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03.14.2010

Where Malbec Comes From: Tasting the Wines of Cahors

One of my greatest pleasures as a wine lover (OK wine geek) is learning about a wine region by tasting a lot of wines. While I prefer to taste on location, there's just no way I can possibly get to all the different places I'd like to learn about until I become independently wealthy or permanently retired (and wealthy). Which really means there are a lot of wine regions I'll never get the chance to visit.

Luckily a lot of smaller wine regions are realizing that one way to improve the market for their wines internationally is the "wine roadshow" where a bunch of producers heads off to major target markets and with the help of a PR firm, puts on a tasting for the trade and media in a big city.

I find such events incredibly interesting, and valuable in the education of my palate. So when I got the invitation to a recent such tasting focused on the wines of Cahors, I jumped at the chance to go. Having only had maybe three or four wines from Cahors in my entire life, I was excited to clearly establish in my own mind "what Cahors tastes like."

The answer turned out to be rocks, wet dirt, leather, and a hint of cassis.

Cahors is a small wine region about 100km to the east and a little south of Bordeaux, centered around a town of the same name. Rich in history, the Medieval town has long been a center of wine production -- much longer, in fact, than Bordeaux itself. The Cahors appellation, or AOC, is focused on the production of a single red wine, which must be at least 70% Malbec, or as it is known locally Côt, Côt Noir, or to some, Auxerrois.

Once a critical blending grape in most Bordeaux wines, Malbec has largely disappeared from those wines, aided greatly by the Phylloxera epidemic that wiped out nearly all the vineyards in the early part of the 20th Century. Cuttings from these vineyards, shipped to Argentina in the late 1800's before this disastrous event, are responsible for that country's rise to prominence in Malbec production.

Indeed, the larger wine world might not know much of anything about Malbec were it not for Argentina, which has done a remarkable job of making inroads with American consumers especially, who have fallen in love with the fruit forward, rich Argentinean Malbecs that appear in increasing numbers on grocery and wine store shelves.

Now thanks to the much greater awareness of the grape internationally, the Cahors region seems to be taking the opportunity to wave its flag and remind people that Malbec came from somewhere else before it hit Argentina, and that Cahors would like some attention. With this in mind, the region has undertaken a branding campaign under the straightforward tagline, "Cahors: The French Malbec." Some producers are even starting to put the word "Malbec" on their labels.

It's an admirable effort, but after my experience at this tasting, I fear it is doomed to fail, at least with American consumers.

The reason is simple: Cahors wines taste absolutely nothing like Argentinean Malbec. And what's more, they don't taste like what most American consumers want from their wine.

I found the vast majority of the wines to be quite austere: granitic and earthy with often very aggressive tannins that left the mouth dry. The cassis and blue fruit notes that I associate with Malbec thanks to my exposure to an awful lot of Argentinean stuff, were very faint and in the background as aromatics mostly.

Now I should be clear that I think the worst thing in the world would be for Cahors to taste like Argentinean Malbec. It's from a different place, so it should taste different. But it should also be pleasurable, and to be frank, I struggled to find much in the wines I tasted last week. Even the few examples of aged wines, where the tannins had time to mellow, and secondary aromas time to emerge, still were angular and tart compositions of liquified rocks, leather, a hint of smoky meatiness, and a few nice notes of anise.

Having said that, the better wines were quite interesting for all that minerality, and showed remarkable variation across soil types, those grown in limestone offering a different character to those grown in the more red clay soils.

While the AOC regulations stipulate that the wines must be at least 70% Malbec, the ones on offer at this tasting were either 85%, 90% or 100% Malbec, with the balance being made up of Merlot (most often) or Tannat (rarely). Interestingly, many of the wineries made several styles of wines that often bore common (though to my knowledge not officially regulated) names. Wines labeled "Tradition" were usually fermented in steel, and not aged in oak at all, but rather bottled young for early release. Wines labeled "Prestige" were usually fermented entirely, or at least a portion in oak, and then likewise aged in (usually old, or neutral, but occasionally with a portion of new) oak for some period of time. In addition to these two wines, which many wineries offered, most also had a top wine that was aged in a portion of new oak barrels.

As I said, I struggled to like the majority of these wines. Struggled because on the one hand, I don't think any wine region should give up its traditional styles or methods of winemaking easily, but on the other hand, I didn't want to drink most of these wines, and I don't think most American wine lovers would either.

Of course, that may be fine for a certain set of wine lovers -- not much competition for these wines. But for a bunch of the wineries of Cahors, who clearly are out to try to capture more attention and market share in America, the road is going to be long and hard.

WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9

2005 Le Bout du Lieu "Empyree," Cahors. $35

2007 Château les Rigalets "La Quintessence," Cahors. $n/a
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of farmyard, leather, and blackberry fruit aromas. In the mouth it offers lush, but firm tannins that envelop flavors of cassis, woodsmoke and black pepper that all dangle above a wet granite floor.

2007 Château St Didier "Prieure De Cenac," Cahors. $28
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells simultaneously of smoked meats and a stone outcropping in a rainstorm. Aromas of cassis and black cherry sneak in with some more air. In the mouth the wine has a supple leathery quality, with flavors of cassis and black cherry and an incredibly stony minerality that gives way slightly to some cherry notes that emerge again on the finish.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
2005 Château Armandières Malbec "Ancestral," Cahors. $12
2007 Château les Rigalets "Prestige," Cahors. $n/a
2007 Château St Didier "La Vierge," Cahors. $40
2007 Château St Didier "Château De Grezels," Cahors. $20
2008 Château St Sernin, VDP du Lot $??
2002 Château Vincens "Les Graves de Paul," Cahors. $30
2006 Château Vincens "Prestige," Cahors. $20
2006 Le Bout du Lieu "Orbe Noir," Cahors. $23
2007 Mas Del Périe "Les Acacias," Cahors. $40
2007 Mas Del Périe "Les Escures," Cahors. $16
2007 Mas Del Périe "La Roque," Cahors. $23
2007 Métairie Grande du Théron "Prestige," Cahors. $25
2008 Métairie Grande du Théron "Prestige," Cahors. $25

WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
2002 Château Armandières "Diamant Rouge," Cahors. $24
2007 Château Armandières "Diamant Rouge," Cahors. $24
2008 Château Cayx Malbec. Cahors. $48
2006 Château Cayx, Cahors. $24
2006 Chateau d' Eugénie "Tradition", Cahors. $10
2006 Chateau d' Eugénie "Reservee De L'Aieuil," Cahors. $20
2002 Château Paillas, Cahors. $n/a
2006 Château Pineraie Malbec, Cahors. $14
2007 Château Pineraie, Cahors. $12
2007 Château Pineraie "Authentique," Cahors. $40
2008 Château Vincens Malbec, Cahors. $13
2007 Le Bout du Lieu, Cahors. $14
2007 Les Roques de Cana "Sanguis Christi," Cahors. $50

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8
2008 Château Cayx "Cuvee Majeste," Cahors. $70
2006 Chateau d' Eugénie "Pierre Le Grande," Cahors. $15
2004 Château de Cénac "Eulalie," Cahors. $30
2006 Château de Cénac "Prestige," Cahors. $??
2007 Château de Hauterive, Cahors. $12
2005 Château Paillas, Cahors. $n/a
2009 Château St Sernin Rosé, VDP du Lot $??
2006 Domaine du Prince "Lou Prince," Cahors. $38
2005 Domaine du Prince, Cahors. $10
2006 G. Vigouroux "Pigmentum," Cahors. $10
2007 Les Roques de Cana "Le Vin de Noces", Cahors. $30

WINES SCORING BETWEEN 7.5 AND 8
2005 Château Bovilla, Cahors. $??
2006 Château du Port "Prestige," Cahors. $15
2008 Château Haute Borie "Prestige," Cahors. $25
2000 Château St Sernin "La Tour St. Sernin," Cahors. $30
2005 Château St Sernin "Prestige", Cahors. $18
2004 Domaine du Prince "Le Chene Du Prince," Cahors. $13
2005 La Coustarelle "Eclat," Cahors. $n/a
2008 Métairie Grande du Théron "Tradition," Cahors. $15

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7.5
2005 Château de Hauterive "Prestige," Cahors. $18
2008 Château de Hauterive, Cahors. $12
2009 Château Haute Borie "Tradition," Cahors. $15
2008 Château Haute Borie "Tradition," Cahors. $15
2007 Château Paillas, Cahors. $n/a
2008 Château St Sernin "Varua Maohi Mana" Malbec, Cahors. $18
2006 La Coustarelle "Tradition," Cahors. $25


WINES SCORING BETWEEN 7 AND 7.5
2007 Clos De Troteligotte "La Fourmi," Cahors. $11
2006 Clos De Troteligotte "La Perdrix," Cahors. $18
2006 G. Vigouroux Chat "Haute Serre," Cahors. $22

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7
2006 Clos De Troteligotte "CQFD," Cahors. $38
2006 La Coustarelle "Grande Cuvee Prestige," Cahors. $45

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 6.5
2005 Domaine du Prince "Rossignol," Cahors. $n/a

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 6
2005 G. Vigouroux Chat "Mercues Prestige," Cahors. $50

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