Cahors: A French wine region seeks to regain malbec crown

Malbec is so closely associated with Argentina that some wine drinkers may think the South American country is the grape’s historic home. It’s true that Argentina has been growing malbec since the mid-1800s, but the grape’s roots are in France, specifically Bordeaux and Cahors, east of Bordeaux.

Malbec was largely abandoned in Bordeaux after a devastating frost in 1956 wiped out many vineyards. But in Cahors, where malbec had been growing since the 16th century (when it was known as auxerrois), vintners who replanted after the frost actually focused on malbec, along with merlot and tannat, and took the opportunity to eliminate inferior grape varieties.

The most fertile vineyards of Cahors lie in the valley along the Lot River. (Photo by Jérôme Morel, courtesy of UIVC)

Still, Cahors languished, saddled with a reputation for tough, tannic, often rustic wines. Even as Argentine malbec was flourishing on the world stage, not many consumers even knew that the red wine of Cahors was mostly or all malbec, because the grape name didn’t appear on the label.

What to do? Put “malbec” on the labels, of course, which most Cahors vintners were doing by 2007. But labeling wasn’t the only change that needed to be made. Jeremy Arnaud, former marketing director for the UIVC, the organization representing Cahors producers, said the style of the wines needed to change. Vintners didn’t want to lose the identity of Cahors – wines with tremendous color, good acidity and representative of the area’s terroir – but the wines needed to be more drinkable at a younger age. Wines labeled “Cahors,” by the way, must be at least 70 percent malbec; merlot and tannat are also permitted. But most Cahors reds are 100 percent malbec.

Let me back up and explain a bit more about the terroir of Cahors. The appellation’s heart is the Lot River, which twists and turns through the area. (The various curves are known as “meanders”; the town of Cahors is wedged into one of those meanders.) This being a river valley, the terrain climbs above the river, with distinct geological features as you go up the hill. The two main classifications of terrain are the terraces of the hillsides and the causse, an uplifted seabed that forms a plateau at the top.

The first terrace, which is closest to the river, has the richest, alluvial soils. The higher-yielding vines on these soils produce wines that tend to be lighter and fruity. As you climb the hill, the soils have more clay, gravel and, nearest the top, limestone. The best wines, with more depth and body, tend to come from these higher terraces.

The terroir known as the causse has soils that are high in limestone. (Photo by Jean-Luc Exposito, courtesy of UIVC)

The causse is less fertile and high in limestone. It’s not actually a flat plateau: The causse is often rolling, and it also includes the slope just below the top.

The old model for Cahors was to blend grapes from the terraces and the causse, but many producers are now keeping sites separate, which helps to preserve some terroir expression. Although there are still producers that make the traditional, tannic style of wines, Arnaud said that many were making more approachable wines by about 10 years ago.

Change has been helped along by new producers, a new generation at the older, more traditional wineries, and outside investment. Well-known California winemaker Paul Hobbs, for example, has a partnership in Cahors that produces a brand called Crocus.

But you can even see the changes at places like Vinovalie, a big cooperative that’s producing modern, stylish wines. (Sadly, they’re not available here.)

And while most Cahors wines are in the $20-$30 range, the increase in quality has also meant the arrival of high-end bottlings that top $100.

“We have the passion to elaborate ‘craft malbec,’” Arnaud said.

But what about the difference between malbec from Argentina and from Cahors? This is a generality, obviously, but Argentine versions tend to display lots of warm, ripe fruit, while Cahors has an earthier, more savory quality. Or as Pascal Verhaeghe of Château du Cèdre, who is also co-president of UIVC, puts it: Argentina is “malbec of the sun. We make malbec of the soil.”

I think that “malbec of the soil” is often best reflected in the wines that aren’t the most expensive, since the high-end wines are often quite ripe and gussied up with expensive oak. For example, Château Lagrézette is an ambitious project owned by Alain Dominique Perrin, former head of the luxury-goods company that includes Cartier, Montblanc and Van Cleef & Arpels, among others. The property includes a restored castle, extensive underground cellars and more than 200 acres of vineyards encompassing several terroirs. Globe-trotting winemaker Michel Rolland was hired as a consultant.

My favorite wines of the lineup weren’t the priciest ones, which cost as much as $290, but rather the 2016 Seigneur de Grézette ($25), which has lively red fruit and savory notes of anise and tea leaf, and the more dramatic, structured 2015 Château Lagrézette ($50), which tastes of dark, ripe black fruit with a mocha note and a drying finish but also offers good freshness.

Hobbs’s Crocus project in Cahors is a partnership with Bertrand Gabriel Vigouroux, a fourth-generation Cahors vintner. (Hobbs also works with malbec in Argentina.) The Crocus wines run the gamut, price-wise. Among the currently available wines, the 2016 Crocus L’Atelier ($20) is quite stylish for the price, with ripe, dark blackberry fruit, a roasted coffee note and firm tannins. My favorite is the 2014 Le Calcifière ($45), which displays dense, concentrated black fruit, notes of baking spice and anise and firm tannins. The wine is big and modern yet fresh and balanced. The 2014 La Roche Mère ($125) is very big and structured and not really my preferred style, but it’s a very well-made wine.

The Vigouroux family also owns Château de Haut-Serre and Château de Mercuès, the latter being both a Relais & Châteaux hotel property and a wine brand. And Total Wine sells a good-value wine from the family, the 2015 Georges Vigouroux “Atrium” ($13), which is robust and easy to drink, with ripe, plump, dark fruit, decent freshness and fine tannins.

Verhaeghe’s Château du Cèdre produces some interesting wines, like the 2015 “Le Cèdre” ($60), which is structured and spicy, with red fruit, a note of tea and firm tannins. It’s built to age. The winery also produces a bottling with no added sulfites, the 2017 Château du Cèdre “Extra Libre” ($28), a juicy wine with dark berry and a slight dried fruit note.

I also admired the wines of Matthieu Molinié at Château Ponzac, though his full range isn’t available here, and those that are available may be hard to find. Molinié stressed that he’s not following fashion with his wines: “I’m not here to make the wine you want.” Which, perhaps, makes me want them more. The 2016 Château Ponzac ($24) is structured and quite tight, with lively, dark fruit, a leafy note and a hint of dried cherry. All his wines have tremendous tension and energy. He makes a wine in a clay vessel similar to an amphora that’s particularly good.

Château Vincens makes some very well-priced wines, like the 2016 “L’Instant” ($13), which is fresh and fruity, with good length, or the more concentrated 2016 “Origine” ($19), which shows lots of lively, dark fruit, firm structure and a long finish.

A couple of other wines worth noting are the 2016 Domaine la Berangeraie “Cuvée Maurin” ($20), which is dark and concentrated, but still quite young and tight, with prominent tannins, and the 2015 Château Les Croisille “Divin Croisille”  ($38), with its lively red and black fruit, mocha and spice. (Les Croisille’s importer also brings in some less expensive cuvées.) Other producers to look for include Château Haut-Monplaisir, Château de Cenac, Château la Reyne and Château St. Sernin.

Some winemakers are experimenting with techniques such as aging in clay (as at Château Ponzac) or in limestone tanks. For the most part, these wines aren’t available in the States, but as the profile of Cahors continues to be raised, we’ll probably see more of them.

The Cahors Malbec Lounge offers tastings in the town of Cahors. (Photo courtesy of UIVC)

The town of Cahors is a charming place to visit, with some really good, affordable restaurants. The UIVC operates the Cahors Malbec Lounge, which offers walk-in tastings as well as tastings by appointment. For more information on the appellation as well as the Malbec Lounge, click here.

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