Madiran in the Haute Pyrenees is an ideal spot to escape and unwind. And, if you visit in August, the village enjoys a vibrant, high summer wine festival
The wine region takes its name from the small village of Madiran that sits quietly in its central valley. The village's few narrow streets of stirred-honey colour stone buildings and minimal traffic make it a real pleasure to amble around. Among the houses you will come across an ancient covered market place, a boulangerie (warning - croissants and pain au chocolat sell out quickly) and a walnut tree lined square ready for boules. Moving slightly uphill to the 11th century church and Prieurie Restaurant affords a view back over the fall of village roofs. How many lovers have scuttled over them while escaping from enraged husbands?
Take a seat at the Prieurie's vine covered terrace and dither over dining decisions or make a plan for a tour of local vineyards.
A tour of the vineyards
You are in the heart of the Tannat grape country and all around the village the regiments of vines seem to march right down to the wall of the Pyrenees. The increasingly popular high tannin grape from these vines produces a full bodied, high alcohol wine that will yield deep, deep aromas. A visit to one of the many local cellars that are on every road or track, will show you the wines ageing in oak barrels. This helps soften the tannins whilst boosting the nose of the wines.
An obligatory tasting session will allow you to explore the variety of blends through to the 100% Tannat "heavies". These are fireside wines and an excellent partner to roast beef, boar or venison. Most vineyards will also have some white wines, so rinse your palate, and savour the Pachrenc. These light whites are ideal for summer riverside picnics.
Alain Brumont (www.brumont.fr) is the internationally known local producer; however I particularly enjoy a visit to Chateau Viella (www.chateauviella.com) about 10km away from Madiran. Spend half an hour on the vineyard walk up to the beautifully restored chateau before a more serious exploration of their wines.
Nearby is Chateau Laffitte-Teston (www.chateau-laffitte-teston.com), again a beautifully restored chateau where you can take in the cellars before enjoying a comprehensive wine tasting. I always pay them an early visit and pick up a case of their smooth Reflet du Terroir.
Visiting individual growers like this can always throw up a surprise find but if you don't feel like driving more than a few kilometres then I suggest a trip to the co-operative at nearby Crouseilles through which a wide selection of both small and large Vignerons sell.
The Fete du Vin
Alternatively you can plan to visit in mid August and book your taste buds a ticket for Madiran's Fete du Vin.
Like an uncorked champagne bottle the peace is disturbed as 1,200 people erupt on to the streets of this small peaceful village. Organised by the grandly titled Syndicat du Defense du Vins du Madiran at the humble address of 4, rue de l'Eglise, Madiran, the crowds transform the village into a carnival celebrating the wine and food of the local region. You don't need a map - just follow the sound of corks and bottles.
On the main site some 30 or so local producers will have set up tasting desks around which you can mingle, take a glass or try local specialities. It is an ideal time to get in a first tasting and caters for both the regular tippler as well as the professionals. Take your time over a few vintages and, if you are happy, then buy a case there and then. Alternatively arrange to visit the vineyard in a few days time.
While you are mingling I strongly recommend that you keep an eye on a seat at one of the long tables. The Syndicat will put on a sizeable spread of local pates, confit du canard and slices of beef - just a little something to balance the wines. Once serving begins, seats go quickly and you are likely to find you and your friends are mixed in with French, Germans, Dutch, English, Spanish and the odd stray Belgian. A cosmopolitan savouring of the Tannat grape. And this being France, children are allowed to fully partake.
The ticket for dinning in 2009 was €20 for food and €3 for a glass (which enables you to taste all the wines on offer).
Where to stay
I usually stay at Le Prielle some 3km outside Madiran.The owners, Mr and Mrs Appleby, have four excellent giites around their 18th century fortified farmhouse. The giites provide both a retreat for relaxing with book and bottle in hand as well as plenty of space for children to play football, rugby or put up a net for badminton. There is also a pool (with fantastic views down to the Pyrenees) for helping ease out the tannins and work off the rich foods. The Applebys also tend to help with the set up of the Fete so will have a good idea of what is going on and if any particular grower is being talked about locally.
The commune of Madiran also support a large outdoor pool, indoor and outdoor tennis courts plus a small camp site with volleyball pitch.
If you are unable to make mid August then many of the vineyards throw open their doors in mid to late November for tasting sessions. These Journees Portes Ouverts involve some food and a presentation by the Vigneron. They tend to be priced around €15 per person but you will need to check with the vineyard before.
Madiran is well served by airports. Tarbes and Pau (for Lourdes) are under an hour away, whilst Bordeaux, Biarritz and Toulouse are two hours away. These airports are served by both the budget airlines and national carriers.
As it is easy to get to, you should be breaking into a good book with a mellow glass of the smoked-oak aroma red wine by mid-afternoon.