When we were here in Cahors last summer, one of the things that struck me the most was the similarity of the rolling hills here to ours in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. That was in summer, when the oaks had their leaves and everything was green. But now that we’ve been here a month in the winter, there are some real differences between the regions.
Of course climatically, I can’t really take a snapshot in time and do a comparison (since we’ve had quite a bit of snow at home last week and it’s a crapshoot as to sun/rain/cloudy here any given day), but the fact that we get all our rainfall in the winter/spring and the Lot region (in which Cahors is centered) is prone to get rain during the summer is one major difference. In fact, irrigation of vines here is not even allowed (except in extreme circumstances), and growers count on the summer rains for a successful season.
I had the opportunity last week to meet Jérôme Couture from Château Eugénie. This fifth generation winemaker not only spoke excellent English (having done a stint in an Australian winery), but his wealth of knowledge about the region and Malbec could have kept me there for hours (and it did). Imagine a young Frenchmen in rubber boots ushering you into his old farm car (a Renault, I think) to head for the vineyards. And that’s exactly what we did.
It’s great to exchange ideas with winemakers who feel, like we do, that quality truly comes from the vineyards.
Bouncing up the rocky road through forests of oaks, we emerge out on the plateaus for a vista of all of the village of Albas. The Lot river meanders through the valley below as M. Couture explains the history of this great region.
All the hills and the valley of this region used to be covered in grapevines (40,000 hectares (96,000+ acres)), mostly Malbec through the turn of 20th century. I even saw a 1913 or 1915 picture of the valley to prove it,
since now nearly all the hillsides have reverted back to oaklands. Today, there are closer to 4,000 hectares planted, or a mere 10% of the regions’ glorious past. Interestingly enough, there seems to a fairly common opinion that the better quality fruit comes off the hillsides. And then came the education on soils.
As a disclaimer here, I must say that I generally have lined up on the climate side of grape quality rather than the soil side of the argument. Meaning, I think climate is more important and impacts grape quality more than does soil type. But the more I speak to other growers with generations of experience constantly growing the same variety, I am starting to think that both climate and soil type need to be considered (my therapist considers this growth!).
M. Couture proceeded to explain how the Valley of the Lot (river) was formed by large glaciers plowing through an ancient seabed. The ice crushed through the softer rock, leaving beautiful valleys filled with gravel and river rock (and some deeper soils). The seabed aspect of the discussion was reinforced when atop the plateau, M. Couture reached down into a newly plowed section (of what we would almost consider to be rock) being readied to plant, and plucked up a rock with a two sea-life fossils (which we thought would be perfect for Tessa’s school rock project!). But then came the really interesting Malbec information as M. Couture explained how the valley floor is split into distinct terraces, producing wines of distinctly different characters. There’s the first terrace of limestone, the second of gravel, the third terrace of river rock and then up to the Causse (or hillside to plateau region) with lots of calcium. The best quality comes from the Causse, then the river rock terrace, and so on, partly due to soil richness and availability to groundwater (causing excess growth).
We then proceeded to drive through the plateau, looking at every soil type imaginable (including our own rich volcanic soil). And here’s what I have picked up. High calcium soils in dry years give you great acidity, but in slightly wetter years the characters are finer tannins and an elegant palate. High iron soils (more like ours at home) make wines with more volume in the mid-palate and bigger fruit.
But ultimately, as we continued to drive through the vineyards, learning more about bio-dynamics, composting, and rotating crops, we made it to the winery to taste and discuss Malbec.
Here’s what I can take to the bank. Malbec is a fickle variety, impacted greatly by the timing of the seasons and viticultural practices. It is prone to coulure (shatter, where much of the cluster doesn’t form after flower due to a battle for limited carbohydrate reserves). Some growers here look for a small amount of rain (20mm) just at the end of flower (something I wouldn’t have considered before) to give the vine an extra boost during this temperamental time. And to help funnel the carbohydrate reserves to the crop rather than growth in the vine, growers here tip the ends of the canes during flower to make sure the vine slows down its growth (and use of reserves). We wouldn’t normally do this as it promotes lateral growth later in the season. But we can deal with this, but the low yields (our biggest issue with Malbec) are more important to conquer.
So, as I drink a glass of 2008 Château Eugénie Cuvée Réservée de l’Aïeul with Maggie, noting its fine tannin structure (of what we consider of great Cabernet), dark fruit, and a hint of smokiness, I think of all the things that I haven’t mentioned (like that I think M. Couture suggested I put this wine down for a bit). But the fact is, I don’t have enough room to mention the winemaking suggestions on this blog, I’ve got more wineries to introduce you to, and this Malbec will be fantastic with our potatoes, onions and farm-made bacon that Maggie’s making for dinner tonight. Cheers!