To some degree, tasting California Malbec in the Cahors, France is akin to taking coal to Newcastle. Cahors is the origin and capitol of Malbec, having started with the variety over 1,000 years ago.
California with its something over 5,000 acres of Malbec uses much of the variety for blending into Cabernet Sauvignon and other blends. However, Cahors, with over 10,000 acres of Malbec and 240+ wineries, produces almost exclusively one wine…Malbec. And even this pales in comparison to the region’s historical production levels of 50,000 acres of Malbec in the 1800’s.
So when asked by a French journalist what our expectations were in presenting California Malbec to the people of Cahors, it certainly wasn’t to try to supplant the illustrious history of the variety or even to try to “win” a tasting with our wines. Instead, the honor was being able to pour California Malbec in the homeland of Malbec. And if any one thing was to be learned, we were interested in what the perception of the French palate was, with its many years of experience, of our New-World expression of this great variety.
My arrival, due to a series of late flights and changed itineraries, was right at midnight. Traveling through thunderstorms from Toulouse to Cahors (about an hour by car), my hosts, Hélène and Didier Jouves, had waited four hours for me at the Villa Malbec in the old town section of Cahors. To a degree, I felt I was slipping in with my California Malbecs in the dead of night.
The Jouves are owners of Domaine du Prince, one of the oldest family-owned and well-respected wineries in Cahors. The story goes that Didier’s ancestors took a cutting of Malbec to the King of France to be planted in Fontainebleau. Upon returning, this relative was given the name of “Lou Prince” (the Prince) due to his actions and meeting the king. The name has carried down through the generations so that even now, old-timers will still refer to the family as “ Prince” rather than the surname of Jouves.
We arrived late indeed at the winery where Hélène and Didier had moved out of their room in their 14th century stone home so that I might have the “best” bedroom. They moved upstairs to sleep with their three boys. “Gracious” truly understates their generosity!
Essentially, as Hélène with her exceptional English pointed out, their house was my house during my stay, and I could come and go as I wished. Food in the fridge was fair game, the coffee was over there, and almost anything I could need was mine to use. Ironically, this became very important as my luggage (due to flight changes) didn’t arrive until the day before I returned home. Luckily Didier and I are nearly the same size, and he has a much better eye to fashion than I. So choosing clothes from his closet was wonderful, and became the running joke throughout the trip!
My first presentation of California Malbec, decked out in Didier’s clothes with Hélène ironically pouring by my side, came at the grand tasting for the 4th of July celebration. The small community of ex-pats from the United States in the Lot (this part of France) had been working with the marketing director of Cahors Malbec to put on a festival celebrating the cooperation of our two countries. The former ambassador from the United States as well as the US Consul from Toulouse would be attending the festivities.
The event included speeches, bluegrass music, American rock n roll, barbecue, and Californian and Cahors Malbec being poured side by side.
It was a complete success as over 350 people attended, learning more about the contribution of Frenchmen from the region in American wars. For us, the California tasting area was swamped with eager consumers tasting our Malbecs.
As with most consumer tastings, each person had a different opinion as to the characters of the wines. Most importantly, we had wanted to show that the expression of Malbec in California is not the same as that in Cahors. I had brought a full spectrum of California Malbec expressions from cool climate to warm climate, leaner and feisty to rich and ripe.
As Hélène (and another gracious Cahors winemaker) helped pour, I enjoyed asking individuals their impressions of the California wines. Some felt that certain wines did have the expression of Cahors Malbec. Some felt the wines softer and fruitier. Some felt we extracted more tannins in our wines. Some felt the ripeness made for bigger wines. And some simply enjoyed the presentation of something new.
As I mentioned above, this tasting was in no way meant to be a competition of Malbecs. Instead it was to present California Malbec to the French palate as a means to potentially learn more about our own terroir and the essence of Malbec in our own state.
The reception of the California wines by the people of Cahors was, I believe, honest and genuine. They enjoyed the wines as something entirely different to the Malbecs of Cahors. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from a region with so much pride (deservedly so) in one grape variety. They could have just as easily pointed out that we didn’t know what we were doing with Malbec in California. But instead they gave feedback and compliments, understanding that we are just now starting to embrace the essence of Malbec in our regions.
Poured in the following progression, the consumer response (as a whole) can be summed up on each of the wines I brought as follows:
2010 Yorkville Cellars (Mendocino County)—Appreciated for its more elegant characters and lower ripeness. Great balance and imminently usable before dinner (without food) unlike some of the others.
2011 Madroña Vineyards (El Dorado County)—Appreciated for its purity of fruit and elegance. Youthful tannins made some feel this was the most like Cahors wines.
2010 Mauritson Rockpile (Sonoma County)—Appreciated for its riper yet molded (not overripe) characters. The new oak in the wine helps elevate the characters and give a “fine” tannin finish.
2009 Windwalker Vineyards (El Dorado County)—Appreciated for its riper mid-palate and bigger overall mouthfeel.
2010 San Pasqual (Lake County)—Appreciated for its linearity of ripe fruit characters and more gripping acidity.
2009 Chappellet (Napa County)—Appreciated for its overall ripeness and density. A bigger wine, this Malbec for many showcased the California appeal.
2009 Krutz Family (Napa County)—Appreciated for it ripe berry fruit characters and richness, many felt this wine showed characters (and finishing tannins) like the highest level of Cahors wines.
The tasting order was chosen to highlight the differences in our vintages (and their associated weather) as well as group the wines regionally to focus on terroir aspects.
In the end, we poured 42 bottles of wine and showcased California Malbec for the very first time in Cahors, France, the origin of Malbec.
With this tasting alone, I would have considered the trip a complete success. But then the opportunities just kept coming!!!
End of Part 2