Ξ May 20th, 2010 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, CAHORS, International Terroirs, Interviews, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries, Young Winemakers |
In the interests of economy here may be found a kind of hybrid narrative, a compilation of a series of voices, principally that of the young winemaker Lucien Dimani, the son of Arnaldo, and my editorial contribution. Direct quotes will, however, be properly attributed. The point of this exercise is to faithfully present the Domaine Le Bout du Lieu’s precise understanding of their terroirs within the broader Cahors AOC. As underlined in a previous post, the Cahors AOC is kaleidoscopic, an assemblage of shifting elements only informed, not defined, by the proximity to the profoundly ox-bowed Lot river, vineyard orientation and canopy management, elevation, soil type, northern or southern exposure, blending percentages – if done- of Malbec (70% minimum in any case), of Merlot and Tannat, the blind luck of microclimate variations during the growing season, the skill of the vigneron and, it must be said, politics. What adds to the complexity is that all these elements are intertwined in such a way as to render nearly impossible durable regional harvest predictions or even the success of any given grower. To be a winegrower in the Cahors AOC is to daily roll the dice. Terroir has no ornamental value here. Rather, it not only frames the conversation, but it has the last word.
From Cahors to Saint-Vincent-Rive-d’Olt is about 13 miles due west; not far, but the winding road adds time. The village has a population of 183, and less than 400 including the surrounding villages of Douelle, Parnac and Luzech. All along the road may be seen vineyards, many in the yards of private residences. The first village we passed through was Douelle which translates as ’stave’, as in the stave of a barrel.
Many, many years ago this was home to a number of cooperages producing barrels for the regions’ winemakers. Nowadays there are none remaining in the Lot region. They went out of business because larger cooperages outside the region offered better prices, and the barrels were made of a different kind of oak than the one locally grown. Different flavors came from oak from other areas. Local oak was a bit ‘green’. Political tensions within the Lot followed upon the choice by regional winemakers for barrels from outside the local economy. But that was 70 years ago.
Concrete tanks became rather more popular for the small to average sized winery because of the differences in the time and labor required for racking. Spent barrels would continue to be used owing to their greater micro-oxygenation proficiency, but imagine one tank verses fifty barrels: racking one tank takes two hours; racking fifty barrels takes two days.
Upon entering Luzech, past a small, well-stocked open market, we drove up a hill to a magnificent vista. It was from there that one could easily observe the alluvial to terrace, hillside to plateau terroirs, and specifically nearly all of the holdings of Le Bout du Lieu, a small part of which are on the first terrace; their larger vineyards are found on the second and third. (To clearly photograph them from the vista is another matter! A layer of fog played havoc.)
A bit about Luzech situated on what was once an island in an extreme meander of the Lot river. Years ago, before the building of dams and other water control structures, this particular stretch of the Lot was quite wild and treacherous, a tumult of powerful currents. Those traveling by boat, merchants in the main, would begin at the foot of the village and by the end of the day would have only traveled the length of the ox-bow, again arriving at Luzech at night. What took one minute to walk, was a challenging one day journey by barge. Indeed, many sailors lost their lives, so many that a little commemorative chapel was built at the end of the ‘island’ opposite Luzech. Now, the river’s flow is regulated by dams, land loss by canals, the flood events, too, are therefrom diminished.
Incidentally, from the vista point it is estimated that 15% of the total acreage under vine cultivation in the whole of the Cahors AOC may be seen. It is obvious that this AOC ought to be one of the premier wine touring destinations in all of Europe. Plans are underway to more aggressively promote exactly this. Just 50 years ago a larger percentage of the land was dedicated to a wide range of agricultural activity. Farms formerly dominated the region. Vegetables, corn, wheat, walnuts, fruits, pig, cow and sheep husbandry were the mainstays of the local economy. The vine now plays a far greater role.
Frosts remain a great threat. Even as recently as last week the cloudless night sky sent temperatures plummeting. No young shoot can take such thing. Historically, in 1956, a very late frost killed 99% of the young growth. Even with global warming frosts are a perpetual danger. Interestingly, owing to the scattered distribution of vineyards and the attendant micro-climates, damaging frosts and hails do not necessarily effect the region as a whole. Hail storms, for example, are very focussed. One vineyard may be destroyed while the neighbor’s is spared. In any event, the closer the river, the deeper the valley, so increases the risk.
With headwaters in the Pyrenees, the Lot is the greatest meandering river in all of France, with this area around Luzech having the most extreme loop. It is a tributary of the Garonne. The explanatory tile pictured above provides useful illustration.
First we visit their vineyard on an alluvial terrace. Limestone and the first hints of gravel may be seen. Some say this is not a good terroir to make quality wines. Lucien is not in agreement.
Lucien Dimani “As long as you work well, you control the crop and the yield, you shouldn’t have any problem. Of course, if you want to do 8 tons an acre then here it is possible. You are close to the river. But it is something you cannot do on the second or third terraces, never mind on the plateau. The yields decline naturally the higher you go. There will not be the same quality, but here you can produce something similar. I know this because of blind tastings. I am sure some people would not believe me I tell them the wine they are drinking is from the first terrace.
These vines are from 28 to 30 years old. And this is high density for here. The number of vines in a vineyard depends where you are. If I compare it to Bordeaux it is a low density. So let’s say it is from average to high density, closer to high. There is an AOC recommended ratio, a minimum density of a vineyard, about 3000 vines per hectare. Here we have about 4500 vines per hectare. We have good results from this vineyard as long as we manage the crop and the fruit is not clustered too close together.
Trellising remains the same in all our vineyards, the same kind of canopy management. The only thing we change is sometimes the vigor management, but this bears primarily on the age of the vine and not the soil; and what wine we plan to make of these grapes. We’ll drop clusters to concentrate the flavors in the remaining grape clusters.
A lot of people are organic here, but do not always pursue certification. We have a lot of new converts as well. It has become more common. Of diseases, we have mildew and odium; but we can control them. We don’t have too much pressure. It depends on the vintage. But normally it is not something that is hard to control as long as you do your job in the vineyard. If we have to spray, we spray. If it is dry there is no reason to spray. Lutte raisonnée.
My father [Arnoldo] is the vineyard manager. He started working in the vineyard with his father when he was 6 years old. I, too, started working when I was 6 or 7, to help. A long time ago it was school and work. Now, everywhere in France there is the problem of the next generation of winegrowers. And it is even more difficult these days to find people willing to work at harvest. It’s easier in Bordeaux, but it is starting to become harder every year for hand-picking. So, 90% of the harvest is by machine, machines shared among neighbors. Here there are four properties and us. We share the harvesting machine. If tomorrow there were a law that we had to do everything by hand, no one would do it. And hand-picking is a huge cost.”
We next travelled to a second terrace vineyard.
Lucien Dimani “Here there is more gravel. This is also alluvial but with gravel. Even higher up will be found more gravel. We went a bit higher in elevation to another terroir. The root stock here is SO4. This is the oldest vineyard that we have. It is a vineyard we bought that my father took care of for 20 years. He did not plant it. He first rented it. Another, younger block is beyond the trees. This vineyard is a second terroir. There is a bigger difference between red clay and alluvial soils than between graveled and alluvial-graveled soils. Again, in blind tastings it is confusing. But if you have red clay it cannot be mistaken. Nearer the river the soils are also deeper. And the vine depth varies. Here the vines are about 8 to 10 meters down. It also depends on the vineyard density. The lower the density the roots tend to grow more horizontally.”
Then comes a higher vineyard yet, their third terroir.
Lucien Dimani “Vineyard orientation catches the maximum sun. When we do the leaf removal for air circulation and exposure we do it only on the rising sun side. Otherwise the sun will burn the fruit. Later, mid-August, when the sun is not so intense, we do the other side, but only on special plots. We only remove the leaf on the fruit; not above or below. The idea is to limit the humidity in the bunches themselves. Botrytis likes humidity. By select leaf pull we limit it. And we do de-budding when we prune. But we also do a green harvest later in the year if we have too many bunches that might become a source of disease. The fruit cluster, how tightly packed, depends on the clone. Of course, without irrigation a higher crop means lower concentration and lower quality. There is a balance between the crop and the quality. But there are limits above which the quality is not necessarily enhanced by lower yields. You may have 2 tons an acre, but if you lower the crop to 1.5 tons an acre you will find the quality will be the same in a vineyard harvesting at 2 tons. You will have lost half a ton per acre for nothing. You will have worked for nothing. It is about balance. Here in this vineyard the harvest is around 2.3 tons per acre.
This vineyard, the third terroir, sits on a small plateau. It is not strictly speaking a plateau; but we call it such because it is a flat spot on the top of a hill. The red clay is very visible. You saw the digging coming up. The surface is lighter, but if you dig it is red. The vine are between 30 and 35 years old.”
The significance of the respective soils, the terroirs overall, on the resulting wine will be explicated in a later post. For now we drove to the winery itself where I was to meet the formidable Arnaldo and his wife Monique, equal partners in all the winemaking labors. They had prepared a deep tasting of vintages and bottlings from respective terrace terroirs. A full account of this part of the visit will be written at a later date. Suffice to say for now that their hospitality and generosity was very well regarded by this traveler. I thank them. To their son, Lucien, rugby player, my narrator and teacher, and to his lovely American friend, Eileen, I, too, offer my humblest thanks for the nearly three hours they sacrificed for me.