Malbec has its roots in this part of France, where there seems to be a bit of a revolution going on, writes Christine Austin.
Everyone knows that the Malbec grape is grown in Argentina but its original home is Cahors in South West France. Here it has been grown for centuries and this region is probably the source of all those Argentine Malbec vines growing in the foothills of the Andes. In recent years Cahors has been allowed to add the grape variety to its labels, so in a perverse way, the success of Argentina is now rebounding back into Cahors.
The region of Cahors extends westwards from its namesake ancient town, around an hour’s drive south east of St. Emilion. The region is divided horizontally by the River Lot which meanders extravagantly westwards towards Bordeaux. This is how the region became famous. Hundreds of years ago, boats made their way to market along the river and their cargo of wine casks was usually heavily taxed when they came within the jurisdiction of Bordeaux.
But in years when the Bordeaux harvest was less good, the full-flavoured, deep-coloured wines of Cahors made a welcome addition to bolster the crop. Perhaps this is how the region’s wines became known as the “black” wines of Cahors. They are not actually black, but they are certainly deep, packed with colour that infuses through a blend.
The region now has a sheen of prosperity, mixing wine, good restaurants and tourism, but it has seen its fair share of difficulty. When phylloxera swept through France at the end of the 19th century it devastated Cahors and despite replanting, the region never really recovered. Then a massive frost in 1956 was so severe that the vines actually burst open and many of the vineyards were destroyed. Since then the region has gradually recovered, and revised legislation has allowed a proportion of Merlot or Tannat grapes to be added to the wines, adding softness and character.
The vineyards are grown on terraces of the Lot. In diagrams large, step-like structures appear perfectly even and logical, where lower terraces, closest to the river, are made of more alluvial matter and produce more immediate, less structured wines. The higher up the slopes, and up on to the shallow, limestone plateaux, the drier and more challenging the conditions and in theory, the better the wine. In fact when standing in the region it is difficult to make out these structures which have been formed over thousands of years by the action of the river, but the locals are adamant which piece of land is a first, second or third terrace.
The climate in Cahors is more dramatic than Bordeaux, with definite continental influences. Winter temperatures can go down to minus 18C while summers are warm and sunny. A wide swing of temperature between the heat of the day and night keeps freshness in the grapes.
As well as defining soils and vineyards and now blending some other grapes, there has been a revolution in the vineyards. Many producers are moving to organic production, and some are using biodynamic principles even if they have not gone for full certification. It means greater attention to detail which certainly shows in the wines.
Ch de Chambert is a perfect example. “Malbec is a fussy vine”, said Philippe Lejeune, owner of this historic property.
“It likes clear, still conditions during flowering and it doesn’t like wet summers”. With 65 hectares of vineyard definitely on the more challenging limestone plateaux and upper slopes, Ch de Chambert has been organic for years and is now extending its biodynamic credentials. The wines show the benefit of that attention. The 2008 Ch de Chambert is vibrant with damson and blackberry fruit, underpinned by a freshness and savoury complexity (£16.99 Harrogate Fine Wine).
Over at Ch Pineraie, sisters, Anne and Emmanuelle Burc work together to develop the family property. They use no herbicide on their vines and once in the winery the grapes are cold soaked to extract colour without tannins and then gently brought up to fermentation temperature. “We think we are now making more feminine wines, less tannic and with less oak, to allow the fruit to show more”. Even so these are structured, full-flavoured wines with bright acidity balancing the chunky fruit. They are the kind of wines that cry out for roast pork with crackling, or a piece of roast venison. The 2009 Cahors Tradition, made from 85 per cent Malbec and 15 per cent Merlot is robust and full, but softens on the palate, with savoury, meaty character. (£10.79 Field and Fawcett, York).
At Clos Triguedina, owner Jean-Luc Baldès has adopted an old-style of winemaking for one of his wines. Copying the method for “black wine” he dries out some of his grapes, almost in an Italian ripasso way to concentrate both colour and flavour, then blends them back into the rest of the harvest. In fact it isn’t really necessary because his wines pack plenty of power, with ripe, supple tannins. Clos Triguedina Petit Clos 2009 (£8.95 The Wine Society) is elegant with deep mulberry fruit and enough structure to partner duck or beef. For good value drinking from this region look out for the damson and dark plum fruit of Chateau de Gaudou (£7.99 Majestic Wine Warehouse) and the young, but ripe-fruited flavours of Chateau Lafleur Hautes Serre 2011 (£10.99 Waitrose).
While not actually declaring Cahors on the label, Rigal is one of the big producers in the area and has extended its vineyards to include terraces throughout the Lot valley. Rigal L’Instant Truffier, Côtes du Lot is packed with bramble and black cherry fruit with layers of anise, and while it isn’t quite Cahors it serves as a great introduction to the region. Find it at Majestic, price £7.49 on multibuy.
Malbec has a great affinity with chocolate, so if you are planning a dinner, perhaps with cheese and then a chocolate dessert, why not try Cahors to accompany both? Its deep, damson fruit and firm, ripe tannins can cope with a flavoursome cheddar and a chocolate marquise.