“On Fabrique une Chaise, mais On Élabore un Vin!”
(translated—One makes a chair, but one elaborates a wine!)
As I wrote in the first half of this blog, my luncheon with Jérémy Arnaud (the marketing director of Cahors wines) and Claude and Lydia Gabucci Bourguignon was filled with new insights to wine, and perhaps a new approach to “elaborating” wine. And this was all before meeting the Bourguignon’s.
Once they had arrived, we all got a glimpse of what Mr. Arnaud had planned for the afternoon. Instead of a tasting made up of entirely Cahors Malbecs (which is what I had expected), he had put together a much more educational dégustation of Malbecs from different regions of the world—Spain, California, Argentina and, of course, France (Cahors).
To begin with, we started with lesson number one, tasting a young Cahors Malbec (with ample youthful tannins) after having rinsed our glasses with local tap water (as many of the restaurants do). The water here in Cahors is soft, with a reasonable amount of chlorine. The result in the wine was a definite harshness from the tannins. Then Mr. Arnaud suggested we rinse the glasses with a fine bottled water. He poured the wine again, and the result was a wine, far more interesting than before, with more supple, approachable tannins.
Mr. Arnaud’s concern was how Cahors wines (with their firmer tannins) are presented in restaurants. For me, I thought of our own wines at Madroña, how we’ve changed our tasting order (reds first, whites second) to show the reds at their best. But not once had I considered the impact of the chlorine from the water and the dishwasher sterilizing rinse on the perception of tannins in our wines. (We have since gotten a new dishwasher which uses high temperatures for sterilizing (no chlorine), but do we need a filter for the water too? Time for a taste test when we get home!)
My next lesson was the around the world tasting of Malbecs. I had also brought a bottle of our 2007 Malbec in anticipation of having knowledgeable palates taste it in comparison to Malbecs from Cahors. Little did I know it was going to be in a tasting with other Malbecs (including another from California). For those interested, the Madroña Malbec showed quite well, although the consensus was (and I was part of the consensus) that it had just a hint too much oak. Although this was a tasting for determining the differences in styles between regions (and specifically not meant as a ranking for quality), it was nice that we kept coming back to our Malbec as one of the two reference Malbecs. (So maybe Malbec really does have a future in our region!)
Interestingly, (or should I say “what I focused on” during the tasting), it came down to two different styles of Malbec which could be traced almost directly to the soils the vines were grown in. Of course I was talking to geologists who have been experiencing these flavor profiles in wines associated with the soils for years, but I couldn’t help but see and taste their points. Put into laymen’s terms (which is what I needed, since I’ve always been a climate person), basic soils (pH above 7) produce masculine styles of wines with mid-palate power and structured tannins. Acidic soils produce feminine styles of wines with elegance and balance. The 2005 Chateau Lamartine (AOC Cahors, France) was the benchmark limestone soil (basic soils) and our 2007 Madroña Malbec was the benchmark acidic soil (with our soils being around pH: 6.2 or so). And although I’ve always considered our wines as big with structured tannins, it was true that our wine had an elegance that others did not. And similarly, the Chateau Lamartine had a mid-palate power that acidic soil wines did not. (And for education sake, power in the mid-palate is akin to density plus structure and should not be equated with richness.)
Next was lunch with homemade paté, salad with truffle oil, roasted lamb with vegetables, local cheeses, a wonderful chocolate dessert and coffee. Mr. Arnaud served a wonderful 2007 Sanguis Christi Malbec (AOC Cahors, France) that had been decanted for 2 hours. The wine had incredible clove spice, dark cherry fruit, and was medium-bodied with tight yet fine tannins. All in all, it was a beautiful wine, especially with the mild cheeses.
The discussions just started flowing, half in English and half in French. The first points all dealt with the fact that all terroir (the combination of soils, climate, and all the je ne sais quoi that makes regional wines unique) is not equal. Certain varieties are better suited for different terroirs. For instance, Riesling is fantastic on acidic soils in cooler climates. But Pinot Noir needs basic soils with cool to moderate climates. (And a new thought—M. Bourguignon pointed out that “terroir” is not just for wine. It applies to fruit and vegetables too. That’s partly why some potatoes are better than others!)
And if all terroir is not created equal, then different regulations should be associated to the terroirs of each region rather than the region as a whole. This is particularly important in Europe where AOC regulations (something like our Appellation regulations) also determine which varieties can be grown and how many vines can be planted per hectare. As it was explained to me, it’s ridiculous to make the rich, fertile lands of Burgundy plant the same number of vines as the less fertile, but higher quality vineyards in the same region. The fertile lands cannot support the financial input of the high density of vines and low yields regulated by law, partly because they cannot possibly make the higher quality wines.
So the discussion moved to how to change the AOC regulations so that farmers could have a possibility successfully farming some of these lands within a differently regulated AOC with different quality expectations. And interestingly enough, the Cahors AOC is almost uniquely situated to lead this more equitable interpretation of government regulations (something neither Bordeaux nor Burgundy would think to try).
As the discussions continued, we decided to take a drive out to the Bourguignon’s new vineyard site just outside the AOC limits. They had chosen this site because of incredible research into the soils, slopes and exposures. In fact, this region just outside of Cahors was the most important Malbec region centuries ago, but it no longer has a single vineyard (except theirs now). With old clones of Malbec planted throughout the parcel and working with the old stone buildings on the property, the restoration of this once-famous, grape-growing region is amazing. And having smelled the soil, feeling it run through my hands, and listening to how they treat the land so carefully, I can only expect that the wines produced off their vineyards (starting next year) will be some of the best and most powerful Malbecs of Cahors. Of course, their soil is basic, and I’ve learned something.
Some 8 hours after we started that day, I arrived home in Catus to Maggie and the girls, barely able to contain my enthusiasm for what I had learned on one truly epiphanic day.