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Fronton a lost region? (16-10-2007)
For many years I have been following the developments in the wine scene of Fronton (or Côtes du Frontonnais). Not as intensive as some other regions, but with a regular interest in the evolution of wine styles. This region, quite close to the principal town of South-Western France Toulouse, has something quite unique on offer. Its "own" native grape the Négrette. This black grape is thin skinned and produces rosé and red wines that are generally elegant, fresh, soft an very fruity in style. The aroma pattern is unique and could best be described as peppery-fruity (berries, cherries, plums), with balsamic and earthy (sometimes animal like) nuances. The majority of the red and rosé wines was (or probably still is) consumed in the nearby thirsty town of Toulouse. Export is becoming more and more important as the local and regional consumption of this wine declines. Besides, there is hardly any 100% pure Négrette wine on the market anymore. Most of the red wines are blends of Syrah, Gamay, Cabernet, Tannat and Duras. In combination with the soil of the vineyards and the specific climate these grapes all acquire a certain earthy rusticity. But there is also some warmth in most wines next to the sturdy or earthy style, aswell as freshness.
These wines are something in between the cool-Atlantic type and warm, South-Eastern or Midi type of wine. The grape mix resemblances to a certain extend these two worlds. Add to that the earthy and spicy, rustic touch and you have almost a good characterization of the southwestern French wines in general. Mind: there is a huge array of variations on this theme, but the undercurrent is unmistakable.
Fronton used to be the fruitiest and most elegant of all South-Western French wines like Bergerac, Gaillac, Duras, Buzet, Cahors, Côtes du saint Mont, Madiran, etc. Mainly due to the Négrette grape, but the trend towards more power and extract and the use of new wood has changed the style dramatically.
The quality of Fronton wines have been quite irregular, some very rustic and some technically problematic, but there was also a big volume of very sound and cheerful wines, mainly from the coops. Private producers did (and in fact still do) have a difficult time. You need a big investment to produce regularly modern and good quality wines. For a big investment you need good prices and for good prices you need a reputation and quality. Some Fronton producers have been making very sound wines, the best known are Bellevue la Fôret and Le Roc, but there are some other good producers. This spring I tasted a series of Fronton wines from 4 producers.
They can be divided in two groups: producing elegant and supple "classical" wines (a cross between Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Midi and Beaujolais) and producers of big and strong, earthy wines (not unlike Madiran).
Château Clos Mignon is a typical producer of the elegant and fruity type, Château Clamens and Domaine Saint-Guilhem adhere to a more extracted, bold and strong style. Château Coutinel seems to have a bit of both worlds.
The Coutinel rosé is light, fresh, elegant and superbly fruity, the reds tend toward more power, but are relatively supple and easy on the palate. At Coutinel they seem to know exactly how to make the wine they want, the "Elixir" is clearly aimed at the American market showing copious amounts of luscious, toasted wood, but with a rich suppleness and also still a good dose of fruit. A modern inclination of Fronton, very well executed, but perhaps a little less interesting than some very good, but more "original" wines from other producers.
The wines of Clos Mignon, both red and rosé show a unique combination of delicious clean and honest fruit, freshness, elegance, suppleness, with an intriguing earthy, spicy and balsamic touch, making them both delicious and easy to drink as well as showing a distinctive expression of its terroir and grapes. These wines are my personal favorite especially the red "Tradition". I love the combination of honest, straight and completely natural character with the delicious fruit and soft mid palate. The excellent balance is adding to the enjoyment when drinking these wines.
The wines of Château Clamens clearly shows the producer's strong determination to produce very good quality wines. These are quite ambitious wines and some of them show too much of it for my personal taste, too much wood and extract make the top range wines quite impressive, but quite hard for me to appreciate. On the other hand the "Sélection" is a very well made and honest, strong wine with ample personality, the medium level wines (Cuvée Julie) also show very good quality and impressive terroir with loads of earthy fruit and balsamic nuances. This is a serious producer to watch closely.
Perhaps the most singular wines of the tasting came from Domaine Saint-Guilhem. If you do not like strong wines these will not be your kind at all, but if you do and if you love intensity, power, earthy and strong tannins, and loads and loads of rustic fruit, this could be your producer. Not all wines were perfect, but especially the "Amadeus" range was quite impressive. Objectively the most beautiful of all, not the most ambitious however (considering the amount of wood), but a really great wine with an impressive intensity and symphony of aromatic nuances (albeit a bit rustic) and an impeccable balance. The Amadeus range shows great wines are not only made in reputed regions, but only by very strongly motivated, serious producers with old vineyards (grapevines) on a very good terroir and in a good vintage. Regularly you taste in a certain wine how heavilly underrated its' region is. This certainly is the case with this Fronton.
Again, Fronton is absolutely not a homogeneous A.C. in terms of quality, but there are many gems to be found. Most Fronton producers have a hard time struggling to survive in this unkind world, but they deserve recognition for the quality they produce. The unique style of the wines is making it more difficult to sell as this is not the fashionable style of the moment, but discerning wine buyers should also look here to find the wines that will spice-up their wine portfolio, offering their clients a chance to discover a small part of the exciting world of wine.
If you can sell Madiran, you can sell the wines of Château Coutinel, Clamens and Domaine Saint-Guilhem, if you can sell unique and delicious wines with an unmatched character you can sell the wines of Château Clos Mignon too. With these wines you have something very different from the rest, something that is highly exciting.
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