I don’t know what the actual definition is for the word “intimidating,” but tasting 140 wines with Michel Bettane, France’s premier wine critic, would certainly be a worthy entry. Not only had Mr. Bettane been the primary tasting palate for La Revue du Vin de France for 20 years, but his subsequent work with Thierry Desseauve writing the Le Classement des Meilleurs Vins de France has made him a household name in the wine industry. And tasting with Mr. Bettane was exactly what I had the opportunity to do last week.
Jérémy Arnaud, the marketing director for Cahors wines, had invited me to “sit in” on a tasting of the 2008 and 2009 vintage of Malbecs. I arrived at the Cahors Maison du Vin to be impressed simply by the building. On the bottom floor, a very large lab with two consulting enologists is at the service of wineries in the region. Wineries, for a very reasonable price, can submit samples for analysis as well as ask for consultations, all in the name of improving quality in the Cahors AOC (“appellation”).
However, our tasting was held on the upper floor. Imagine a room (a classroom setting) with long tables lined with sinks (crachoirs, actually, for spitting), faucets, and even what looked like a light table embedded in each place setting for viewing the color and hue of the wines. I sat back, wishing that El Dorado had something similar just for educational purposes. And this is the old building. The new Maison du Vin (in its 18th century building) will be finished by this summer in the old town of Cahors.
So as I walked in, awed by the sheer functionality of the room, I saw the wines lined up, covered in tin foil—and these were just the whites! Not only did I not know the total number of wines we would be tasting, but I also didn’t know the caliber of tasters either. With Mr. Bettane, Fabrice Durou (Château Gaudou), Sébastien Cantury (Maison Cantury), Caroline Cassot (Château la Coustarelle), and later Johan Gesrel (Journaliste for MalolactiK), each had far more experience than I, and I was honored to be included in the tasting.
Now, I must explain the point of this entire tasting, and how it was conducted. First of all, the idea was not to rank the wines (which seems to be much more of an American idea) or even give point scores. Instead, the concept was to rapidly taste through many wines quickly, noting the aspects of terroir unique to the Cahors “appellation.” This reflection of the region’s soil/climate/and everything else was undoubtedly more evident on well-made and balanced wines. So there was no need to critique the winemaking of individual wines, the wine either showcased the region or it did not.
And unlike some tastings in the United States, this tasting was done truly blind, with each bottle being completely covered from top to bottom. The wines were poured in flights of three, and we had about 60 seconds to taste through all three before the next flight was being poured. In the end, the wines that Mr. Bettane had enjoyed were revealed, and the remaining wines were left covered. The important note here is that no winery risked being revealed as “not recommended” since only those wine chosen were unveiled. And even then, there wasn’t a feeling of “this particular wine is better than that particular wine” (i.e. gold, silver, bronze), it was instead more about the region!
The tasting started out easily enough with a mere 28 white wines. These were a mixture of varieties, as Cahors has of yet no AOC approved white wines. To some degree, it was interesting tasting these whites as well as listening to the discussion as to which varieties had a true terroir aspect of the region in the characters of the wine. There seems to be an interest in finding a white variety that encompasses the greatness of Cahors to partner with Malbec in the reds.
Several of the white wines were really quite nice (which might surprise some who think Cahors can only make “rustic” reds!), with my taste leaning towards the fresh and more acidic Sauvignon Blancs with bright gooseberry and flinty palates. And then the 2010 Château la Coustarelle field blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle was stunning, with almost more of a Viognier character without any Viognier present.
But now it was time for the “main event,” with 112 Malbecs. The first question on everyone’s mind at home in California has been, “How can you taste that many wines in a row without getting tired?” Well, first of all, the tasting was split with a wonderful multi-course lunch of couscous and tagine. But I must confess that my untrained palate (for this type of tasting) did get a little tired in the middle as the tannins built up (no crackers or water really during the tasting either as it seems to change the palate’s calibration). However, I must say that I enjoyed the style of the tasting because even though my palate got tired, I felt I could still distinguish relatively easily wines I felt were good examples of the region (with my limited experience). And it amazes me how much the brain can retain of the general characters of wines, painting a picture of the terroir, when tasting this quickly. Overall, I probably swallowed less than a glass of wine during the entire tasting.
The result—many great Malbecs in 2008 and 2009 are coming out of Cahors. The wines from this region (from my experience in this tasting) are powerful, deep, dark wines with ample acidity and tannin. The fruit characteristics tend more to the dark cherry with hints of plum, some with a bit of spiciness and maybe a hint of gaminess too. They are imminently complex, ageworthy and food-oriented. A lot of new oak seems to detract some from the wines and tends to muddle the terroir. Instead, those wines with good structure, slightly more rounded tannins and a fruit/complexity balance were chosen as premier examples of the region. Wineries that seemed to show particularly well at this tasting were Château Croisillie, Clos d’Un Jour, and Château du Cèdre, amongst others.
Personally, I prefer slightly the 2008 vintage to that of the 2009. The structure of the 2008 vintage with its more rugged backbone and layering of fruit and spice made my mouth water in anticipation of pairing truffles and fois gras as well as aging the bottles out for awhile. The 2009 vintage is positively fruity (a warmer, dry vintage) with great richness and will undoubtedly be enjoyed world-wide for its intensity.
This brought up a question (and subsequently an education for me) that I posed to Mr. Bettane about “typicity” of characters for a variety. In other words, what are the typical characters one should expect from a variety, such as Malbec? The positively enjoyable aspect for Mr. Bettane is that he is completely patient and completely passionate at the same time. My question showed a certain amount of ignorance (and that’s being kind to myself), but he answered it fully.
If I understood him correctly (because it was all in French), this concept of “typicity” is dangerous and flawed. One cannot talk about typicity in wine without talking about vintage, region, soil, winery, etc. In fact it is far more accurate to discuss typicity in a vintage or soil or winemaker than it is to talk about it in a variety. There is no “typical” in a single variety because there are too many different components playing a part in that wine.
Of course Mr. Bettane was much more elegant and persuasive in his answer than that, but that’s what my mind could handle, being filled with so many different and exciting mental approaches to wine than we experience in California.
So, as I look back on this incredible tasting, I cannot possibly explain all that I have learned about the importance of terroir. Instead, whether I speak about the wines or meeting new people, I can only say that the experience was amazing. And although I still may be intimidated by tasting with Michel Bettane, I relish the chance to taste another 112 Malbecs from Cahors in my life.