It was called “Black Wine” for years – the French Malbec wines from Cahors in France’s Southwest region. The British were the main consumers of this rich, unctuous and tannic drink until the root louse phylloxera decimated the vineyards in the late 1800’s. 100 years later, after replanting with terroir in mind, the Cahors wine producers awakened to a different Malbec world far from their shores, in Argentina. They realized they were late to an already raging party. Undaunted by the competition, Cahors wine producers now feel it’s the Golden Age of Cahors and better late than never to reclaim Malbec’s French birthright.
I arrived in Toulouse, the historic land of foie gras and duck breast prepared a hundred ways, remembering fondly my European culinary school adventures in my early 20’s. France is rich with told and untold stories of food, wars and wine. Not necessarily in that order. The grapes of the Cahors region — planted originally by the Romans over 2000 years ago — enjoyed massive popularity until as recently as the mid-19th century but, post phylloxera and the depression surrounding that devastating insect invasion, the area has struggled with relevancy for years. Their glitzy neighbors to the northwest, Bordeaux, stole the spotlight eons ago and Cahors hasn’t quite recovered. Although Malbec makes up one of the six major Bordeaux varieties, used for blending in their infamous Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon bottling, Cahors feels they owns Malbec.
Or, at least, they used to.
In 1971, Cahors wines made from Malbec (at least 70%), achieved the esteemed AOC recognition (now called AOP – “Appellation d’Origine Protegée). But it wasn’t until 2000 that the producers had a “crisis of change” and realized that Argentina had taken their grape under their wing. In fact, the oldest Malbec grape vine alive today lives in South America. Argentinean winery Altos de Hormigas began exporting Malbec to the U.S. 20 years ago, and Americans fascination with this fruit-forward, easy drinking red wine blossomed into an intense, teenager-ish love. It was around this time that Cahors producers began realizing that their generic, bulk wine methods weren’t going to root in the new wine world of the U.S. They needed to focus on quality, organic practices and crafting wines with singularity and care. Fast forward 20 years when Cahors now see themselves as the smaller, cooler producers of French Malbec, carrying the flame of Malbec history. The entire planted AOP area of Cahors is around 4,300 hectares (about 16 square miles, two-thirds the size of Manhattan), farmed mostly by independent growers – compare that to Trapiche, one of Argentina’s larger producers, who owns that (and a helluva lot more). From the outside, this might appear to be a scratch-and-tug battle but the French are pretty much chillin’ – they’re willing compatriots with the Argentineans. Altos de Hormigas has even invested in Cahors because of the unique terroir and soil found in the Southwest. (Read more about Malbec from Argentina here.)
The wines from both regions are vastly different as well. Thin-skinned, Malbec requires more sun and heat than grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. It provides bountiful tannins, color and concentrated plum flavors; French producers blend it with Merlot and another indigenous grape Tannat to round out a wine’s flavor profile. For planting and growing in a mixture of limestone and clay soils, Cahors producers divide the region into Valley, Coteaux and Plateau. Valley fruit grows closer to the River Lot floor in heavy clay, offering juicy, fruit-driven wine; Coteaux fruit, along the slopes richer in limestone, has more power; and the grapes from the Plateau on the ridges give birth to wines of elegance and finesse. Something for everyone, right?
While Argentina’s Malbecs are soft and fruit-forward, I found Cahors French Malbecs generally have chewy tannins, vibrant yet dark fruit and restraint. But many producers are using modern techniques to tame the tannins, from concrete tanks to clay pots to hot maceration. Chateau de Gaudou, a 7th generation winery where Fabrice Durou crafts some beautiful juice with unusual practices, is turning heads. His lovely and lively 2013 100 percent Malbec saw no oak during production, something his ancestors might gasp at, like serving duck breast well-done. But Fabrice saw the trends – consumers no longer want to wait five or six years to enjoy a bottle of wine. (We want it, and everything, like, now.) So, after traveling to forward-thinking wine regions like Australia’s Yarra Valley to study, Durou steered the winery towards what the world wants instead of what tradition prescribed. A gutsy move in the conservative, judgmental world of French wine.
Chateau du Cèdre, a leader of the organic and export movements in Cahors, has been instrumental in driving the region forward into the world. Its passionate second generation vintner Pascal Verhaeghe teaches other wineries how to sell their wines in other countries as well as how to farm without pesticides. Natural yeast usage and no sulfites are hallmarks of his winemaking. Meticulous, borderline OCD, treatment of the grapes during harvest – including culling single grapes from a bunch while in the fields – proves out his signature phrase: “I make wine in the vineyards.” And, at around $15, the Cèdre Heritage from the 2012 vintage is spectacular – bright red fruit, easy to drink, balanced and smoother tannins than you might expect from the area.
Other Cahors wineries to seek out are Clos la Coutale, that exports 80 percent of their wines, and Clos Triguedina who makes a sparkling wine as well as a signature Black Wine, inspired by ancestral vinification techniques. Big tannins with a slight sweetness, this nod to Cahors history bottles pairs well with dark chocolate. It’s a party, folks.
They don’t grow many white grapes in Cahors but that’s starting to change. Although they aren’t classified under the high-brow AOP, they are designated IGP or Indication Géographique Protégée, a place where winemakers can roam free and plant and/or produce whatever they want. They’re playing with varietals such as Viognier, Chenin Blanc and Colombard.
Since they’re still getting their export feet under themselves, many of the wines from Cahors will be difficult to find. But they’re worth the search. Old vines, centuries of winemaking experience and a passion for success will lift them up and out of their struggles.