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My best meal of 2007 was enjoyed in the Gers, a region of France 90 minutes west of Toulouse and about the same southeast of Bordeaux. Forty-seven euros (about $70) secured my date and me three courses, an aperitif, half a litre of wine, and, to finish, Armagnac and coffee. We lingered over it all for three-and-a-half hours on the last Sunday in September.
The Gers is the most isolated part of Gascony, an ancient land of parallel river valleys and big green hills rolling down from the Pyrenees; it’s dotted with ruined Roman villas and tiny fortified towns with Saturday morning markets. Deeply rural, it’s the heart of La France Profonde and teems with ducks, geese, and veal calves.
Our meal was at the Gesta family’s farm restaurant, where they specialize in meat cooked over an open wood fire. The menu, typical of Gascon restaurants, is devoted to duck, which is as integral to local heritage as the Three Musketeers. There’s a “hambeur Gers”—foie gras sandwiched between slices of duck breast—and even a festival, the carcassade, devoted to duck carcasses.
Our meal began with a choice of red or white floc, the Gascon aperitif, which prepared us for a salade Gasconne—a large plate with scant lettuce but duck seven ways: heart stuffed with foie gras, breast stuffed with foie gras, neck stuffed with leg meat and foie gras, smoked breast, gésiers (giblets), skin, and duck sausage. Then, along came toast spread with foie gras, but by this point I, too, was stuffed.
Next, half a grilled duck breast arrived, served steak-style. Crispy on the outside and blood-red in the middle, it was paired with a potato gratin cooked (no prize for guessing) in duck fat. Dessert is basic—ice cream, chocolate mousse, or lemon tart—and homemade.
The Gesta house wine is the local Côtes de Gascogne, white or red. Not so long ago, the region produced swill for local drinking, mainly from white grapes like Colombard or Ugni Blanc intended for Armagnac. These are still found, but now there are some wonderfully tangy, zesty whites like the Domaine Sancet, a perennial under-$10 favourite at the LDB, and the delicious Gros Manseng Sauvignon Blanc blend from Alain Brumont.
Brumont—fiery, passionate—is the leading producer of Madiran at his winery south of the Gesta farm. He breaks all the rules, but only in order to express the terroir, the Gascon hills that inspire him. His grape is Tannat: red, tough, and tannic, astringently aggressive. Before him, Madiran was just about undrinkable—as tannic as stewed tea when young, and as withered as a dried-out raisin when old. But over the last 25 years, Brumont has bent it to his will; he now makes at least five different Madirans, matching grape to terroir and technique. Blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, he gives us Torus, a new-generation Madiran, which is supple, sensuous, and ready to drink. His Château Montus Cuvée Prestige is all Tannat—meaty, earthy, stony, and good for years.
Despite the duck diet, Gascons are reportedly the healthiest people in France. Some say it’s the hard agricultural work; others, the daily dose of cabbage soup. But I’d like to think (and the science magazine Nature backs me up) that it’s the Tannat grape fighting off all that duck fat—the miracle cure of Madiran.
Three offerings from the Madiran alchemist, Alain Brumont
A fabulous summer wine that blends the local with the international in roughly equal proportions. The Gascon Gros Manseng contributes a tangy, honeyed richness while the Sauvignon Blanc sharpens the quince and apricot flavours with a big burst of lemon and lime. Too bad it’s twice the price this side of the Atlantic. $15.99
Brumont calls Torus a concept wine—a deliberate way to make Madiran more modern and versatile, juicy and full of guts. It’s meaty and savoury, shimmering with blueberry and black-currant fruit, powerful but sheathed in velvet. Surprisingly forgiving, Torus doesn’t need meat but works well with Mediterranean-inspired vegetable dishes. $21.99
One of Brumont’s top wines, this is pure Tannat—black, inky, and mineral, with plenty of life for a few years yet. The Prestige has brooding dark fruit that smoulders with gamy mushroom and leather, with length to spare. Even at the price, it’s a bargain compared to any top Bordeaux. Pair it with a simple grilled duck breast—just the thing. $72.99