The home of Malbec, Cahors shines in deep purple neon

By Tim Pawsey
It’s safe to say the Villa Cahors Malbec, right in the heart of Cahors, is purple. In fact, it’s definitely the most purple place I’ve ever been in. Even more so at night, when, with its mantle ablaze in swathes of luminescent indigo, this no holds barred tribute to Malbec feels more like a nightclub than a wine info centre.

In a world not short on wine promotion, the Villa Cahors Malbec is also among the most potent and enthusiastically supported whose threshold I’ve ever crossed. It’s easy to see why. There’s a real energy here, as visitors sample the some 50 wines on offer, paired with artfully created canapés, and maybe book in for the next festive food and wine event — on our visit, a seasonal gastronomic salute to the walnut.

In Cahors for the first time, even by French standards I wasn’t prepared for the absolute, serene beauty of the place. Roads wind and climb their way up impossibly steep slopes, where chateaux (in some cases dating from the middle ages) command almost every hilltop. Often (though not necessarily always) immaculately tended vineyards cascade down to the River Lot in the valley below.

A plethora of grape varieties is grown in this wider corner of France — perhaps not surprising when you consider just how much wine is produced in Languedoc and the South West. Some varieties are well known, others, from Négrette to Gros Manseng, not so much. Malbec has been the red king for years. It’s descended from Prunelard, a rare, beautiful plummy and peppery drop that lives up to its name, known locally also as Côt — not to be confused with Lot, the principal river that winds its way through the Cahors region.

Like other regions close to the Mediterranean, grape growing here dates from Roman times. And, as elsewhere, the vines devastated by phylloxera in the 19th century proved to be an unlikely boost for the New World and for Malbec in particular. Cahors’ misfortune turned out to be Argentina’s gain.

Malbec’s demise wasn’t confined to phylloxera. The challenges it faced over the years ranged from the disruptions around two world wars to the (still much talked about) devastating frost of 1956 that almost wiped out forever the resurrection of what had once had been one of Europe’s most abundant varieties. Yet one more threat was its fall from favour with the Bordelaise, who had traditionally used it for blending.

However, despite all too often being cast as poor cousins to their more affluent neighbours in Burgundy and Bordeaux, Malbec and Cahors soldiered on, to the point that, with Malbec’s international fortunes on the rise (thanks in great part to Argentina), the region is again on a roll.

Cahors makes for a fascinating study of ancient and modern. As often as not, the new breed of winemaker taking over the reins has travelled and worked vintages in other countries and a different hemisphere. Blending New World experience with traditions that reach back several generations, today’s Cahors vigneron can draw on the benefits afforded by centuries of learning to blend with modern techniques — employed from vineyard to winery — an outlook that truly combines the best of all worlds.

One such voyageur, seventh generation winemaker Fabrice Durou worked at a multi-client Yarra Valley crush pad to be exposed to a wealth of different tastes and techniques. On his return, he found himself seeking to chart a different course from that pursued by his father and grandfather (and their forebears) for the family’s Château de Gaudou.

The winemaker now makes two distinct lines. One very much carries on the family styles, marked by traditional labelling in “tier” selections that give prominence to the higher terraced and more complex geology. The other focuses much more on specific terroir, such as the highest elevation, southwest facing, almost all gravel slope. The reserve wine he makes is fermented in a large wooden vat, using carbonic maceration and punch down, while another is concrete egg fermented.

Another project — to focus on just one stony enclave — was a departure from what had been done before but there’s no question that it challenges the best of any premium New World styled Malbec I’ve seen from elsewhere, while retaining all the appeal and complexity that this ancient place so often reveals.

 

 

One thing about the wine world that never fails to amaze me is how everything — and everyone — is connected. Yes, I know, that does sound a little bit trite but a few happenings over the last few years have made me even more convinced about six degrees of viticultural separation.

Over dinner, not far from the impressive homage to Malbec, I meet “new generation” winemaker, Germain Croisille, proprietor of Château les Croisille, another proponent of more terroir-focused wines. As we taste our way through an impressive range, he mentions a collaboration in which he’s involved with Altos Las Hormigas in Argentina, in a project led by flying winemaker Alberto Antonini and Chilean soil guru Pedro Parra.

This same dynamic team is also working closely with Okanagan Crush Pad and, as it happens, I had recently attended a tasting of some more unusual Chilean wines — and heard about their Okanagan ideas.

Mendoza based Antonini and Parra make regular trips to a various regions in Europe to keep tabs on what’s happening. Over the last seven years, the role played by limestone in the soil has become a focus of their work, says Altos Las Hormigas technical director Leonardo Erazo.

“The complexity in the wines comes from different types of limestone. When they saw limestone in Cahors in so many places — it’s everywhere, even in the house — they got very excited,” says Erazo.

Traditionally, elevation (contrasting valley fruit with terrace and plateau soils) has been used to tier the wines. Most of the bigger vineyards are situated on the valley floor, close to the River Lot, while a third of the plantings are higher up the slopes (coteaux) and on the plateau. Referred to as “terraces,” the benches vary in age and geology, although the base soils are alluvial.

In recent years the tendency has been to concentrate more on the higher elevations and the coteaux, with their varied soils ranging from limestone and chalk, to gravel and clay.

The Altos team is collaborating with vignerons at three forward-thinking Cahors producers: Bruno and Didier Jouves at Domaine du Prince, Sébastien Sigaud at Metairie Grande du Theron, and Croisille.

Antonini and Parra went to work digging soil pits to determine the variations in soil and to identify the best limestone sites.

“We went straight for the limestone’” says Erazo. “You can see the cuts in the plateau. It’s all limestone. When we started digging, what we found was amazing. It’s very diverse — some of it is just like in Burgundy, changing every 200 metres.”

Leonardo Erazo, technical director of Altos Las Hormigas
Château de Gaudou winemaker, Fabrice Durou
 

 
Germain Croisille, "new generation" winemaker at Château les Croisille

The team was convinced: Cahors could get a lot more value for its wines by focusing more on the differing terroirs. The project has embarked on its own special collaborative label. The first vintage (aged in concrete with no oak influence to best express the terroir) was made in 2014.

Erazo says that the grapes have such pleasing acidity and the tannin is a bonus; and that the team has been fine-tuning some “nice results.” He also says it’s been exciting to work in some different techniques, from picking by hand to very soft extraction, with much shorter maceration times — and no use of oak.

Erazo (who recently spent two months in Cahors) says it was a bit of a challenge. However, “the winemakers there were very receptive, even though we changed completely the winemaking process.”

The whole adventure underscores just how much the wine world has evolved in the last relatively short while. Twenty years ago such a collaboration would have been highly unlikely, if not blocked by force of tradition. However, the team at Altos Las Hormigas — already well regarded as one of Argentina’s top Malbec producers — were determined to truly explore the origins (and modern possibilities) of the variety. No wonder they wound up in Cahors.

Much of the appeal of Cahors’ “black wines” lies in their dark, brooding and sometimes quite tannic personality. The premium wines, often with serious, expensive French oak, are shoo-ins for the hearty game cuisine of the region. The heftier and even more rustic styles cry out for wild mushrooms, chestnuts, garlic, truffles, game dishes and more.

The Altos Las Hormigas approach will be to make a more approachable (international) style, yet one which still very much (if not maybe even more) reflects the terroirs that Antonini and Parra have identified.

In keeping with what youthful, progressive winemakers like Fabrice Durou have initiated, the collaboration combines the sentiment of tradition with the technical benefits and reality of progress. But most of all, there is at the heart of it, a beautiful irony that transcends oceans, hemispheres and time, of Malbec coming home.

Château de Gaudou Grand Lignée Malbec 2012 ($22)

With 15 percent Merlot, from a higher elevation, yields aromas of black fruit, cedar and vanilla, followed by a plush palate of red and black fruit with a generous mouthfeel and lengthy, polished finish.

Château de Gaudou 2012 Le Sang de la Vignette ($30)

A luscious, velvet toned generously black fruited but superbly structured Malbec, fermented in a newly acquired concrete egg fermenter of the kind now employed by leading edge winemakers the world over.

Château de Gaudou Reserve Caillou 2011 ($35)

From 60 year old vines on a high elevation, south west facing, almost all gravel slope, Durou ferments in a large wooden vat, using carbonic maceration and punch down to make a plush and opulent wine that sports a complex, definite schist-y edge beneath its floral, violet toned opening and lingering pepper spice that often accompanies more premium offerings.

Château Pineraie 2010 ($19)

100 percent Malbec. From the middle terrace, 12 months in barrel with 20 percent new French oak. Middle terrace. Forward bright red berries followed by a plush and juicy mocha toned palate with good structure and firm tannins with a spicy end.

Château les Croisille Divin Croisille 2010 ($39)

From 30 year old vines, 18 months in fine grain French oak. Definite toasty oak up front followed by a luscious but still grippy plummy and black fruit palate with great persistence and distinctive spice through the finish.

Parcelle des Origines A822 2012, AOP Cahors ($40)

This 100 percent Malbec is made by brothers Pierre, Sebastien and Christophe Sigaud, from 35 year old vines grown on a unique clay and limestone site at la Métairie Grande du Théron. 18 months in French oak. Vibrant cherry fruits on a plush palate underpinned by good acidity.

Château de Chambert Grand Vin 2009 ($40)

From a mix of the best sites on limestone and clay soils. Forward notes of bright cherry with hints of anise and black pepper and mineral notes, bright acidity, and a lingering finish.