One of the most notable and unusual chapters in my wine year was a trip to Cahors, last May, during Malbec Days, an event where the Cahors wine producers seek to showcase the fact that they are the original home of the grape made famous by Argentina. I was there for the event, but also for a retasting of Le Pigeonnier, a special cuvée by Château Lagrézette that I had reviewed rather unfavorably. The result of the “Lagrézette Challenge” are found here on PalatePress, so I won’t retell them.
The stay was not exactly all easy and simple. The Malbec Days were amateurishly organized. Seriously the worst congress/press trip/event I went to, in terms of logistics, with nobody actually seeming to take responsibility for anything. The difficulty in getting anything done as expected or to even get a schedule of events was nothing to help me appreciate Cahors and its wines.
Still, in the end, despite the frustrations of the trip and the too-frequent assault of overoaked, bluntly tannic wines, I remain somewhat endeared with Cahors, as I realized when I watched this video directed by Mark Ryan, The Scent of Black, a title that evokes at once the famously dark color of the local malbec wines and that of the truffles that are also abundant in the region.
The movie (also available on Youtube, if the Vimeo feed is giving your computer trouble), a very nice promo for the region, brought back some good memories, and not just the fun I had with the likes of Joe Roberts, Nick Gorevic, Ken Payton and David Lebovitz and a lot of other cool people.
One of the things that came back to mind is the surprising fact that cahors, the black wine made from malbec, is actually a great match with foie gras. We’re usually told that foie gras is to be accompanied with sweet wines like sauternes, but when we had an appetizer of pan-seared foie gras on lentils, at our last meal in Cahors, and nothing to taste with it other than the big reds placed on the table, everyone around the table agreed that the two went together surprisingly well. The richness of the wine is key to that match – but the fact that it is not downright sweet actually makes the whole thing lighter and more pleasant.
The other thing that the film reminded me of is all the fascinating things about terroir that we had heard in Cahors from Claude and Lydie Bourguignon, two of the most interesting soil experts in France. In Cahors, where they decided to plant vines to see just what the terroir has to say, the amount of land under vine is still well below what it was before phylloxera and harsh competition from Bordeaux practically wiped out the local vignerons. The result is that, today, this old wine region is in many ways a young one, feeling its way about as it tries to compete better on the world stage. And beyond the use of new oak, that means experimenting with winegrowing and winemaking approaches that are truly attentive to the particulars of the terroir, which is remarkably varied. A few producers, like Mas del Périé, who bottles different cuvées according to the parcels and types of soils, are seriously – and successfully – exploring what that means.
Among these various soil types in Cahors, a fair bit is actually kimmeridgian, a limestone soil that is also found in the best spots of Chablis. Which led to the Bourguignons pointing out that there was indeed a lot of great potential for whites in the home of black wine. And indeed, I’ve tasted a few interesting whites from the region – not in the cahors appellation, though, since that one only allows for reds made essentially from malbec.
One of them was a surprisingly fresh chardonnay from Château de Cayx, made by (for?) the prince of Denmark himself. Although made in a very controlled, modern style, it was well-balanced and provided a welcome pause from the heavy reds that had been the constant in the trip up to that point. And lo and behold, it does take advantage of the limestone soils found on the Château’s property.
The other one was a bottle of 2009 Dame de Grézette Viognier, grown in Rocamadour, 60 kilometers north of Cahors, by the team from the Château de Lagrézette. Jean Courtois, the estate’s general manager, kindly gave me a bottle to sample at home, after the Lagrézette challenge tasting. I drank it just before Christmas and liked it quite a lot.
Drawn from a close-planted lot on clay-limestone soil, with low yields of 30 hectoliters per hectare, it had great intensity and a good backbone, with very pleasant aromas of tropical fruit and a fair bit of acidity and freshness. I know the wines go through a stint of a few months in oak, yet I didn’t get any significant – or at least intrusive – oak character in the wine. Another great example of a fine southwest white – it better be, at 25 euros a bottle.
I certainly hope more of these white wines will be made, as Cahors hopefully focuses more on the subtleties of terroir than on the properties of new oak. Such a focus, in both reds and whites, is exceedingly important if the region wants to provide something truly unique and distinctive, not just something powerful and blunt.