Ξ May 27th, 2010 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, CAHORS, International Terroirs, Interviews, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |
Domaine du Prince is located in the south of the commune of Saint-Vincent-Rive-d’Olt. A few kilometers from the Lot River, just 15 minutes by car west of Cahors, all of its vineyards are situated atop a plateau; and as with all regional plateaux above the Lot, they share what are generally agreed to be the finest soils of AOC Cahors. Though the geochemistry is complex, a plateau’s high clay and calcareous, limestone soil blend helps maintain pH balance and improves water retention, so stabilizing a vine’s nutrient requirements, especially important in the warmer clime of these higher elevations. The wines from plateau vineyards tend to have higher acidity and, with proper canopy management, sugar and phenolic ripeness more often coincide with each harvest. The Malbec grape grown here will promise lower yields, richer aromas and firmer tannins. And should Merlot, an authorized blending grape, also be grown it, too, will share in this promise.
While in Cahors I was consistently told that the plateau terroir not only offers the greatest growing and slow ripening advantages, but that the finished wines are ‘classical’ expressions of the AOC. Though less than a third of all wine production comes from diverse plateaux vineyards, most sold under private labels, and though negociants typically buy from vineyards planted in alluvial soils, I cannot be certain that in a blind tasting I could always pick a wine from the plateau. But one wine that for me did emerge as a benchmark for what is meant by ‘classical’ is the beautiful wine Lou Prince from the Domaine du Prince.
First a bit about the family. Genealogy traces the Jouves name back to the 16th century, though a reader of old French could take it back much further. Domaine du Prince takes its name from an ancestor who while in Paris brought some wine to the King of France (another version has it the Tsar of Russia). Because he drew near the King this ancestor was nicknamed by his village the ‘Prince’. Even on official documents, on tax papers of the era, for example, the name reads Prince Jouves. The Jouves’ family has been in the wine business for generations, though they also grew cereals, vegetables and raised diverse farm livestock. It was only about 40 to 50 years ago that the vineyards of the Domaine began to be the main product; they still have cattle, sheep, and grow some cereals, but only for family use. Other farms in the area have also shifted solely to commercial wine production. This is not too surprising given that the soils are not suited for many agricultural products other than the vine, and that water for irrigation is scarce. It is to the fecund plains and valleys nearer the river that historically many farmers turned.
Domaine du Prince produces a number of different wines on their 27 hectares of which just 2 are used for Lou Prince. This chosen vineyard, roughly 38 years old, yields around 2,400 bottles, yes, bottles per year. Recent notice of this wine has led to the sober prediction that demand will far outstrip supply in the very near future. They already sell more than they produce, having to market increasingly scarce holdings of older vintages. Owners and winemakers Hélène and husband Didier Jouves, along with his brother Bruno, have limited land available to expand production that will reliably guarantee the same high quality. A small select block on the same terroir in the immediate area has been planted recently. These young vines should be productive in three to four years.
A wine producer working a single vineyard, Hélène explains to me, knows his land, knows individual vines by heart, when to harvest and, therefore, strongly senses what will be the quality of the finished wine. Drainage, cluster sensitivity to rain, disease pressures, weather patterns, all are part of the knowledge gained by experience. The continuity of historical memory becomes of decisive importance. And that is why the hectares of vineyard 30 yards away will not produce the same quality. The winemaker knows he will fool no one, he knows he will not be true to himself should he dilute the specific qualities of one vineyard with the grapes of another.
The Lou Prince vineyard yields about 30 to 35 hectoliters per hectare (roughly 730 to 950 gallons) from a maximum of 4 tons of grapes, all manually harvested. The clay soils are very deep here with among the deepest rooted vines on the property. The Lou Prince vines will suffer less during the hot summer months without rain owing to the clay’s superior retention and parsimonious release of water.
Then Didier gets at the heart of the matter with the observation that very few producers in AOC Cahors really know their own terroirs. They may have some on their property, but they don’t know how to identify or use them. The recent push by the local wine authorities for higher quality has everything to do with educating winegrowers on how to properly think their land. The Malbec Days celebration itself serves to bring into focus the importance of terroir. Hélène forcefully adds,
Hélèle Jouves “His father’s generation was just doing wine. They were not doing quality wine. They were planting vines anywhere and wherever there was room. That’s how the previous generations did things. Now the young generation is learning how to use the terroir, how to work the vineyards, in order to have good wine, even though they have been raised like the old ones. It is hard for the young to make the older generation understand what it is we are doing in the vineyard. When we are doing green harvesting, for the older generation it’s like we are throwing away wine. His father [Didier's] was sick when he saw him doing it! He didn’t even want to see the vineyards. He’d say ‘It’s impossible! How can they do that!’ Now? He’s happy to sell the Lou Prince. He knows. He can tell the difference. But most of the winemakers in the Cahors area are not at that point yet. They’re still thinking that the more wine there is, the better it is.”
And of the use of chemicals in their vineyards, Domaine du Prince pursues la lutte raisonnée approach. They grow in a windy, dry place so they don’t really need to use much. Near the river, anyplace where humidity and fog are issues, they would have to think differently. But not here. They do use sulphur, and bit of copper (cuivre) but only to save the crop. This, too, is a change from the older generation when chemicals of all stripes and strengths were used whether the vines needed it or not. They wanted to be sure and used chemicals all the time, including lots of copper. Now, if it is not needed, it is not used.
From the vineyard we drove to the winery built by the Jouves family, in recent years expanded in response to their growth. Though Lou Prince may be made in miniscule quantities, the winery as a whole produces 100,000 bottles from their combined acreage. Of these, 60,000 to 70,000 bottles are sold per year out of the winery itself. Quite good for a winery which, as Hélèle says, is in the middle of nowhere. She adds that locals know of Domaine du Prince’s reputation for high quality at competitive prices. But it is all word of mouth. They do not advertise. Their interest in the export market is to help sell the balance, some 30%. Should that prove successful, they have the capacity to produce 150,000 bottles. The extra 50,000 are virtual bottles, so to say, in that they currently sell the wine in bulk to negociants. They would prefer to put it under their own label. Should the export market show interest they most certainly will move in that direction.
Hélène Jouves “Many producers would prefer to put their wine under their own label rather than sell in bulk. Not long ago selling wine in bulk was still profitable. The price was good. Little work was required. They didn’t have to pay for the bottles. It was easy and easy to sell. You wouldn’t make a lot of money, but you could get a price for what it was worth. But now, the price is so low that you no longer earn money selling in bulk. So everybody tries to give more value to these wines by selling in bottle. Also the temptation is to overcrop which drives the prices down further. To increase the quality is the key to higher prices. But when selling in bulk it doesn’t matter the quality. The price is exactly the same for good and bad wines. One doesn’t help the other.”
I should add that their Lou Prince is what is known in the region as a Charte de Qualité wine about which I shall have more to say in a later post. Suffice to say it is a new, rigorous certification program that seeks to find the finest wines from the finest terroirs in AOC Cahors. The idea is to forcefully promote to winemakers the very real relation between quality and terroir. Each year rarely more than half the wines submitted, from the beginning a small number, meet its strict tasting protocols. Indeed, so daunting are the program’s standards that many producers decline to attempt it. Many, however, do make the attempt, thereby raising the international profile of the AOC as a whole.
In any event, Domaine du Prince offers a wide variety of wines, from a ‘bag in a box’, to the Charte de Qualité Lou Prince, and everything in between. And all but the ‘bag in a box’ are under cork. Lafite corks in the case of Lou Prince. (Cork closures are near universal in the AOC Cahors.) Though they have never had a tainted bottle of Lou Prince, TCA occasionally finds its way into other bottlings. More disturbing is the anti-cork attitude of some importers, Chinese and American principally. Some insist on screwcaps as a condition for doing business.
Back in the tasting/bottling room every effort is on display. A customer finishes his purchase. Off in one corner is a pallet of Lou Prince destined for New York. Outside I hear chickens. I am given a taste of the spectacular 2005 Lou Prince. Beautiful. Then a bottle. My spirits soar.
I met the youngest of their three children, a young boy already fascinated by the vineyard. Despite the sad fact of AOC Cahors vineyards being sold because the children refuse the patrimony, thankfully another generation of Domaine du Prince winegrowers is assured.