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Getting to the Root of Malbec in Cahors, France

Just mention the grape Malbec and most wine drinkers immediately think of the dark-purple, tannic wine from Argentina. Of course, Argentina has been extremely successful marketing Malbec as the signature grape of the region and its reasonable price-point has made it a popular wine for many consumers around the globe. Malbec in Argentina, however, was a transplant from France, and if you want to try Malbec as it was originally grown then you need to try the wine from the Cahors region in France.

An hour and thirty minutes north of Toulouse, the rural region of Cahors is the home of Malbec. A small medieval village, the wine action is all outside the city where densely populate fields filled with grapevines and picturesque sunflowers blanket the landscape. Presently, the AOC of Cahors includes some 4,500 hectares / 11,100 acres and comprises hundreds of winemakers.

Wine has been made in Cahors for 2,000 years, and in the 1,200s was called the “Black Wine of Cahors” given the intensely deep purple color.  Wine from Cahors was extremely popular through the 1,300s but then merchants from Bordeaux restricted the export of Cahors from the Gironde port and the wine struggled to come to market. When the pest phylloxera hit the region, destroying the root stock of the vineyards, in the 1860s, it took over 100 years to restore the grapes. Then, a severe frost hit the area in 1956 and many of the replanted vines were destroyed. With a tiny 400 hectares / 1,000 acres of vines, Cahors was designated an AOC wine region in 1971. It specified that Malbec, also called Cot, needed to comprise at least 70% of the wine, with Jurançon Rouge, Merlot Rouge, Tannat and Syrah comprising the remainder of the blend (but Syrah and Tannat could be no more than 10% of the wine). Over the last 50 years, Cahors had trouble marketing to wine drinkers who already thought they knew Malbec wines.

I had an opportunity to visit the largest organic and biodynamic winery, Chateau de Chambert, in Cahors to learn more about their organic winemaking process. While winemaking started at Chateau de Chambert in 1690, they became certified organic in 2012 and certified biodynamic in 2015. With over 60 hectares / 145 acres of vines, they plant about 80% Malbec with 15% Merlot and the remainder Chardonnay. There is a lot of experimentation in the winery with concrete tanks, large oak barrels, traditional sized oak barrels and single plot vinification.  I found the most interesting wine to be their 2014 wines from single plot vineyards (Cerisiers, Petite Maison and Le Puits), with tiny production levels and Burgundy Grand-Cru price points. While these wines still need to age a few years, you definitely can taste the distinct soils and complexity in the wines.

At Chateau de Chambert and throughout Cahors, there is a wide range of winemaking styles. The expression, vin de soif (easier drinking wines that do not need to be paired with food) blend in more Merlot to create a smoother wine that can be consumed sooner after bottling. 100% Malbecs from Cahors retain their deep purple color, and the limestone and clay soils produce a lot more minerality and very structured tannins in the wine, especially compared to their Argentinian cousins. Aging also benefits these wines to give their rich tannins time to soften and bring balance to the wine. Tasting through several vintages from different wineries, a found that vintages from eight years ago were ready to drink, so 2012 or earlier. Broadly, I found the tannins too powerful and a lot of austerity in the younger wines.

While the region of Cahors may not be a well-known area for many wine-drinkers, the rich history and unique wines make this region worth understanding.