September 20th, 2019/ BY Gurvinder Bhatia

Introducing the cradle of Malbec

Someone could be forgiven for believing that Malbec originated in Argentina. The South American country has become synonymous with the grape variety, it is the country’s most important wine and no country can match its more than 39,000 hectares planted with Malbec vines.

But France is its true home and the southwest region of Cahors, often referred to as “the cradle of Malbec,” is, by all accounts, the variety’s birthplace. The grape is also, of course, one of the permitted varieties in Bordeaux.

Malbec is a vigorous variety

Malbec also plays a significant role in another region of France. A masterclass at the Val de Loire Millesimé, held earlier this year in Nantes, France, presented by Latvian Raimonds Tomsons — 2017’s Best Sommelier of Europe & Africa and third best sommelier in the world in 2019 — served not only as a refresher on Malbec’s history and viticultural attributes but also on its importance in the Loire Valley, specifically in the appellation of Touraine.

Referred to locally in Touraine as Côt, Malbec’s presence in the Loire Valley is small — just 334 hectares — when compared with the approximately 6,000 hectares planted throughout France, of which 3,500 hectares are in Cahors, according to data provided by InterLoire.

As evidenced by the planned increase in the percentage required in a couple of the Touraine appellation’s geographic denominations, Côt’s significance in the Loire appears to be on the rise. Several producers have indicated that they recognize the grape variety’s potential in the region. It likely has to do with the style of wine being produced, which differs significantly from general wine buyers’ (consumer and industry) perceptions of the Malbec-based wines traditionally produced in Argentina and Cahors.

To understand the difference, some historical background is beneficial.

According to Tomsons, the first written reference to Malbec was in the 16th century, when it was referred to as Noir de Pressac. In Cahors, it was known as Auxerrois, a name still often used by local growers in the region. However, this reference can cause confusion, due to the existence of the grape Pinot Auxerrois, so Malbec is most often now used in Cahors.

The grape was likely introduced to Bordeaux in late 1700s by a farmer named Monsieur Malbeck (not a coincidence). Known as the Black Wine of Cahors, the variety was quite commonly used in Bordeaux in the 18th and 19th centuries to add colour, structure and tannin to the pale clarets of the era.

Malbec is an early-budding grape variety, making it susceptible to spring frosts, which led to it falling out of favour with many Bordeaux producers. The frost in Bordeaux in 1956 decimated Malbec plantings and most producers replanted with other less-susceptible varieties, such as Merlot (which is a sibling of Malbec, sharing the parent variety Magdeleine noire des Charentes as a parent, according to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes), significantly reducing Malbec’s presence in the region.

Michel Pouget brought the grape from France to Argentina in the mid-1800s (the exact year varies depending on the source). This introduction marked the beginning of what would prove to be a rebirth of the variety as today Malbec and Argentina are inseparable in the eyes of the wine world.

Malbec is a vigorous variety. The general characteristics tend to be elevated tannins, elevated to high alcohol and moderate acidity. The wines tend to be dry with a forward ripeness and, due to the tannin structure, can be suitable for some oak treatment (although there are still too many over-oaked Malbecs produced, in my opinion). Malbec can carry some oak well, particularly with age. The wines can be quite floral and perfumed, particularly in cooler climates. In warmer areas, the character of the fruit tends towards ripe and dark plums, cherries and even cassis.

Traditionally, the style of Malbec produced in Cahors was structured and concentrated, with a lot of extraction and partial new oak, with the wines meant to be held for eight to 10 years before drinking. Argentina became known for lush, forward, fruit-driven, easygoing wines. In sharp contrast, Côt from Touraine is generally bone dry, possessing freshness, a purity of crisp fruit, elegance and bright, natural acidity. Not surprisingly, many wine professionals and journalists attending the seminar led by Tomsons commented that the wines from Touraine were unlike any Malbecs they had ever previously tasted.

The appellation of Touraine is associated with the middle Loire Valley, having received AOC status in 1939. White, red, rose and sparkling can be produced under the regulations, with 59 percent of wines produced being white and 22 percent red. Within Touraine, there are five geographical denominations. Of the five, Côt plays an important role in Touraine Amboise and Touraine Chenonceaux (though only 8 percent of the grapes planted are Côt). While Côt is an early- to mid-ripening variety and the climate of the region is relatively cool, producers say the grape can ripen well and reach maturity — even more so than Cabernet Franc.

There are a variety of soils in Touraine, but flinty clay soils are the most common, along with limestone, gravel and sand. The western part of the appellation is more influenced by the Atlantic Ocean while the eastern section is more continental in climate. In general, due to the cooler climate, there exists good variation between day and night temperatures, preserving acidity and freshness while also extending the growing season, which contributes to flavour development and complexity.


Tomsons led the group through a tasting of wines from different geographical denominations within the appellation of Touraine.

Appellation of Touraine, Touraine AOC

Red wines in the larger appellation are 80 percent Côt or Cabernet Franc (but must be a minimum 15 percent Côt) with the remainder being Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir or Gamay. Speaking to Côt’s increasing support from producers, these wines will have to be a minimum 50 percent Côt starting in 2030.

Le Rocher des Violettes Côt Vieilles Vignes 2017, Touraine AOC, Loire Valley ($30)

100% Côt grown in siliceous-clay soils from 65- to 119-year-old vines, the wine spends 6 months in oak and possesses velvety fine tannins. Purple/violet in colour, bright and juicy with ample red cherry and red plum flavours and a crisp finish. Excellent.

La Chapinière Côt Garnon 2015, Touraine AOC, Loire Valley ($25)

100% Côt grown in mostly clay soils with flint. No oak, with a smoky and flinty character on the nose. Generous, firm tannins and ripe red fruit. Structured with a firm finish.


Xavier Weisskopf Le Roches des Violettes
Xavier Weisskopf, winemaker at Le Rocher des Violettes

Touraine-Chenonceaux AOC

The geographical denomination of Touraine-Chenonceaux lies on both sides of the Cher River, mostly on higher slopes with a semi-continental climate. The red wines are 50–65% Côt and 35–50% Cabernet Franc and Gamay may be included.

Domaine Sauvète Antéa 2016, Touraine-Chenonceaux AOC, Loire Valley ($25)

A blend of 65% Côt and 35% Cabernet Franc, grown on clay and flinty soils with no oak influence, the wine shows floral notes of violets and cherry blossoms with a purity of crunchy red fruit. Ripe, grainy tannins, medium body and crisp, bright acidity on a juicy finish.

Château de Fontenay L’Intrépide 2016, Touraine-Chenonceaux AOC, Loire Valley ($20)

Another 65% Côt and 35% Cabernet Franc blend, grown on flinty, clay and sandy soils. Juicy and herbal with fleshy tannins. Crisp, fresh and savoury with a lifted finish that makes it extremely easy to drink.

Touraine-Amboise AOC

The red wines of the geographical denomination of Touraine-Amboise may contain Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Côt and Gamay. Tomsons informed us that starting in June 2019, the reds must be 100% Côt, a testament to the potential that producers see in the variety.

Xavier Frissant La Griffe d’Isa 2016, Touraine-Amboise AOC, Loire Valley ($25)

100% Côt from a single vineyard. Grown in flinty clay soils, floral and juicy with dense, compact tannins. Grainy texture, ripe, dark red fruit with spice and a bright finish.

La Grange Tiphaine Côt Vieilles Vignes 2016, Touraine-Amboise AOC, Loire Valley ($35)

An outstanding wine from 110-year-old vines grown in red clay soils with flint. Aged for 9 months, half in concrete and half in old French barriques. Shows finesse and depth, a purity of fresh, bright fruit, mouth-watering acidity and a long, juicy finish. 100% Côt.



The overall quality of the wines tasted was outstanding. Where Argentine Malbec can be dense, dark and lush with chewy tannins, Touraine Malbec is perfumed, bright, elegant and lifted. There does exist a global trend towards better expressing the characteristics of the variety and terroir through less extraction, lower alcohol and less new oak and Côt from the Loire is congruent with this trend.

The trend towards fresher wines may explain a new generation of producers in Cahors making pure, fresher wines and the increased diversity of styles of Malbec being produced in Argentina, particularly those grown at higher altitudes, resulting in higher acidity.

Given the excellent quality and the bright, lifted character of Côt from Touraine, the question becomes, what is the best way to promote these wines? Call them Malbec to take advantage of name recognition or Côt to identify with a particular place and style?

Valid arguments can be made for both positions. If there existed an abundance of Côt wines from Touraine, calling them Malbec may make sense to draw attention to the wines. But the quantity of these wines produced is relatively small and the amount exported is even smaller. This suggests that the market to which the wines should be directed is much more focused.

Calling the wines Côt gives them a sense of place, both geographically and stylistically. Also, one avoids the inevitable issue of someone purchasing a racy Loire Valley Malbec with the expectation that it will taste like a lush and dense Argentine Malbec.

Ultimately, producers of Touraine Côt just need some sommeliers, wine writers and wine shops to champion their wines, which shouldn’t be difficult. Based on the wines I tasted, Côt has the ability to satisfy that feeling desired by any wine lover to find a new wine that leaves you genuinely excited. Fresh, racy, mouth-watering, bright, terroir driven, approachable, quaffable and versatile… what’s not to champion? Long live Côt!



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