I doubt the glossy wine magazines and food-lifestyle rags will soon feature cover stories on “Top Ten Fer Servadous Under $15,” or “Fer Servadou for Holiday Entertaining,” but you never know. What did non-Argentines know about Malbec before 2002 or so, anyway?
Yeah, Fer Servadou is the name of a grape. The words don’t roll off the tongue the way Malbec does, but the flavorful, surefooted wines made from this varietal from southwestern France certainly roll onto it easily enough.
We could all start calling it Fer to give it a marketing bump. In Gaillac, a sub-appellation of the Southwest France AOP, they often call it Braucol, which is catchy enough, or in another sub-appellation, Marcillac, or sometimes Mansois, which isn’t.
Anyway, you’ll probably want to do anything you can to help promote Fer Servadou’s wide-ranging, easy-drinking, borderline-criminally-underpriced pleasures. I’ve tasted three red wines in my life that use this grape (plus one pink wine), and that small number runs if not the full gamut of red-wine personality, at least half the gamut: From dry, herbal and dusty to spicy, luscious and juicy.
Such malleable personality reminds me of the glorious heterogeneity (and many of the flavor profiles) of Cotes du Rhone. Fer Servadou has historically been a blending grape, but when it stands alone it is a polished lens through which soil, climate and winemaker orientation can be clearly viewed.
The diversity of flavors and attitudes to be found in wines from Fer speaks volumes about the significance of place and culture relative to grape type. France’s Southwest is one of that country’s least appreciated winemaking regions. Its best-known appellation is probably Cahors. South of Bordeaux, west of the Languedoc, without a shipping port to call its own, the Southwest enjoys stepchild status at best.
“Fer” means “iron,” and there are several good reasons why the grape takes the word for part of its name. The wood for the grape’s vine is exceptionally hard, like iron. And especially around Marcillac, the earth is rich in iron oxide, which colors the surrounding rocks and soil a rusty red.
This influence is unmistakeable when you taste the wines. The Domaine du Cros ‘Lo Sang del Pais’ 2011 ($14, Wicked) was my introduction to Fer Servadou from Marcillac. I first tasted it last summer, when I was leaning hard toward sharp-toned, sappy astringency and light body in red wines.
Since then I’ve drunk in other directions, but coming back to the wine in the dead of winter has been a delight. I think that has something to do with a component I didn’t notice the first time around, amid the high acidity, pencil lead, embers, green herbs, blueberries and flinty stone-sparking-stone elements. As its name (“blood of the countryside”) indicates, this wine is like blood: Mineral-rich, slippery, with 100 percent of your Recommended Daily Allowance of iron. Drinking it makes me feel like a Masaai warrior.
It pairs well with foods that actually have iron in them, too — broccoli rabe and other mean greens, skin-on potatoes, rare steak, liver, mussels. The wine’s blood aspect is worth remembering if you’re a vegetarian, too, because it can act vicariously as that raw animal element in dining routines that lack it.
You get the picture: I love that Marcillac wine, but it’s not for everyone.
The Domaine Philemon Croix d’Azal Gaillac 2011 ($11, Wicked) is for everyone, no exceptions. It’s rare to find a wine that can so easily intrigue food and wine snobs while simultaneously remaining welcoming to the neophyte or casual drinker. Gaillac is southwest of Marcillac, outside Toulouse.
Perhaps the slightly warmer latitude is responsible for a much more giving presence in the wine. Whatever, the fruit is purpler and plumper, calling to mind blackberry jam rather than the Marcillac’s blueberry juice. But this isn’t a jammy wine. In fact, a slight petillance (subtle carbonated quality) leaps out of the glass at first, followed by soft tannins as well.
It’s just authentic rustic French table wine, dressed up for a snazzy table. Much like good Cotes du Rhone, garrigue notes dance with luscious blackberry fruit, touched by earth and black olives. After the bottle has sat open for an hour or so, secondary qualities of farms and loam come on.
It speaks volumes about the Golden Age of wine access we currently move in that I can even write this article. Just five years ago, Fer Servadou wouldn’t have had a chance to sell in the U.S. We’re getting more adventurous, and more ecumenical about where our wines come from. The choices we make every day determine whether that trend will expand its reach.