France, Cahors: king of the Malbec vines

cahors/malbecAsk the average wine drinker to name the home of the Malbec grape and chances are that they will answer, “Argentina.” The South American country is a relatively small player on the global wine stage in absolute terms, but today it is Malbec’s greatest proponent and can boast over 70% of the entire world plantings of the variety. Malbec has become synonymous with Argentina – truly it’s ‘signature grape’ – and it is Malbec that has spear-headed strong export sales for Argentina, particularly to the UK, USA, Canada and Brazil.

Seven thousand miles north in the historic Cahors region of South West France, wine producers must view this 21st century phemomenon with a mixture or wonder and disbelief. For Cahors is the historic and once world-famous home of Malbec: it was Cahors that gave Argentina its first Malbec vines, when French agronomists took cuttings there in 1852. Today, the winemakers of Cahors are determined to reclaim Malbec as their own.

The French Malbec

mapCahors’ vineyards were first planted 2000 years ago by the Romans, though it was the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henri Plantagenet in 1152 that began a period of intense growth. Sales of the ‘black wine’ of Cahors reached dizzying heights in the 14th century. In 1310 the wines of Quercy (the province of which Cahors was the capital) accounted for 50% of all exports from the Port of Bordeaux – some 85 million litres of wine, much of it bound for the UK.

At the end of the 14th century the 100 Years War led to punitave taxes being levied against the wines of Cahors and the South West (this was the last enclave of English rule), leading to a long, slow period of decline – aided also by jealousy from the Bordeaux industry which blocked exports from the South West. But it was the arrival of Phylloxera in the 1860s that sounded the death knell for the Cahors wine industry, destroying the entire vineyard area over the next decade. Winegrowers tried replanting with native Malbec, but it remained susceptible, and the decision was taken to replant instead with hardy, American hybrid varieties. These proved viable, but unfortunately did not produce wines of quality, leading inevitably to further decline in Cahors’ reputation and output.

Cahors revisited

Cahors remained in the doldrums into the first half of the 20th century, its glorious history remembered, but its reputation in tatters. But the story of Cahors’ revival can be traced back to the late 1940s, when a group of producers set out to restore the reputation of the region, and to do so based on replanting Malbec. Seedlings sourced from Bordeaux were planted, and became the foundation of Cahors today. In 1971 the region gained AOC status, the regulations insisting on a minimum of 70% of the blend being Malbec, with up to 30% of Merlot and Tannat also allowed. Today, the proportion of these other varieties is falling rapidly, with most top wines 100% Malbec. But the unofficial classification of Cahors wines has taken an interesting turn, and one that has been informed by Malbec’s position in the world, especially in Argentina.

The producers of Cahors have formed some strategic alliances with Argentina (including jointly-promoted events around the world), and have emphasied Malbec in their marketing, including the creation of a chic and contemporary centre of wine and gastronomy called the ‘Malbec Lounge’ in the town of Cahors, with plans for branches in New York and around the world. The USA and Canada are mow Cahors’ two largest export markets, no doubt due in part to the success of Argentine Malbec having opened the doors.

Cahors style(s)

vineyardsThe famous ‘black wines’ of Cahors were true vins de garde, suitable for long cellaring but needing that time to soften their sometimes brutal tannins. Such wines do not suit today’s consumer, especially when the warm and sunny conditions in Mendoza amplify Malbec’s sweeter, riper and creamier side. The winemakers of Cahors have new vineyard regimes that harvest riper grapes with less strident tannins, and gentler winemaking that can still harness the power and depth of Malbec, but without the level of extraction that once made these wines so tough in their youth.

Of course some producers have done this more successfully than others, and there are philosophical differences between winemakers in the style of wine they strive to deliver. There are still wines that could be described as ‘rustic’, and some of the wines I tasted were a little too anoymously ‘international’ perhaps. The scourge of Brettanomyces also reared its head in a handful of bottles. But those are the negatives: so many of these wines exhibited the gloriously violet and kirsch-scented purity of aroma that Malbec can deliver, plus the strapping plum and chocolate richness of flavour that is both modern, and yet expressively Cahors: the silkiness of Mendoza’s best, combined with the juice and savoury grip of Cahors. Above: Château Lagrazette.

Three slices of Malbec

malbec grapesPart of the marketing and educational strategy has been to segment Cahors production into three levels, known as ‘Tradition’, ‘Prestige’ and ‘Spéciale’. This is a voluntary code, but one which is very widely adhered too. So that consumers can know broadly what to expect, each of the three levels is meant to fit a certain stylistic profile and price bracket. Partly this is down to where the vineyards are sited, from the rich alluvial valley of the river Lot, or on one of the mid-slope terraces with less generous soils, to the highest plateau with limestone soils and 300 metres altitude, including areas of ‘terra rossa’, iron-rich soils that produce some of the finest wines. Photo: the distinctive Cahors wine glass with Malbec grapes.

Higher proportions of Merlot and Tannat appear in the ‘Tradition’ wines too, which are normally blends, whilst at the ‘Spéciale’ level the majority of wines are 100% Malbec. Each of the three tiers fits a recommeded price bracket too: under 7€, 7 to 14€, and over 14€ respectively. But some of the top estates fetch significantly more.

The wines

During three days in the region recently I had the opportunity for a formal tasting of 110 wines, and for two very interesting visits: one to Château du Cèdre, undoubtedly one of the most respected estates, and another to meet six young winemakers representing the new generation. But below you will find links to the 110 Cahors wines tasted blind over two days in February 2013.The identities of the wines were not revealed until after the tasting.

There is certainly no sense that Cahors is resting on its Malbec laurels, with many innovative young producers embracing organic and biodynamic farming and winemaking techniques, pushing to identify and have recognised specific terroirs and ‘Grand Cru’ sites, and flirting with everything from high-end white wines to ‘natural’ wines made in concrete eggs. It is a dynamic area, blending ancient history with a youthful sense of challenge and opportunity.

See all UK stockists of Cahors wine on

Level 1: Tradition

‘Tender and Fruity’ is the designation of these wines, which generally sell for 7€ or less locally, and which will normally have 70% to 85% of Malbec in the blend. I found that these wines ranged from the easily quaffable to the quite serious in style, and the advice is that even at this level the wines will age for five years.

Level 2: Prestige

‘Feisty and Powerful’ is the strapline for the middle group, which generally will have at least 85% Malbec (and so can be labeled as Malbec). The wines aim to be age-worthy for up to 10 years, and are noteably more vinous than the Tradition level wines, some of them amongst the most powerfully-built of the tastings.

Level 3: Spéciale

‘Intense and Complex’, these wines are almost always 100% Malbec. This third tier should age for 10 years plus, and undoubtedly included the finest Cahors wines in my tastings. But it is also the tier of experimentation, with perhaps the widest variety of styles and wines were single vineyards and specific soils are celebrated.

x for tasting notes on 100 Cahors wines

Cahors, the New Generation

the new generation

From left to right: Fabien Jouves (Mas del Périé); Julien llbert (Château Combel la Serre); Germain Croisille (Château les Croisille); Emmanuel Rybinski (Clos Troteligotte); Fabrice Durou (Château de Gaudou); Loic Aldhuy-Thévenot (Château Fantou).

During my time in Cahors I had dinner with six representatives of the new generation of Cahors winemakers and a sometimes slightly chaotic tasting of their wines. This rather unruly lot share an irreverent sense of humour and quick-fire propensity to bring each other down a peg or two if there’s the merest whiff of pretentiousness, so whilst the evening was huge fun with some great food and terrific wines, I do hope I have got all my facts straight on vintages, blends and other details.

PascalPascal Verhaeghe of Château du Cèdre (right) was universally cited as the role model for this group. His decision to farm organically and then biodynamically, and his vision of Cahors redefined as a Burgundian model of Malbec expressed as a product of small, specific vineyard plots – terroirs – changed the game for the generation to follow. “I am a Burgundy producer,” said Fabien Jouves when introducing his wines, a statement full of meaning though one met with a volley of affectionate abuse from his peers around the table. The group talks more solemnly about the older generation of winemakers, and how their reliance on synthetic chemicals in the vineyard to spray against pests and diseases led to ill-health for many of them in later life. This groups embraces organic viticulture, or at the very least ‘lutte raisonnée’, the limited, carefully considered application of chemical sprays. But changes in farming practice are not the only difference between the older generation and the new: “The older generation tended not to exchange information, or even taste any wines except their own,” says Fabrice Durou. “We are not interested in history, family feuds, old grievances. We know it is a big wide world, and we have to cooperate,” adds Emmanuel Rybinski as if speaking with one voice. The group also cites the financial crisis and the tough market in which they operate as a factor that has made people think differently about the wines they make. Some of the cuvées here show huge ambition to make world class, and ultra-premium wines often in very small volumes. This generation is intent on improving Cahors in terms of its wines and recognition.

The wines

Château Combel la Serre, Cahors Coeur de Cuvée 2008, France
Julian returned to the family property in 2005, and has created three wine ranges based on 3 different soils – clay, clay and chalk and sidérolithique (iron-rich, red soils). This spent 12 months in barrels and has plenty of coffee and charry toast, but real freshness and very good fruit, expressively Malbec with plum and chocolate. 89/100. See all stockists of Combel la Serre on wine-searcher.

Château Combel la Serre, Cahors Elite 2009, France
Twenty months in all new oak, harvested at only 15hl/ha and given 60 days of cold soaking pre-ferment. Wonderfully fresh and vital – quite reminiscent of top Argentine Malbec in style (think Achaval Ferrer, Finca Sophenia), hugely creamy, dense and sweet. Deliciously creamy and sensory stuff from vines grafted onto original pre-Phyloxerra roots of ancient Malbec. 93/100.

Clos Troteligotte, Cahors K 2011, France
From next year this wine will be aged in amphora, small 150-litre red clay amphorae made in Toulouse from local clay. Very juicy stuff, this is deliciously black fruited and has energy and structure to spare. A really ‘alive’ wine with a lovely focus. The estate is in its last year of organic certification, and is moving to biodynamic farming. 92/100. See all stockists of Clos Troteligotte on wine-searcher.

Clos Troteligotte, Cahors K 2009, France
Aged in French oak for two years. The nose has the mineral, schisty, lightly smoky character of this soil, with the oak adding cedary notes, spice and the fruit elegant. Deliciously fresh and has elegance again. 92/100.

Mas del Périé, Cahors la Roque 2011
A biodynamic operation producing four wines from four parcels “like Burgundy,” according to Fabien, and aim for drinkability allied to finesse. A 50/50 blend from barrel and tank. Deliciously fresh and direct fruit, superb tang and freshness here again, with delicious length and focus. Fabien also mentioned that he was taking delivery of concrete fermentation ‘eggs’ the morning after our tasting, with plans for some experimentation with this year’s harvest. 91/100. See all stockists of Mas del Périé on wine-searcher.

Mas del Périé, Cahors la Piece 2010
Harvested at just 17hl/ha from la Piece parcel. Fabien bottles this in a Burgundy bottle. Salty character, also something warming and smooth like caramel. So fresh on the palate, that salty liquorice freshness married to very pure fruit. 93/100.

Château de Gaudou, Character de Gaudou Cahors Reserve 2007, France
Gaudou has 40 hectares of vineyards covering all slopes/aspects around a hill, and 70% of their wine is exported (including to Majestic in the UK and Vin de France in Ireland), thought their biggest market is the USA. Lovely cedary stuff, but suffused with deep black fruits. There is some whole bunch fermentation and carbonic maceration here, before two years in oak. Deliciously smooth and chocolaty tannins. 91/100. See all stockists of Château de Gaudou on wine-searcher.

Château les Croisille, Cahors Divin 2004, France
Germain Croisille joined the family domaine in 2008 having completed his viticultural studies. He met Pascal Verhaeghe of Château du Cèdre whom he cites as a big influence, he has been farming organically since 2010 and has introduced strict green harvesting as well as other quality initiatives. Since 2008 this cuvée has been made ‘grain par grain’ – literally picking the fruit grape by grape. A lovely, top selection with great mid-palate sweetness and a very silky texture that positively caresses the palate. Delicious. 93/100. Croisille has a wine in M&S currently. See all stockists of Château les Croisille on wine-searcher.

Château Fantou, L’Elite 2009, France
A farm with 21 ha of organic vineyards. Low yields is another watch-word here, as explained by Loic Aldhuy-Thévenot whose former career was landscape gardener before marrying into the family domaine and taking over its running with his wife in 2002. A lot of oak here, in the creamy mint and coconut spectrum, but there is a lovely density and quality of ripe Malbec too. A welter-weight of creamy and ripe black fruit on the palate, super suave and supple, the ripe tannins are big and at this stage quite drying, but the balance with the clean acidity and copious spice in the finish is good, the fruit concentrated and pushing through. 92/100. See all stockists of Château Fantou on wine-searcher.

See also: a producer profile of Château du Cèdre, Cahors