Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Visiting Cahors Malbec Wineries – The Black Wine of the Middle Ages

June 14, 2011 –We took the back roads from Le Bugue to Cahors arriving in the city via D9 through the little towns of Espere and Mercues. On the way out of Le Bugue we were sidetracked for an hour when we ran into the weekly open air market on Tuesday mornings. It was a wonderful market with plenty of food – olives, foie gras, cheeses, truffles, wine, etc – as well as clothes, jewelry and household items. When we finally got back on the road it took us 1 hour and 20 minutes to drive to Cahors, passing through beautiful countryside and an incredibly charming town along the way called Belves.

I wanted to travel to Cahors because it is one of the few French wine areas I have not yet visited. In the Middle Ages it was famous for making “black wine” from the Malbec grape, and is still heralded as the birthplace of Malbec – even though Argentina now reigns as world champion producer of that grape. Interestingly, Cahors was exporting wine long before the Bordeaux wine industry even started.

The ancient city of Cahors is situated on a dramatic peninsula in the middle of the Lot River. It was originally settled by the Celts before being taken over by the Romans in 50BC. We actually saw the stones of an old Roman amphitheater when we parked in the garage under Gambetta Square. Also equally fascinating was the beautiful and ancient Valentre Bridge spanning the river with its two towers and curving arches. We had a quick lunch at a sidewalk café before stopping by the Tourist Office for a wine map of the region. They sent us out of the city via Pradines where many of the chateaux are clustered. I asked to visit a large winery, as well as a small one. They called ahead to Cave des Cotes d’Olt to make an appointment for us, and then suggested we just drop by other wineries to see if they were open. The wineries in this region do not charge tasting fees, but she warned that some of the owners may be working in the field as most were small family operations.

Caves des Cotes d’Olt

Caves des Cotes d’Olt is a large cooperative with multiple labels at different prices points. It is housed in an impressive stone building, and was a good place to start as an introduction to the region’s famous malbec grape. The lady operating the tasting room couldn’t speak English, but we managed with my smattering of tourist French. Her first question was whether we liked “pas tannic” or “plus tannic.” I requested that we start with the low tannin reds after tasting some roses. All three malbec roses were delightful with a dry, off-dry, and semi-sweet style. The latter reminded me of a white zinfandel. All three were very refreshing and fruity, under 4 euros per bottle, and would do well in the US market.

Moving onto the reds, we tasted through 5 different labels (spitting, of course) starting at 4 euros and going up to 16 euros at the high end. The first Malbec was a 2009 unoaked in a simple and fruity style with smooth, though large tannins. The next three were the traditional black and brooding malbecs of Cahors with earthy notes, dark fruit, huge tannins and a higher acid than Argentinean malbecs. My sister, Michelle, didn’t care for them that much, but I ended up buying the 2002 Le Paradis Cahors which was aged in new oak for 16 months. It won a gold medal at the Challenge International Du Vin Competition and was 14.80 euros.

I then asked if we could try another wine with less tannins and the lady brought out a 2010 Demon Noir Malbec which received a gold medal from the 2011 Concours des Feminalise Competition in Beaune (a women’s wine competition!). This wine amazed me because I thought I was tasting a malbec from Argentina or California. It was completely New World in style with very ripe and sweet fruit complemented by big, velvety tannins. The label was also New World with an adorable and quite memorable “demon.” I asked if they were exporting the wine, and she said she wasn’t sure – or perhaps didn’t understand my question. I can’t help but wonder if this is one of Cahor’s competitive responses to the tidal wave of Argentina sweeping the world. Michelle loved it and immediately bought a bottle for the very nice price of 4.80 euros.

Chateau St. Didier, Chateau de Grezels and Prieure de Cenac

After leaving Cotes d’Olt we drove around the small roads winding through the malbec vineyards trying to decide which chateau to visit next. There were many choices with good signage pointing towards charming limestone houses surrounded by flowers. Finally we decided on a group of 3 wineries making wine in one location near the River Lot -- Chateau St. Didier, Chateau de Grezels and Prieure de Cenac. Walking into a large room with a sign that announced “Degustation and Vente de Vin” (wine tasting and sales), we were greeted by a nice lady who led us to the tasting bar and poured 4 wines from the 3 estates, with the 4th being a rather expensive special vineyard selection. All of the wines were in the traditional Cahors style with massive tannins, dark fruit, and truffle notes…but I was impressed with the fragrant berry nose of all the wines. I ended up buying the 2007 Chateau de Grezels Cahors for 5.80 euros. It was aged in oak for 12 months and was a selection of the 2011 Le Guide Hachette Des Vins.

The whole conversation was again in French, but we were able to understand that 20 to 30% merlot had been added to the wines. Later I checked the official percentage of malbec that is required for Cahors and found it is 70% minimum, but wineries are allowed to add up to 30% of merlot and/or tannat.

The vineyards around the chateaux appeared to be wider spacing than Bordeaux – perhaps 4 by 6 feet with a single caned pruned arm (guyot). The vines were allowed to grow quite high for France – at least 5 feet. I wasn’t sure if this was because of the vigor of malbec (if often needs a kicker cane because it grows so fast), or because they just hadn’t had a chance to trim them yet. If we had more time, I would have done more research and made advance appointments with someone who could have explained the vineyards, but I wasn’t even sure we were going to get to Cahors. Now I am very glad we came. It is a charming, beautiful, and non-touristy area which is enjoyable to visit.

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