When we would mention to people that we planned to visit Cahors, France this summer, the general reaction was, “Sounds fantastic, and where is that?” In all honesty, that was our first reaction when a travel writer suggested it to us as a place filled with history, and of course, wine.
The Lot region (pronounced like an American would read it with a hard “t” at the end, which confuses the heck out of us
because most French words in ending in “t” make it a silent “t”, i.e. “Merlot” or “Chevrolet”) is a section of rolling hills defined by the Lot river in the Midi-Pyrénées of southwest France. The river over the years has carved out small valleys and beautiful gorges as it snakes its way eventually to the Atlantic Ocean.
In many ways, this region reminds me of the Sierra foothills. The hills are filled with what look like oak trees with huge historical cedars dotting the villages. Climate-wise, it gets warm here in the summer, but the diversity of agriculture in the region from cherries and strawberries to, of course, the valleys and hilltops covered in grape vines makes me think of Placerville. And as much as we enjoy an amazing history of gold discovery and helping to put California on the map, our 160 years seems a little young compared to villages with buildings that date back to the 1200’s or earlier. (We visited a winery where they have original invoices for their wine on the wall dating back to 1583.)
With over 230 Chateaux and Domaines to explore, let alone the wine shops filling the villages, we certainly had our chance to taste Malbec (sometimes called Côt) from the region. Interestingly, Malbecs from Cahors have the reputation of being rustic and tannic, overly ripe and big. Having tasted many of the other reds from France, it’s understandable that the French, who enjoy the higher acid and, what we might call, leaner and more complex, terroir-oriented wines, would find Malbecs from Cahors too much to handle.
Tradition, and now law, states that wines from Cahors may have the AOC (Appéllation Controlée) designate if the wine
is made in limited production, the wine meets certain taste/quality criteria (which insiders deem more political than actual quality-determined), and at least 70% of the wine is Malbec (with the choice of only Merlot or Tannat as the blending wines). As with other regions of France, history has determined which varieties are “meant” to be grown in a region (with little ability to experiment). This has both plusses and minuses, but that topic is for another blog.
As for the wines we tasted in Cahors and the surrounding villages, we liked them, and almost all of them (which is something unusual for us in any appellation). The more rustic style of the region (for Frenchmen) is more akin to the style that has made California famous for its wines. Deep in color, often intensely fruity, with medium to full-bodied palates, the Malbecs are an amazing expression of the soils and climate. Our cursory tastings, though, have spurred more questions about style and winemaking than we have answers (especially since foundational understanding of the region is all explained to us in French).
Our understanding is that grapes grown on the valley floors (known for deep, rich and sandy soils) produce the lower quality, easy drinking Malbecs, the reason being that the vines have plenty of nutrients and water, yielding big-berried grapes with greater juice to skin ratio (less skin contact equals less intense flavors and softer tannins). Most of these wines are aged in stainless steel tanks and never see a hint of oak (sold as bulk wines).
The next level of quality is associated with the lower part of the hills where the soils are leaner. The wines produced here are of better quality, but it is unclear as to whether they are slated for bulk wines for negociants or to be bottled on their own.
Lastly, the highest echelon wines come from the highest hillsides where the soils have been eroded the most. These areas make the vines struggle more, but the resulting wines are denser with more tannins and black color. These Malbecs are the most likely to be aged in oak barrels and deemed the highest quality and eminently ageworthy. This is the style most similar to the Malbecs from our Enyé vineyards in Pleasant Valley which are used in our Madroña Reserve Malbec.
Although we are excited to learn more about the production of Malbec in Cahors, the one thing we cannot understand
is the pricing. Everything here in France is expensive with the exception of bread and wine. Bulk wines in the market (where you take your own plastic water bottle in to fill, choosing the wine by the alcohol level) run about $4.50 per gallon. Yes, you read it coorrectly, that’s per gallon. And the wines we tasted were pretty good. Bottled wines from Cahors mostly cost somewhere between $5 to $15 and of good quality. I don’t know how the vineyards and wineries stay in business. That’s something to learn on the next trip.
Overall, Cahors is an amazing village with an incredible wine region around it. We can’t wait to come back.