The Terroirs Of Cahors, A Brief Primer

Ξ May 18th, 2010 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, CAHORS, International Terroirs, Wine History, Wine News, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

A city and its people offer to the traveler the opportunity to learn as much or as little as they wish. However, for the wine writer there is much less latitude. Cahors is a demanding AOC. There can be little true understanding without the writer’s submersion into its dizzying terroirs. As noted in an earlier post, the wines of Cahors have long been welcomed at my table. Yet choice of her wines in America has long been seriously limited. So it was that I attended a Cahors tasting in San Francisco and was spiritually transported by the rich variety. Yet even then, despite my many conversations with the patient producers attending, I could not begin to guess at the terroirs expressed, the real source of the differences. Now that I am in Cahors for the Malbec Days festival, I can begin to get answers to the new questions the San Francisco tasting awakened in me. Little could I have guessed the extraordinary lesson waiting around the next turn.
Wandering the streets of old Cahors in a jet-lagged fog early Monday morning, I saw a sign pointing to the Maison du Vins de Cahors. Just across from the train station, I walked in, barged in, if you like, and began to explore the sober working space. I was directed to the main office where I was introduced to the remarkable Jean-Marie Sigaud, President of the Union Interprofessionelle du Vin de Cahors (UIVC). With the assistance translating offered by Juliette and Maxim, I enjoyed a conversation that essentially threw me into the deep end of the pool, no more so than when I was introduced to The Map, the graphic depiction of the terroirs of Cahors. The work product of many days and hands by the Geographic Institute of the University of Toulouse, The Map, pictured below, is the non-plus-ultra of a terroirist’s education.
I shall leave the explication of its complexities for a later post. But I will say that there are 9 different terroirs classified. From the four alluvial zones, also known as the terraces, to the two different types of limestone covered slopes, up to the plateau, itself of three soil varieties. Even a cursory glance at The Map below reveals the enormous combinations afforded the winemaker, all given by the Lot’s graceful meander. Much more to come…
Admin Just how many producers are expected for the event?
Jean-Marie Sigaud We expect around 400 producers.
And of those producers, will small ones be present as well?
J-M Sigaud Not all of them. Those producing under 500 hectoliters will not be present. There are about 150 producers in the AOC making below that amount.
And where are Cahors wines sold?
J-M Sigaud You have three different markets: Export, around 20%; supermarkets make up 60%; 20% direct including tasting rooms, to tourists who come directly to the Domaine, private sellers, open markets, salons in different cities…
Why is it so difficult to find Cahors’ wines in America?
J-M Sigaud (laughs) Until 4 or 5 years ago production and consumption were balanced in the local market. Now, it is that the French drink less, not only of Cahors wine but of all wines. French people are drinking less wine. So we decided to go and begin greater exports the the United States and China.
Has there been any negative feedback from the use of the word ‘Malbec’? Traditionally the grape was called Côt or Auxerrois regionally. Some traditionalists, even in the US, think that this may be principally for marketing purposes.
J-M Sigaud There are three names. Auxerrois used to be the most used name of the grape. Traditionally it was Auxerrois. And technically it is called Côt, but more generally it is now called Malbec. So if you go to Bordeaux we will talk about Malbec because they don’t know the word ‘Auxerrois’. They don’t know what it is. We use the word Malbec because it is more internationally known. Auxerrois is only known here.
Those of us who love Cahors wines get a little bit worried that the closer one steps toward the general name most closely associated with Argentina, maybe the closer will become the winemaking techniques. We worry that the wines of Cahors will get softer, easier to drink when young. We like the purity of the Cahors expression.
J-M Sigaud The Malbec of Cahors will always reflect the difference of terroir. It will never be like the Argentine. Here we have enough rain. In Argentina they have to irrigate. We have six different terroirs in the Cahors appellation. You therefore have differences in quality.
You have the river, the first terrace, second and third. Each time you go into a deep bend in the river then you have this configuration. But you don’t have this configuration on both sides. Each time the river bends you will have a cliff on one side of the river and you will have terracing on the other.
Well, that is very helpful!
J-M Sigaud The best terroir is the third terrace and the plateau, between 200 and 300 meters high. The river itself is 120 meters above sea level. Would you like to know the nature of the terroir? Where the river flows you have this rich alluvial soil, a flood plain. That’s why it’s not very good for the Cahors vines; it is too rich. And you have the terraces which are the slopes of exposed earth over time. So, you have on one side of the river a cliff and plateau; on the other, the hillside slopes, the terraces exposed by erosion, all of which are of a different soil type and composition. In addition you have the North and the South. The North receives less sun than the South, so the South is preferred.
And there is the plateau; it is of clay, red clay. There are two types, red and white. The best terroir is red clay. We have a press document, but you are here before it is ready! The AOC is 50 kilometers long; the river makes it longer! It is about 4 or 5 kilometers wide.
And that is what you came here for; to find the difference between Argentina and Cahors?
Yes and no. I want to deepen my readers’ understanding of Cahors wines because Argentina is so much more present in the marketplace. I would like to move that in another direction, to get people to taste Cahors wines. People just don’t know Cahors. And I fear, which is to say, I know, that the Cahors style, its powerful terroir expression, and wines of similar strengths, are not well represented in America. I think Robert Parker, Coca Cola, fast food, and sweets have a lot to do with it. There are many who feel as I do. We’re looking for wines of greater finesse and character, terroir wines. We’re looking for difference. The wine of Cahors, certainly for me, and I think for others, is very much that wine.
J-M Sigaud Merci. The production of good Cahors wine is between 40 and 50 hectoliters per hectare. And the vine density is about 4,500 per hectare. About 80% is Malbec, 15% Merlot, and 5% Tannat.
And the rootstock of the vines?
J-M Sigaud In the ’70s the rootstock was SO4, and in the ’80s we had a lot of Riparia, 3309 and 41B, with a little bit of Richter [110]. And since the year 2000 we’ve used Fercal on the limestone soils of the plateau. Each producer had to take the good rootstock depending on where he was situated. It really depends on each parcel.
The harvest is around October 1st. And the harvesting degree will be between 12.5% to more than 14% of alcohol. Of course, you’ll have higher alcohol on the south side. Then you have the savoir-faire of the winemaker. The grapes will be mature, more or less, between the 1st and the 15th of October. Each producer has to decide when he wants to harvest. The more he waits, the greater the alcohol. In Cahors, despite the alcohol level, the biggest difference is the terroir in which the vines grow. Machine harvesting is done over 90% of the area with the best wines harvested by hand. Some of the producers even select individual grapes. At least one of them!
Does the Merlot mature at the same time as the Malbec?
J-M Sigaud Tannat after, Merlot a little bit before; three passes through the vineyard. The rootstock has an influence on the ripening.
I was then generously invited to lunch, but not before I laid eyes on an extraordinary map pictured above. The product of the Geographic Institute of the University of Toulouse, it is an extremely fine hand-painted representation of Cahors’ diversity. It is clear to see, once the geological principles are grasped, that Cahors AOC wines have an infinite number of expressive possibilities.
And while at lunch Jean-Marie Sigaud selected three wines from the restaurant menu, each to show how these elements bear upon the black wine in the glass, in this instance the terraces to plateau. Each of the wines, grown very near one another as the crow flies , was from an increasingly high elevation: Chateau Gaudou, Chateau Nozières, and Clos Troteligotte respectively. Though all three were very good, it was the last, Clos Troteligotte, made by the Christian Rybinski, that possessed the greatest electricity and finesse. It is from a plateau terroir, and continues a family tradition.

The conversation continued over lunch:
Do you enjoy your work as president of UIVC?
J-M Sigaud (laughs) It is a passion. The wine makes me crazy because it is such a passion, such a love for the wine. I don’t want to leave.
Are you elected to your position?
J-M Sigaud I’ve been president for 23 years, elected by the winemakers. In 2013 I will likely be leaving my position. But I am really not sure.
Well, it’s a very important time for Cahors wine. Surely they need a steady, experienced hand.
J-M Sigaud The most important thing is to meet a lot of winemakers because they all have a lot of differences between themselves. My politics is based on difference; it is difference that makes exemplary the culture of Cahors wine. Eighty percent of our winemakers are independent and 20% are in the cooperative. That is why we can have such different wines. One thing to remember is that when speaking to winemakers be sure to get your terroirs straight! (laughs) Especially for me.
Nowadays viticultural consultants speak only about the facts as they see them. To speak about terroir is not important to them. Nobody is interested in that! You are the first one to come here and ask to learn about our terroirs. (laughs)
The world has gone crazy!
J-M Sigaud Yes! You can’t speak about wine if you can’t speak about terroir. For many a wine is only a cépage and not a terroir. But here there is a new trend. Producers in Cahors want to underline the point that terroir is very important. Until now it was considered only a second thing, not the most important. Now it is both a cépage and a terroir.
Are négociants as interested in terroir here?
J-M Sigaud Yes, completely. The négociant makes a selection of different wines considering their terroirs. And they put the individual terroir on the label of the bottle. It’s a part of their communication with the public. Here it is very important.
A last word about these wines, [the ones we were drinking at lunch]. The basic principle is this: The further we leave the river, the better the terroir.
To make wine is a very personal thing. Each wine is like a portrait of a producer and his vineyard. The winemakers you want to meet here are those who while doing their job live for their passion.
Specific details of the multiple terroirs to come. But first I must enjoy my dessert.


3 Responses to ' The Terroirs Of Cahors, A Brief Primer '

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to ' The Terroirs Of Cahors, A Brief Primer '.

  1. on May 18th, 2010 at 4:55 am

    Good post – À votre santé !

  2. 1WineDude said,

    on May 19th, 2010 at 10:36 am

    Looks like you made an early impression! ;-)

  3. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on May 19th, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Ha! Hi, Joe. Have you arrived? Yes, I wanted to hit the ground running. Had no idea fortune would smile as broadly as she has.

Leave a reply

From the Vineyard to the Glass, Winemaking in an Age of High Tech


  • Recent Posts

  • Authors