What an extraordinary year it’s been on the Reign of Terroir. When looking back, done for the first time this cold December morning, I am struck by the diversity of views and regions covered. And this list does not even include Greybeard’s very valuable work! (I shall leave open his contribution.) For these are only selections of my work here. Not content with a top 10, perhaps I may be forgiven for listing a hearty 18 posts, with many of more than one part. Part of my motivation for this excess is the sharp uptake of readers in the latter half of the year. In the interests of deepening their reading experience when visiting, the list below might function as an indication of the possible value of entering any and all search terms. You never know what might pop up! And, rounding out my motivation is a simple pride at having much to offer the reader. Each title is a link to the story, of course. So, without further ado, and in mere chronological order, here we go…
A Look Inside the Colares Cooperative
Dr. Gregory Jones and Climate Change
Synthetic Nitrogen and Soil Degradation
Mendocino County Takes the Lead
Pathogenic Fungi, The Search For a Green Solution
Vitiourem, The Struggle To Save a Medieval Wine
A Vineyard With Soul, Laurent Rigal’s Prieure de Cenac
Dr. Ron Jackson and Wine Science
Parducci, Building The Future
Clos Troteligotte, Cahors’ New Generation
Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyard
Jack Keller On America’s Indigenous Grape Varieties
A Visit To The Parliament of Austria
Prof. Patrick McGovern On Science, Shamans, and Sex
Practicing BioD With Paul Dolan
Lunch With Gerhard Kracher
Wine Politics In Immoderation
Hacking A Wine, The New Science of Cork Taint
Best wishes in the New Year!
Clos Troteligotte is an interesting property. Stylistically, it straddles the line between old and new Cahors, but is not part of a generational movement as such. It understands its future as one driven by an independence of spirit and a work ethic, the true patrimony of the South West. Clos Troteligotte builds upon this cultural continuity with refreshing innovation, a new perspective. I’ll explain.
Traditional Cahors AOC winemaking is difficult to grasp. Its long history has been punctuated by environmental disasters, changing international fortunes, the rise of powerful, politically astute regional rivals, the emergence of America as a winemaking power, its rechristening, if not rebirth, in the 1970s, and, most recently, Argentina’s successful marketing of the Malbec grape under Cahors’ very nose. Indeed, Cahors AOC identity today is an unsettled confluence of multiple histories and restarts. We can catch glimpses of the magnificence of the wines produced, more numerous examples in recent years, but I don’t believe the Cahors AOC has experienced sufficient continuity as a wine growing region for the rest of the world to clearly understand what it is she has done, certainly not what she now does. It was not until the 1990s, after all, that a thorough analysis of what Andrew Jefford has called the forgotten terroirs was even undertaken.
Now the Cahors AOC project becomes to expand and to deepen this new local knowledge of itself, of its terroirs and the best viticulture, for the sake of its growers, producers, and the thirsty public. For it remains true, as I was often reminded by locals themselves, that a substantial number of Cahors AOC vignerons still do not know the strengths and weaknesses of their own lands, whether their vineyards are in the right place, or where to look within the AOC at large for terroirs of great potential. This last point is important in that I strongly sense that others from outside the region are now shopping for AOC acreage. (I, myself, have more than once in the past few weeks wondered whether I might make a go of it here!) Of spectacular potential, this small AOC in the South West of France has only begun to shower the world with the soulful, expressive gifts of its terroirs. Like much of Portugal, I am convinced that the Cahors AOC is on the verge of far wider international recognition than now enjoyed. There is no downside to its fortunes.
Of Clos Troteligotte. Founded in 1987 by patriarch Christian Rybinski, it is a 10 hectare (1 of white grapes just coming in) family operation spearheaded by young son Emmanuel. They combine excellent red plateau soils, an appreciation of contemporary viticultural thinking, a relentless work ethic, internet savoir-faire, experimentation, and an abiding love of their patrimony into a range of bright wines, including a white and rosé. I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours with Emmanuel. What follows is a blended narrative of the interview.
Troteligotte, Emmanuel explains, is the name of his grandfather’s house. It means a place where there are a lot of partridge (my effort to find an exact translation was unsuccessful). As we approached the property and drove a private dirt road through wooded land just east of the Villesèque commune, itself ten minutes west of Cahors off D653, sure enough partridge bolted in front of us. They did not fly, but ran. Emmanuel described his vineyard as atop the plateau, an iron-rich clay and limestone mix. Unobstructed sunshine is on the vines, the surrounding forest having been cleared for cereal grains and animal forage as well. Emmanuel’s father, Christian, though an agronomist, was an ingenue. He didn’t know a lot about wine when he initially planted the Clos Troteligotte’s vines in ‘87. His own father had been a farmer, had not known the vine. But Christian learned with each vintage and soon left the negociants behind with a focus on quality, a resolution made in 1998, the year of his first great effort.
In 2004 Emmanuel had returned from Australia. He had worked in Victorian Alps Winery, near the Victorian Alps in the state of Victoria. He had also put put in time in Napa as an assistant winemaker at Chateau Potelle in 2002. So, back in Villesèque in 2004, he began to make his multiple signature cuvées. Shortly was to come, with the help of his father, their first Charte de Qualité wine in 2004, the CQfd [see pic].
Diversity of wines is the key to the Clos’ success. Emmanuel has complete control over block, vine, and grape selection to do as he pleases. So why not explore the variety their current 40,000 bottle capacity allows? Eight thousand of Rosé, 4,000 of the white blend, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, and the balance of classic Cahors blends, Malbec, Merlot, and Tannat. The white blend is quite interesting, the result of an experiment with the three varieties none of which were planted in sufficient quantities to warrant a separate bottling. But next year he will plant more vines for two new whites, a Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc blend and a stand-alone Viognier.
Father and son do everything; they work the vineyards, the cellar, the barnyard, they do all the marketing, including hand-selling at markets, the labels. Control rests entirely in their hands. Their new website, too, was Emmanuel’s doing, though with the help of a friend who runs eure-k!, a new innovative web design collective, in this instance charged with creating a site which reflected Emmanuel’s electric personality. It took six months, but the results are certainly more energizing and visually arresting than any other Cahors AOC producer sites I’ve visited on the net. They also do tee-shirts, fliers offering discounts, all that modern marketing stuff (like talking to me). Though not yet on Facebook or Twitter (it takes time he does not have!), he does have a blog administered by his lovely wife, Emily. (Though not always a part of Emmanuel’s narrative, Emily is undeniably central to their success.) All of this raises his profile and that of the winery. From his work in Australia and California he learned the importance of wine tourism, something he hopes to increase to his property in the near future. Future plans call for the building of a new cellar for tastings and sales, educational talks; a showplace for local art, theater, music, and books; a comfortable place for cultural gatherings and conversation, what Emmanuel calls a Country or Rural Cultural Center. Under construction now, he hopes to open the doors in the Spring/Summer of 2012.
These kinds of initiatives, incidentally, are going on all over the Cahors AOC. Indeed, the local wine and tourism authorities have launched a five-year plan to completely revitalize the region. It is an exciting time to be a winemaker here! Yet Emmanuel’s advice may not be sought, at least in the beginning. Along with other young winemakers 30 and under, they have not yet earned the confidence of the older generation. For that distinction, a greater region recognition of one’s work is required.
Emmanuel is not particularly concerned with such matters. He really has no time to speak formally about the development of the appellation in any case. He has more than enough work to do, what with his winemaking, viticultural practice, marketing, house and out-building construction and family responsibilities. He is the father of three beautiful young children. Malbec Days, in fact, offered him an excellent opportunity to combine a number of tasks, including meeting local officials, exporters, wine writers, etc. all while pouring his wines.
We arrive at the vineyards, the house and future cellar under construction just beyond. His current cellar is simply too small for his ambitious plans. The vineyard is 9 hectares of Malbec and 1 of Merlot. The Merlot was put in his first cuvée, La Fourmi and in his bag-in-a-box wine. But no Merlot is used for his middle and high cuvées. Those wines are 100% Malbec. I should add that the white grapes are not grown on the same soil as the red. In the main vineyard heavy iron-rich stones, some appearing 100% pure, lie scattered about the ground and lurk just beneath the surface. Years ago such stones were smelted to make iron farm and martial instruments. Were it to rain the soil would turn red before my eyes.
Green harvest is the order of the day at the more progressive vineyards, as here. Emmanuel explains the maximum number of canes allowed, 4 to 5, along each cordon. Grape bunches are severely reduced to one per cane. Yields for the higher quality cuvées are around 30 hectoliters per hectare, the lowest yield is used for the CQfd. Contrast this to the easier drinking, less expensive La Fourmi, for which 45 to 50 hectoliters per hectare are harvested. As may be seen, grass and flowers are everywhere between the rows, but Clos Troteligotte is not yet biologique. La Lutte Raisonnée is practiced, essentially what we would call ’sustainable’. In two to three years they will complete the transition to biologique, or ‘organic’. Under the raisonnée regime a very small amount of ‘product’ is used, sulphur and copper, usually once a year. No insecticide is applied. But even this quantity, Emmanuel explains, has been reduced by half since 2000. As a result the vines have become more and more capable of resisting what diseases there are in this dry climate. During a typical growing season it is only the leaves, and not the grape bunches, which are occasionally attacked. Clean grapes help, of course, with the vinifications, all done with ‘wild’ yeast.
Because it is just Emmanuel and his father, the grapes are mechanically harvested. Small select parcels are harvested first, when it is coldest, between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. in the morning. The disease-free grape clusters, a feature of both climate and viticulture, do not really need hand harvesting. No post-harvest de-selecting is required. Besides, a hectare may be harvested in under two hours at an optimal temperature and have the grapes in the winery before the morning chill has fled. The whites, however, are hand harvested because of oxidative matters. Curiously, their vineyards are consistently ready for harvest a full week earlier than their closest neighbor, a vineyard property only one kilometer away. Perhaps it is the forest circling their lands that provide an extra bit of protection, perhaps a subtle microclimate subtends the difference.
We leave the red soils of the Malbec/Merlot vineyard (with a small amount of Tannat, 2 to 3 percent) to view the white clay, chalkier soils for Clos Troteligotte’s whites. The vineyard bordered the forest, but in the past few years the trees have been cleared to make room for more vines to come, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier, as mentioned above. The empty field is now planted with cereal grains while they prepare for the new vineyard.
I was next introduced to a small plantation of very young oaks, what they hope will become truffle trees in no fewer than 7 years. Asked about a vegetable garden, Emmanuel very proudly said they grew for the family. “We do everything!” They don’t use conventional paper diapers for their children. Instead, they use a hemp fabric, and for their tee-shirts, not to mention for the insulation of their home. His uncle has 40 hectares of cereals under cultivation. Complete with a windmill and grinding stone, grains for the family and their chickens and pigs are produced there. The pig manure is, bien sûr, returned to the fields. Like Emmanuel says, “We do everything!”
Heating of the family home, Emmanuel and Emily’s, is provided by a large stove. After firing it up for a couple of hours it provides heat all throughout the night, important when the temperature last winter plunged from an average of zero to minus 10. With the stove they bake their own bread. They harvest meats from their own livestock. Their family life and that of their farm supports and maintains long-standing Cahors country traditions. They remind me of rural folks living in Mendocino County or in western Montana. I couldn’t help thinking I had met these people before. I’m sure I have. And like their American counterparts, they are not making much money. Emmanuel laughs, “Not yet. Not yet. We work 7 days a week. We have one short holiday a year. Me and my wife. But I am on a good path. Next year I hope to take more time off… maybe pay someone to come with me into the vineyards. That would allow me to do something else.”
I was welcomed at their family house. Emily brought out a bowl of strawberries. Their apple-cheeked children eyed me with amusement, dressed as I was in unseasonable, unreasonable black and sporting multiple electronic devices. A friendly old dog, perhaps a Bernese, went back to the shade. Emmanuel introduced me and soon had his eldest son practicing his English numbers aloud. Their youngest offered me a bottle of liquid soap and a bubble wand. The ice water infused with citron tasted good.
Though I was to spend another 45 minutes with Emmanuel touring the winery proper and other sites, and listening to his extraordinary visions that I am certain will be realized, I feel it is best to end my post here. I had seen, tasted and heard much in my week in the Cahors region. But no experience was quite so perfect, so personally fulfilling for this weary stranger than my few precious minutes here with the Rybinski family.
For further reading, a supplemental link.
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.
It sometimes happens in life that you meet a person of such spiritual dedication that you think things differently, your world-view nudged in a new direction. Such was my encounter with Laurent Rigal, son of Franck Rigal, family winemakers for Château de Grezels and Prieuré de Cenac in Parnac, AOC Cahors. On the first night of Malbec Days here in Cahors, what was called the Pré-ouverture, a kind of sneak preview, I tasted only a small number of wines, a few of which immediately caught my attention, this despite the tremendous heat inside the venue (I was told air conditioning was too expensive to install, coming in at around €10,000). Of those wines, one stuck in my imagination, ‘La Vierge’, from the Prieuré de Cenac vineyard. By virtue of a personal meander appropriate to this region dominated, as it is, by the Lot River, and the generous assistance of Jean-Marie Sigaud, I was to meet father and son the following day. A winemaker discussing their work often presents two faces, one public, a visage of commercial, more formal utterances, and the other, private, far rarer. I was fortunate to listen to the latter.
The vineyard for La Vierge is situated within 39 hectares of gently sloping hills high above the Lot River. At the top of the very highest hill is a special terroir in that it contains a 50% concentration of the most desirable soil admixture in AOC Cahors, clays, principally red, and 50% limestone. Iron, a red clay element, gives minerality and adds balance and complex aromas in the wine. The vineyard was planted on Laurent’s birthday 30 years ago, in 1979, from which the first harvest was taken in 1983. That was a very good year owing to the modest yield. The vineyard for La Vierge sees no chemicals and is all hand-picked. It is, most importantly for Laurent, biodynamic, his passion.
He began working this vineyard 7 years ago after finishing school in Bordeaux. There he learned the principles of terroir, biodynamics, the influence of the ocean on weather, and especially a respect for the land and its biodiversity. For it is biodiversity that informs the success of the grape harvest. And it is the responsibility of the winemaker to give back to the land what he takes away. All of these principles represented the broader change taking place in the entirety of the AOC.
When purchased this vineyard was already planted to the vine, but owing to its great age it was replanted with new vines, so low had the yields become. (Currently around 8,000-10,000 bottles come from the site.) It was formerly owned by a monk. The monk grew a large variety of cereals and vegetables during and after the Second World War, as well as maintaining a vineyard. Many monks sustained the local appetites and economies during this difficult time all throughout France.
Of the vintages from Prieuré de Cenac, Laurent has been responsible for 6, from 2003 forward. Of the difference between his first vintage and most recent he explains:
Laurent Rigal For the first vintage I was very excited. And very stressed! My father and grandfather set very high quality standards I had to meet. My first vintage was very hard work. I tried to make it perfect. But I felt I worked for nothing because it was a passion that drove me. Then I worked every day from early morning to mid-night, as late as two in the morning. Now I work more efficiently because working too hard on the vine and wine brings a negativity to the wine. I give the whole process more liberty and approach the harvest and vinification with greater respect, letting it develop on its own. Before I was pumping-over [remontage] 6 times a day; now I keep it at 2. It is better.
On the property there stands the monastery that, as Franck Rigal explains, the family hopes to renovate into a rooms for visitors, perhaps room enough for six. This he tells me as he drives our small car onto the steep slope to the vineyard hilltop. There is no road, but it is wide enough(!) Under brilliant sun, expansive sight lines in all directions above the broad and gentle slopes, we stop and I take in what they call mamelom, the ‘tit’ of La Vierge. But there is more to this name than a mere description. For Le Vierge means ‘virgin’, and the monk had cleared a place of quiet contemplation in the trees just a stone’s throw away. A spiritual topography begins to come into focus.
Laurent Rigal I will show you his place of quiet repose in a moment. But I want to say that here there is energy, a strong cosmic force and a telluric force. There is a concentration at La Vierge, and all around the statue is a reseau [network] that helps keep the vines in good health. There is another concentration of energy in the prieuré which serves the entire vineyard. This is very important for biodynamic viticulture because we use this energy to develop good health, to infuse the earth and the vine with life. The winemaker must learn to develop this force in the plant, the vine, and to so help reduce the quantity of chemicals.
We have three products in biodynamics: We use cow manure, and we prepare it according to Maria Thun – she is the person who developed biodynamie in France and Germany – we also produce mineral sprays for application on the vines. Two products are for developing the telluric force and one is to develop the cosmic force, to attract the light onto the vine. It is very important that you develop and focus the energy of the universe, the light. But this is rare. It is not easy to do.
So it is that the mamelom, the name of the hill, La Vierge, that of the vineyard, are descriptive elements of a kind of immaculate nursing (if I may put it that way) with the cosmos.
We then, midst a riot of bird-song, walked down the mamelom to Laurent’s place of contemplation and one of the vineyard’s power points. It was here that I took the picture of Laurent and his father, Franck. The picture of Laurent above shows him sitting at the precise power site initially discovered by the monk.
Laurent Rigal I was up this morning at 3 o’clock preparing and spraying, according to the calendar, the constellations, preparations for this vineyard! So I am a little tired today. In biodynamics there are four days: A fruit day, a leaf day, a root day, and a seed day. Today was a fruit day.
Here, at this quiet place, there is a concentration of telluric and cosmic force. Some people who visit this place feel this energy coursing through their fingers. And when you sit down, not to pray but to think, and if you are energy-friendly, then you may receive the energy.
And of the wine made here, the aromas and the taste of La Vierge, you can say the moon and the sun are in harmony. The wine is the expression of this union. We will be bringing a horse and cow to the vineyard soon; they bring good astral properties. This is a very special terroir for biodynamie. You have iron and orange clay.
Next I will show you the cave of the prieuré, but just for you. It was built by the monk. I do not often talk about these things, but you have an ambience. I can see it in the eyes when people do not want to listen.
In moments we are in the cave, the property’s second power point located beneath the main structure, the house to be renovated for guests in the fullness of time. Though I am a bit uncomfortable in doing so, I must stress that Laurent did give me permission to post the accompanying photo.
Laurent Rigal This was built by the monk, and it is in the form of the cross of Christ. I put my biodynamic preparations down here to bring into them the energy of the cave and the cross. Here I make the two products, preparations, described by Maria Thun. This one I put on the earth for an energy of concentration and recuperation…. This is a special place for me.
We head back to Cahors, the bridge where Laurent still faced the balance of the day pouring his wines. I was again to see him in the evening when, now nearly sleep-walking, he poured wines into the night, still cheerful, composed, radiating a great inner peace. I shall treasure my time with the gentleman and his father, among the finest moments of my time in the Cahors region.
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.
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 . 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.
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.