Ξ March 17th, 2010 | → 9 Comments | ∇ CAHORS, International Terroirs, Wine News, Winemakers |
The Malbec wines of AOC Cahors are not like those of Argentina. Neither do the region’s winemakers wish them to be. Let’s get that out of the way right from the start. But that the distinctions between the two expressions are obvious from the first sip has not stopped pundits from weighing in on their respective merits. Which is better? Such a question is worse than useless; it is intellectually misguided. It would be better to ask: How may the Malbec grape be best understood, how may its many qualities be properly, respectfully explored? Given careful attention to terroir, sound viticultural practice, minimal technological intervention, this combined with an enlightened public alive to difference, there is no doubt soulful expressions of Malbec may be found beyond any single border. End of story.
Until recently called Côt in widely read wine texts, Malbec’s provenance, its 800 year history in and around the ancient town of Cahors in South-West France, is at long last being brought to the attention of American drinkers and critical influencers. Through the good offices of the Union Interprofessionelle du Vin de Cahors (UIVC), an organization representing the AOC’s negociants and wine growers, they are just now finishing up a creative campaign to reassert Cahors’ deep wine growing patrimony by hosting a series of tastings across the United States. Now using the globally recognized name of Malbec, they hope not only to strengthen commercial and intellectual connections with established drinkers, but also to encourage those less familiar with French expressions to give their unique wines a try. Seems simple enough.
But the historical trajectory of Cahors’ winegrowing, like the Lot River meandering through its heart, has never known straight, simple lines. Informing UIVC’s fresh marketing push is the collapse, twice in successive centuries, of nearly the whole of the viticultural sector: phylloxera in the 19th followed by a great frost in 1956. Conflicts over prices and quality standards between négociant and grape grower on one hand and winemakers on the other further retarded post-war recovery. It was not until 1971, with the establishment of AOC Cahors, that the broad outline of a potential renaissance was drawn. The point of this all-too-brief sketch is to insist that the easy cynicism greeting marketing campaigns generally would be profoundly unfair here.
In any event, I was very fortunate to have been invited by Vintank to attend UIVC’s San Francisco stop. Now let me be perfectly honest. I have been drinking Cahors wines for years. On a trip to Southern France and Spain a couple of years ago, while passing through the South West all-too-briefly I greedily (and responsibly) drank every label of the ‘black wine’ I could lay my hands on. For it is a sad fact of a Cahors lover’s life here in the United States that very few examples of the more than 250 producers may be found. So it was with great joy upon entering the tasting room in the Ritz-Carlton last Thursday that I did not recognize but two out of twenty-two labels present that day.
The reason for the comparative absence of producers already widely distributed in the US should be obvious. Indeed, those winemakers assembled were not chosen but were all volunteers looking for either their first opportunity to export to the states or to expand their existing marginal distribution, now principally in the New York City and Florida markets. The number of wineries allowed to participate was limited to 25; and the not insignificant costs associated with such a tasting were split down the middle: 50% by the wineries and 50% by the European Union.
Before I get to the wines, let me mention a few of the marketing innovations brought to the table. Apart from the excellent literature, the comprehensive, individual backstories provided by virtually all the wineries (many written in a charming style entirely free of marketing b.s. and buzz words), there were the official publications of the UIVC itself. From one, essentially a ‘hard copy’ reproduction of their sister website, I was to learn of the three main styles of Cahors wines, each based upon an informed consideration of elevation and drainage, hence of the quality of the harvested grapes, the length of maceration, whether the wine sees stainless steel, is aged in new or older oak barrels, or a specific ratio of the two, whether blended and by how much with the two other permitted grapes, Merlot and Tannat. (A minimum of 70% Malbec is required to use the name ‘Cahors’ on the label, 85% to use ‘Malbec’ for which a special raised-letter bottle was introduced in 2009.) For the Cahors winemaker, especially the new generation well represented Thursday, these are very real distinctions bearing upon price point, of course, but also directly upon reputation. Marketing rhetoric is one thing; making a lasting contribution to a vinous patrimony is quite another.
From the booklet:
Tender and fruity Cahors (generally 70-85%) “Wine lovers appreciate the fruity characteristics of these Cahors. They pair well with white meat, roast poultry or grilled meat. Their light tannins and their vivacity let them accompany mixed salads or fresh and crisp Mediterranean fare. They can also readily be served as an aperitif.”
Feisty and powerful Cahors (generally 85-100%) “More vinous, with more structure than the first group, these Cahors boast complex fruit. Farm raised Quercy lamb or duck breasts are their perfect partners, all the while not forgetting cassoulet or stuffed cabbage. They go well with cepes, walnuts and chestnuts, food evoking the terroir. With age, once their tannins are melted, they go well with Cantal cheese.”
Intense and complex Cahors (generally 100%) “These are the most refined Cahors. In their youth, they are bursting with fruit and their dense and velvety tannins fill the senses. Their richness and ripe acidity are signs of graceful ageing. With a bit of age, they become wonderful partners for many festive table favourites: game, foie gras, truffles, and wild mushrooms. They go well with refined dishes such as tournedos or suckling lamb and autumn cuisine calls for them: rabbit with prunes, foie gras with quince, deer with cranberries, pears cooked in wine. Even a mere dried fig brings their qualities to the fore.”
About the dried fig mentioned above, the forty-some guests at the tasting were provided a good variety of high quality cheeses to cleanse our palates. Alas, no figs! And to refresh the palate became very important as I worked my way down the tables. Cahors Malbec has finesse, often delicacy, but they are also famously dense and tannic. Their great aging potential, too, flows from both viticulture and terroir. Unlike their softer, easier drinking Agentinean brothers, more Merlot in character, Cahors Malbec is something like a cross between the Ramisco of Colares and the finest muscular 100% Touriga Nacionals from the Dão, both from Portugal and much loved by yours truly.
And I quite convinced that drawing a parallel between these two haunting yet bold Portuguese varieties and Malbec’s expression when from Cahors gets at a larger truth, once again, that of difference. Many critics and wine writers have said contradictory things about the distinctiveness of Cahors wines. Oz Clarke in the latest edition of his New Wine Atlas writes,
“The Cahors AC concentrates on one single wine – a fascinating, tobacco-scented, green apple-streaked, yet plum and prune-rich red made largely from the Malbec grape [....] Cahors is producing some of the most individual wines in the South-West.
One may be forgiven thinking this is in any way a positive appraisal, for he writes in the section on Argentina,
“Malbec is undoubtedly the grape best suited to the hot continental climate, producing wines which are packed with blackcurrents, damsons and spice – vastly superior to its French counterpart.”
This is but one of the many examples I have found of just how out of touch even respected wine writers may be. Of Mr. Clarke’s comments, why would it have not been enough to say each country’s Malbec tells its own story, in its own way? Frankly, I do not know. A wine writer ought to, in my view, encourage his readership to explore the world of wine as far and as wide as their pocketbook and curiosity may take them.
Cahors Malbec, like many indigenous Portuguese varieties, offers flavors and a drinking experience unlike anything the vast majority of American drinkers have ever known. This is in itself sufficient reason to try one. And yet there are but a handful of producers here in the US, most trending toward a New World easy drinking style. Very unwise. To imitate Argentina will cost Cahors her soul. Market share is only to be found in distinction. It is, therefore, critically important that the Louis/Dressners and the Neal Rosenthals of America to give a wide variety of Cahors producers a fighting chance in the marketplace.
Of the wines I enjoyed that luxurious Thursday afternoon, 20 out of 22 would be most welcome in my home. Special mention must be made of Chateau Vincens, Chateau Pineraie, the elegant Lou Prince from Domaine Du Prince, the very unique Chateau Haute Borie (found in New York), Domaine Le Bout Du Lieu Les Roques De Cana, and Mas Del Perie (the last two have no website I could find).
What a tasting! A glorious range of wines, a glorious future is predicted for Cahors.
Helpful links: the catalogue of participants, the official website, and the UIVC website. And coming in May, the Third International Malbec Days in Cahors.
My special thanks to Vintank for their generosity.