I had the great fortune to visit the winelands of France twice this year — the first a whirlwind trip from Roussillon to Alsace, with stops in Provence, the Rhône and Burgundy; while the second trip focused on the southwest, where I visited wineries in Bordeaux and Cahors. I was very impressed with the wines and wineries of Cahors.
Cahors is in the beautiful Lot River Valley, home to stunning scenery, deep history and pre-history, amazing gastronomic culture and noble red wines made from Malbec grapes.
Malbec is very well known to U.S. drinkers as a wine from Argentina, but Malbec has its roots in the southwest of France, both in Bordeaux and in Cahors. Malbec has been grown for hundreds of years there; it is one of the five (or historically six) Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère) and is used primarily as a blending grape.
But Cahors is the only region in France that produces red wines based on Malbec. Cahors winemaking goes back to the time of Roman rule, with vines being planted in the area around 50 B.C. Since then, vines have remained in the Quercy region. During the Middle Ages, Cahors wine was called “the black wine of Lot” and was featured prominently at court. It was called a black wine because, back then, the wine traditionally in the region was a blend of Malbec and the rustic Tannat grape, and those two combined create a dark, inky wine with huge tannins that took several years of aging to even approach drinkability. Cahors wines were much loved in the 19th century, in part because of their ageability. The region fell on hard times when the phylloxera louse destroyed its vineyards, and it has taken the region nearly a century to recover.
The wines of Cahors are vinified to be much softer these days, and for the most part are designed for consumption upon purchase. This is because of different winemaking techniques as well as a scarcity of Tannat planted in Cahors.
Wine is a reflection of grapes, winemaking skill and terroir (the combination of soil, place and climate), and this is seen easily when one compares the Malbecs of Argentina with those of Cahors.
Argentine Malbecs, grown in the arid high deserts of Mendoza, rely on irrigation to flourish, and the wines therefore have more extraction and forward flavors. In general, Argentine winemakers favor new oak barrels more than the French, so the Argy wines have a sweet vanilla characteristic.
With very few exceptions, it is illegal to irrigate grapevines in France, so the grapes produced there are much more dependent on climate, and the Malbecs produced in Cahors have less extraction and deep flavors than those in Mendoza. While oak barrels are used in the region, it is unusual to find a predominance of new toasty oak, so there is less vanilla and oak flavors in Cahors wines.
The Lot Valley of the Cahors region is made up of three alluvial terraces. The higher the terrace, the better the drainage. The lower terraces, closest to the river, produce the most fruity wines; the medium terraces produce wines with more body and structure; and the upper terraces, which contain a good deal of limestone, produce the best wines — those that are suitable for aging.
The climate also changes as one gets farther from the river: large bodies of water have a mediating effect on temperature, so the farther one gets from the river, the greater the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures. This greater diurnal shift forces a later harvest time on the upper terraces, resulting in wines with greater finesse.
They, especially those that come from the upper terraces and that have seen some oak finishing, can age for many years. They pair well with stews and braises (think cassoulet and bouef en daube), sausages, grilled meats, fowl (especially duck) and bold flavored cheeses.
Here are a few Cahors wines available in the Northern California:
- Gouleyant — French slang for mighty tasty, this entry-level cuvée of Malbec and Merlot is tank-vinified, fresh and lighter bodied; a perfect introduction to French Malbecs.
- Clos La Coutale — Another lighter style of wine, also a Malbec/Merlot mix, finished in oak barrels.
- Le Cèdre — Ageable, deep, brooding; arguably the world’s greatest Cahors.
- Haute-Serre — Another ageable wine, from the limestone plateau; more feminine in style than Le Cèdre.