MIREPOIX, France (Reuters) - With the Pyrenees mountain range firmly set on the southern horizon, a few enthusiastic vintners are trying to resuscitate a local wine-growing tradition that has been lost for many decades.
"We were four at the start. Only one of us was already a wine-maker, I was in agriculture. We just could not understand why Ariege was the only area in France without vines while it had been an important producer in the past," said Philippe Babin, one of the pioneers and a former vegetable seed grower.
He said the fledgling movement had little support at the start but that older local people would tell them how vines used to run everywhere in the region. Abandoned wine presses and barrels for making wine can still be found on many local farms.
"We encountered a lot of skepticism but in the end, wine is the noblest product of a region and we felt that Ariege merited wine," Babin said.
On the other side of the Pyrenees, the sunny side in Spain, there are the wines from Navarra and Rioja. To the east lie the French vineyards of Corbieres and the cotes de Malepere, while Irouleguy in the Basque country and Madiran lie to the west.
Here in the Ariege region, the vines had been uprooted to make place for grain farms for bread in Toulouse and to feed the cattle in the gentle plains along the river Hers, which meanders past the Mediaeval town of Mirepoix, best-known for its carved wooden arcades along the central square.
The Ariege's Mediterranean climate provides good conditions for growing vines with its warm days, while the cool mountain air helps to concentrate flavor in the grapes.
"The nearby mountains provide cold nights and it is that daily difference in temperatures that makes the grapes retract at night, putting a concentration of taste and color in the skins," Babin said.
There had been vineyards here since Roman times and in the Middle Ages monks of the abbey of Saint-Antonin-de-Frédélas (Pamiers) made wines that were transported over the Ariege and Garonne rivers to Bordeaux and even made the sea crossing to England. In 1876, the director of a local model state farm replanted vines and there was a new boom.
The phylloxera 'wine pest' at the end of the 19th century and an exodus of people from this rural area to work in manufacturing up north during the age of industrialization, sounded the death knell for vines and by 1960 there was only a little production left for family use.
That was the state of play until Babin and the other Ariege "pioneers" re-planted vines and obtained a local IGP (Indication Geographique Protegee) wine classification from the agriculture authorities in 1998. The first harvest was in 2000.
The area is small and production limited. There are some six producers who work on 60 hectares of vineyards on chalky clay ground. The Mediterranean climate provides dry winters and warm summers. In 2009, they made 1,800 hectolitres, of which 75 percent was red wine, 15 percent rose and 10 percent white.
By contrast, the Bordeaux vineyards stretch for 59,000 hectares.
"It was only in 2008 that the revenues of the year were sufficient to cover the costs of that year, all the other years we had to add money," said Babin.
His Coteaux d'Engravies domain now makes some 20 to 25,000 bottles per year and he hopes to arrive at 30-35,000 in 2013 as younger vines come on stream.
Meanwhile the wines have won awards and positive mentions in wine guides such as Hachette or Hugh Johnston. American importer Jeffrey Alpert distributed some Ariege wine to New York restaurants and there were exports to Japan, Austria and Denmark.
"All the producers here have about the same volumes as I do and that is not sufficient for real exports. Alpert took some boxes and the next year he asked for 20,000 bottles, that is almost all the production," Babin said.
Most of the wines go to restaurants and some are sold in the Super-U supermarket in Mirepoix. They sell at around 10 euros ($13.22) per bottle.
VARIETY OF GRAPES
Despite the small production, there is a rich variety of grapes.
The whites can use 15 different grapes which include the well-known Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay Gris, Semillon, Chenin and Viognier. There are also the more ancient grapes such as Arrufiac, Camaralet de Lasseube, Courbu, petit and gross Manseng, Mauzac or Ondenc. These come from the nearby Bearn region and can trace their roots back to the 17th century.
In the reds there are the superstars Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, Gamay, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Cot, petit Verdot and the lesser-known locals Fer, Tannat, and Tempranillo from Spain.
Babin is now experimenting with old Ariege grapes that are not yet allowed to be used in the wines. It will take a few more years before he could present them for acceptance by the authorities.
"We have that gap in our local memory of wine-making, we have to rediscover how the grapes develop in this particular climate," Babin said.
The wines are assembled and the vintner can compose the taste of the wine by using various percentages of the grape varieties. The reds are fresh, pleasant in the mouth with fruity tastes. The whites reveal the minerals of the soil.
"The wines are very similar to Malepere or Corbieres, but due to the mountains we have a bit more concentration in taste, a bit more color and some more acidity and also sugar, a better balance" Babin said.
($1 = 0.7566 euros)
(Editing by Paul Casciato)