011 issue of France Today

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