Exploring Madiran: The Uncut Diamond of France’s Wine Regions

By | 28 March 2024

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.

Have you ever asked yourself, “What on earth is Madiran?” This question, I wager, is frequently posed in various parts of the world for two reasons. Reason the first: a bottle of Madiran is unintentionally purchased and there’s general confusion surrounding both its origins and characteristics. Reason the second: the said bottle gets uncorked and the wine poured is so staggeringly unique, robust, and thought-provoking that the drinkers are left shell-shocked, staring at each other uncomprehendingly and repeating the question, “What on earth is this?”

To provide clarity, here are some insights about Madiran. First and foremost, it’s a lesser known wine mainly because production is limited to only around 1,400ha (3,450 acres) dedicated to red wine in the appellation area. This puts it roughly on par with Vacqueyras in the Southern Rhône. The white wines from the same region bear the name Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, as highlighted in WFW issue 80. Moreover, Madiran is part of the sprawling South West France wine region, home to 29 AOC wines and 13 IGP wines, some of which are mired in deep obscurity.

There are additional obstacles. Madiran is not widely exported, with 80% of its production being consumed within France, with every fifth bottle being sold directly from the winery. The region implementing the appellation is divided across three French départements: Gers, Pyrenées-Atlantiques, and Haute-Pyrenées, leading to numerous administrative complications. Besides, the region is far from being solely focused on wine-making, with other agricultural ventures such as duck-rearing, kiwi farming, and cereal and corn seed production being equally lucrative.

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. 

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.

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.

Simon Field MW discovered an enticing complexity of “dark fruits, Asian spice, and a deep, smoky persistence. The intensity is invigorating and resounds from the very early years,” he perceived, and “the quality showcased was consistently excellent.” David Williams also remarked on “the enchanting aspects of the finest Madiran: the faintly austere, autumnal flavor profile, the impression of a certain type of enigmatic yet dynamic energy, the sheer deep, sometimes bloody, intensity.” Looking at the scores, you’ll notice that four wines achieved aggregate scores of 93 or higher (classifying them as “remarkable wines of exceptional beauty and eloquence”), while both Simon and I rated even higher: He marked four wines with a score of 94, one at 95, and one at 96, while I scored two 94s, four 95s, and one 96. These are indeed impressive results for a relatively small tasting of 25 lesser-known regional French wines.

David Williams harbored deep reservations about the rugged style of Madiran, which he assumed might be challenging in settings other than Gascon banquets. This is indeed a key Madiran question. From my standpoint, the human taste bud is a more receptive organ than we perceive. A world that relishes andouillettes, pig’s trotters, tripe, sea cucumbers, and Big Mac triple cheeseburgers, alongside a drinking universe that includes Fernet-Branca, Cynar, cask-strength Laphroaig, and a double ristretto can likely handle a glass filled with fruity fire, wildness, and frenzy. Give it a shot.

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

A deep saturated color. From the aroma alone, hints of impending maturity are detectable, alongside a plentiful supply of red and black fruit. A highly appealing and positive connection is demonstrated here: The features that may be identified as “sauvage” seem mild, while the aspects that merely represent ripe fruit exhibit an intriguing complexity, although they may be difficult to decipher. A wine that pairs well with food, thick, and satisfying; characteristically strong in both spirit and purpose. | 94

AJ | This wine boasts a dark, rich color and is still intensely opaque at core. It’s aroma is fresh and lively, encapsulating the essence of forest plum, prune, smoke, earth, and stone – painting a perfect picture of a classic Madiran. On the palate, it is rich and full-bodied with a touch more ripeness than some. Yet, it vibrates with bold flavor, becoming a treat to the senses with its stony, powerful, and long finish. This fine specimen of a wine has a promising 20 years ahead, and while some may find it less refined, it’s hard not to enjoy its pure Madiran experience. The quality of the fruit used is undeniable. To be enjoyed from 2024 to 2044. | 94

DW | Nearly as young as it was six years ago, this wine is still a visual delight with its density and opacity. It is packed with hefty tannins, giving it a robust and contrasting texture. However, what sets it apart is the sudden gust of freshness, resembling a mountain breeze. This freshness lingers with the fruit through the long, salty, savory, and chewy finish. | 93

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

SF | This wine captivates with its deeply saturated color and refined, sophisticated nose. It exudes notes of minerals and smoke, all while telling stories of pine forests and forgotten furniture in old buildings. The impressive palate structure sees acids and tannins in perfect harmony, soaring to a pure crescendo finish that becomes a testament to its quality. With its multi-layered profile and exquisite construction, it is a wine crafted 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 | The hues in this eight-year-old wine are remarkable, dense enough to require an LED torch for any light to pass. A fascinating scent hits the nose – half comforting like a teddy bear, half wild like a wolf. An enticing mixture of sweetness and savagery that combines to create an intoxicating aroma of honey, herbs, woodland flora and danger – both alluring and unsettling. A unique olfactory sensation that stands out amongst wines. Truly commendable effort – well done! The palate is powerful, profound, and resourced, though the formidable tannins present a sense of verticality. This, in turn, imparts a sheer quality to the fruit, making it slightly pushing. This splendid wine has just the right amount of oak and is still in its youth, with at least a good 25 years ahead. It also exhibits a kind of purity, lacking the earthiness and rusticity found in some top wines – it’s up to individual preference whether this is beneficial or not. Regardless, it remains a magnificent embodiment of the French countryside. Serve between 2024 and 2050. | 95

DW | Even after all these years, it still maintains its vivid brightness and opaque appearance. The palate is densely loaded with tiny dark berries, black cherries and the most bitter chocolate. It even has an animalistic wildness similar to Carignan, a blend of meatiness and mystery… followed by a burst of intense tannin. There are many more years for this bold and substantial wine. | 92

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

SF | Dark throughout, this wine offers no hints of its secrets. Scents of indoor plants and the garrigue, explosive fireworks and rich dark chocolate; it slowly reveals its mysteries, resulting in a masterful blend. The austerity of the Tannat is softened and given a wider, more expressive outlet by the lesser contributors. Being massively tannic and power-packed, this is one to be enjoyed over the years. | 94

AJ | Sumptuous, profound and intense as midnight. Redolent of plump autumnal wild-plum fruits, overlaid with earthy undertones of leaf litter and humus. This is the scent of a Gascon autumn in a glass. Brilliant and intriguing—I eagerly anticipate the first sip. Deep, abundant, vibrant, and layered. A riot of Gascony’s potency, placed halfway between the robust power of Château Barréjat Cuvée des Vieux Ceps 2020 and the elegant, profound purity of Domaine Berthoumieu Madiran La Fé 2020. While it doesn’t quite match their intensity—it stands on its own as an exquisite Madiran, embodying the essence of this exceptional wine. Less laden than Château Barréjat Tradition 2020, but perhaps showcasing purer, more sophisticated fruits. Great for 2025–40. | 92

DW | Perfumed: cassis and crème de cassis, luscious, lively, fresh, dark fruit in a wine of light-and-shade contrast, bearing dense damson and mulberry fruit on the palate, a thread of mineral acidity, and then bountiful, sinewy, mature tannins and a brisk, red-fruited finish. | 93

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

SF | Onyx black. A nose of soot and cassis, carrying with it hints of medieval apothecary and a medicine cabinet. The tannins appear a bit more mellow initially, possibly due to microoxygenation, before they assert their dominance. This is more than youthful; it’s an embryo, an unyielding declaration of intent, determined to preach the gospel of Tannat with fervent impetuousness and the reverse is valid. | 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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