Small, Obscure and Super Tasty: A Gaillac Organic Winery Tour
Gaillac is one of the oldest wine regions in France, yet it is little known outside France. But if you like your wine organic, and your organic winery small and fuss-free, an organic winery in Gaillac might be one of the best places to visit. We recently returned from our annual visit to Occitanie, and among other touristing, we finally visited an organic winery!
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Where is Gaillac?
Established by the Phoenicians 200-400 years BC, Gaillac was once one of three large Gallic wine regions. However, a vine-killing winter over 300 years ago and a bout of phylloxera infestation let the region slide into oblivion… almost. It is now a rather obscure region with just over 100 vineyards. Most are open to the public and very little visited. The variety in landscape, along with low- key hill towns and unassuming towns make for a nice day – or week- of wine tasting.
What kind of wine can you expect in Gaillac?
Gaillac produces about 60% red, 30% white and 10% rose wines. The region was awarded an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) certification in 1938. The area divided into three terroirs: The Rive Droite (Right Bank) of the River Garonne, in the South, considered by some the best, comprising clay and limestone soil and known for elegant white wines.
The Rive Gauche (Right Bank) at lower altitude and further north, stretches into the Tarn Valley. It has more sandy and pebbly ground. This is traditionally the terroir for bouncy red wines. It also has the largest number of vineyards.
Last not least, in the north of the region is the Plateau Cordais, the highest region, producing all types of wine. While the other two regions may be better known, the Plateau Cordais has the most varied rolling hills scenery and two beautiful small hill towns, Castelnau-de-Montmiral and Cordes-sur-Ciel. There are two small satellite regions, Lavaur and Cabanes, but they only have one or two vineyards, none of them organic.
The Grapes of Gaillac Wine
In terms of grape varieties, there are no big surprises – the traditional red wines are made from Duras, Fer Servadou and Syrah, while Bordeaux Classics of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are gown in smaller proportions.
From my amateur point of view, Gaillac wines are great wines for everyday drinking, and bottles can be bought for 4-5 EURO in Supermarkets. Wine from an organic winery may cost a little more, but starting at 7 EURO per bottle, is definitely affordable. Their red in particular is easy-drinking and fresh, great for summer and barbecue. This is how I first started… drinking the very reasonable “Chateau Cardboard” on my father-in-laws terrace and toasting with the local Methode Ancestrale sparkling wine! However, you cannot do Gaillac justice if you don’t try what is on offer through the entire spectrum. This time, I wanted to try the wine at the source, in particular organic wine.
Where to Start your tour of an organic winery?
If you want to get an overview before choosing an organic winery or a few, I suggest start your tour in Albi or Gaillac, one of the centres of the wine region. From Toulouse you can easily get to both towns on the hourly train, but from there, you will really need a car or some very strong legs and a bicycle, as there is very little public transport.
We visited a restaurant in Gaillac, “Au Fil de Saisons”, which advocates local wines and where for 4 or 5 EURO, you will not only get a glass of wine with your meal, but a lecture and a number of wines to choose from. They also have a lot of material by way of maps and brochures of vineyards, which the Tourist Offices sometimes don’t have. Oh, and the Food is not too bad, either.
I picked up the excellent free “Vins de Gaillac” Map there to help plan your trip. It currently lists 102 vineyards, of which 18 produce organic wine – this makes finding an organic winery and planning a tour of them quite easy.
When to visit
Most wineries are open to the public Monday to Saturday from around 9 -18, with a two hour lunch break. Don’t expect tours and a visitors programme though. They are small, family-run and concentrate on producing and selling great wine. You might well get the owner of the organic winery welcoming you to the tasting room and giving you a lesson with each glass, but there are no organised tours. The best would be to come as a small group, call beforehand and ask if a tour is possible, then buy a lot of wine. Since you cannot get it outside the region easily, it makes perfect sense to stock up if you find a wine you like. In all vineyard, we were the only visitors, or maybe with two or three other people – in the middle of July. Oh, and going during grape harvest in September-October is not the best time, either, because they are incredibly busy then.
But now lets start the tour.
The Rive Droite
We started early morning with the furthest way from Cordes-sur-Ciel, where we were based. Once past Gaillac, the lovely varies scenery becomes a bit more monotonous, but full of vines. Just across the motorway lies Domaine Rotier in flat terrain, with vines as far as you can see. One of the owners welcomed us and swiftly pulled out a few bottles from the fridge and took us through his list of all-organic wines. The winery dates back to 1975 although vines have been grown in the terroir for hundreds of years, and became a fully organic winery in 2009.
They produce just 170000 bottles per year, 85% of which stay in France.
We particularly liked Les Gravels, an unassuming fresh white made from Loin de l’Oeil and 20% Sauvignon Blanc grapes. It is matured in steel tanks. You won’t find much Loin de l’Oeil outside Southwest France. Perfect for drinking absentmindedly while waiting for the barbeque to heat up. Then to switch to Esquisse once dinner is ready. It’s one of very few reds I would be happy to drink in warm weather. It’s 90% local Duras grape with a bit of Syrah, light and fresh and naturally free of sulfites. Whether these claims about sulfites and headaches are true, join the control group, drink sulfite-free wine.
The Rive Gauche
Moving on, into slightly more exciting scenery, we went up to Domaine d’Escausses. They are the only one on our tour not to be certified organic. However, The Balaran Family, which runs Domaine d’Escausses and Chataeu Enclos des Roses not only have a have a reputation to produce excellent wines, they are also involved in sustainable production and are bearers of the highest High Environmental Value Certificate, which recognises sustainable agricultural practice and environmentally friendly farming.
They are especially known for sparkling wine made by the ancestral method, which is why we included them in the trip.
The location is beautiful, too, on a hillside surrounded by vineyards. When we walked in, some French guys were just carrying a case of wine out, and then we were alone with one of the family members – who spoke almost no English like we speak almost no French. Still, we managed to try the excellent sparkling wine – well worth the drive and our pathetic effort at speaking French.
The winery is more like a working farm, including some very friendly sheep. It’s very low-key despite their excellent reputation, and sadly, there is little to see in terms of winemaking but more to try. I am not sure what the etiquette is in other vineyards in France and worldwide, but here you could happily drink your way through all their offerings for free.
Just 4km on, on the next hilltop, was our next destination, the all-organic Domaine Brin. From afar, it looked like a small holiday lodge that was closing after the summer, but as soon as we pitched up, an elderly lady, speaking only French, of course, turned up and unlocked the cave-like tasting room. Also a family estate, its very young winemaker, Damien Bonnet, started producing organic wines here in 2008, and today the entire este is organic.
Again, there was very little opportunity to see the cellars, which spirited away somewhere on the estate. All I know is that they apply some very interesting ageing methods here. This includes clay amphoras, not unlike in Georgia, for their eponymous “Amphora” Red.
We tried the wines below, both easy drinking wines as it was thirty degrees outside. La Vie en Rose, made from local Duras grape, matured in small steel tanks and practically sulfite-free. The other one, Pierres Blanches, a superb crisp white from local Mauzac and Len de L’Oeil and matured in barriques.
After this, we needed to lie down, really. It was lunch time and the wineries were closing for their lunch break. After trying to eat in one of the country house restaurant mid week (bad idea) and not wanting to return to Gaillac, we just bought two lemon tarts and come fresh bread and went home!
We were stone cold sober, well-fed and well rested in the early afternoon continue. If there is one winery in particular that is mentioned when Gaillac is mentioned, it has to be Domaine Plageoles. Not only are they regional pioneers of organic viniculture, they produce some award-winning wines well known beyond Gaillac. They’ve been going for over 200 years and are now in the seventh generation of wine making. It started with Robert Plageoles planting long-forgotten local grapes in the 1980’s and turning them into award-winning wine. Now his son and grandsons continue with over fifteen wines and an excellent Methode Ancestrale sparkling wine.
Despite their relativ fame, the winery is quiet. They just have a slightly bigger tasting room than the others, a bit more decoration, but are just as down to earth as the rest of them. The wines cost a little more, although the prices you see on the bottles below are Magnum bottles. They are by no means as pricey as their high reputation might suggest.
We walked away with a bottle of Mauzac Nature, a dry sparkling wine, and Contre Pied Blanc.
I was particularly curious about this one, because the relatively young Chateau d’ Arlus, founded in 2000, is owned and run by a German, and its website is staunchly in German only. Unfortunately, when we pitched up there, it was locked up, so no wine to try. We drove through the incredibly sparsely populated area on the way to our last winery for the day.
Chateau de Mayragues
This one didn’t even have an easy to locate address. After driving round the pretty hill town of Castelnau de Montmiral a bit, we turned onto a tiny track and found this beauty, about 8km from town.
As we stood in front of the large shed that houses the winery, we were beckoned over to view the extraordinary 12th Century chateau, now a private residence with Bed and Breakfast.
This tiny winery is also the only one where you get direct access to its tanks and its modest storage facillity.
And of course, there is the wine. It got all a bit blurred a this stage, as the owner, who must be in his 80s, started to pour the wine and with every glass, he poured himself a generous one, too. I’m sorry, I cannot even remember which one we bought. Their organic winery is one of the oldest of Gaillac, producing organic wine since 1999.
By the time we ambled out of Chateau Mayragues, it was closing time, so we had no time left to try an organic winery close to come. We will try next time, as five of the twenty-two wineries listed on the Plateau Cordais are organic. So, here is a nice picture of Cordes instead, taken relatively early the next morning.
Here is a handy map of the wineries we visited.
How to get to Gaillac
The most convenient airport is Toulouse, just under an hour away. Gaillac is well served by trains from Toulouse and Albi, which run at least hourly. More info at SNCF or Trainline. Both let you book trains easily in your preferred language for many European rails network at no extra cost. You will need your own transport to tour the wineries.
The smaller airports of Rodez-Aveyron, Cracassonne and Beziers are about 2-3 hours from Gaillac.
Where to Stay
As we usually stay with my family, I haven’t tried any accommodation in the region other than on a stopover in Toulouse here and there. Many accommodation is private farms and holiday homes. Here are my top picks
Clos St Blaise near Albi: A beautiful mansion with modern renovation. It is 7km from Albi. The best is its price – about 100EURO per night for five-star comfort!
L’Autre Rive is another stunning top-class Bead and Breakfast with beautiful landscaped pool, spa and extensive gardens, set in a villa in walking distance to the Cathedral in Albi.
In Cordes-sur-Ciel, I would probably stay at Le Secret du Chat – it’s another upmarket B&B in the low-lying part of Cordes. Though on a main road, you should be spared the biggest crowds, and those views are still stupendous.
Some wineries will also offer accommodation – the one on our list is Chateau de Mayragues, where you’ll sleep in a 12th century castle just 100m from the tasting room – great for drinking your way through their entire repertoire without having to worry about driving home.
Where to Eat
Though not unpleasant, Gaillac is the least attractive of towns in the area. It somehow manages to offer many great food options.
As mentioned above, Au Fil des Saisons in Gaillac is a central, unpretentious restaurant which serves a fine menu for 18 EURO on a weekday and wine from almost all Gaillac producers – there is almost nothing you can do wrong here. You’ll find somewhat more refined surroundings at La Verrerie on the outskirts of Gaillac, at only slightly higher prices, although they’re somewhat less passionate about the wines and all about the food.
In Albi, I recommend Au Hibou – a tiny quirky cafe/restaurant on the market square, serving a small menu of exceptional freshly prepared seasonal produce. There are many more, including the Michelin-starred L’Epicurien. Total madness, but you can get a three-course weekday lunch for 22EURO. I’ve yet to find a really good restaurant in Cordes-sur-Ciel. The Patisserie Moulin right in the centre (by the bus stop/market) is good and has decent sandwiches.
How to get the Gaillac Wine home
Yeah, here’s the sticky bit – they will ship wine within Europe but it’s super expensive. I watched with sadness the Frenchmen carrying a case or two out of Domaine D’Escausses, from where it would no doubt go in their cellar to be enjoyed later. We started buying a bottle at most vineyards. We felt bad for taking their valuable time yet being unable to buy much of their very good products. As we went from winery to winery, we bought so much that we couldn’t possibly drink it in two days. So we took an old suitcase out of retirement to carry a few bottles as checked luggage. Unless you live in mainland France where most wineries will deliver for free, the best way, really, is come by train or car and take all you can carry!
Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded. I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links to Booking.com. I will only recommend products I have purchased myself and places that I have stayed in myself, unless otherwise stated. You can trust me for the whole, unbiased truth. More details on my affiliate link policy are here.