The Best of Both Worlds - Cahors Today

POSTED ON 01/05/2008

And quiet flows the Lot. Looping like a dozy python under the Pont Valentré past the cobbled streets of Cahors, the Lot River meanders beneath imposing castles such as Chambert and Lagrézette towards Bordeaux. Up from fertile river banks planted with walnut and fruit trees, vineyards lie neatly on its terraced banks as they’ve done, seemingly since time immemorial. On the face of it, nothing disturbs the tranquillity of a serenely wild, sparsely populated region whose claim to epitomise La France Profonde is among the strongest. And yet beneath the surface, something big is happening. The growers look younger and among them, new faces from Bordeaux, Paris and overseas have appeared. In place of the harsh, rustic wine of yesteryear that had your lips pursing, mouth puckering and feet stamping in impatience, the reds are becoming fruitier, sleeker and more approachable. The locals don’t talk about côt or auxerrois so much as malbec, which now adorns the label. Welcome to 21st century Cahors. For the times, as the tousled minstrel once croaked, they are a-changin’.

The sight of the malbec name so prominently emblazoned across the Cahors label still comes as a culture shock. It’s as if Hermitage were loudly to proclaim shiraz. Indeed, when the locals tell you that they’ve formed cultural ties with Argentina’s Luján de Cuyo district, you start to wonder if this is a cunning plan aimed at clothing the creaking old emperor of Cahors in the colourful new clothes of Argentinian malbec. If it were simply a question of a spoilt child who wanted back the toys he didn’t have much use for, it might make Cahors look somewhat opportunist. But the region’s producers have grasped three nettles since the turn of the millennium. They have woken up to the fact that they are the trustees of a terroir with an authentic claim to great quality. They have learnt that the way forward means listening to customers. And they now have in place a dynamic new promotional body, which, under the auspices of the energetic Jérémy Arnaud, has made common cause with the malbec producers of Argentina.

It is arguable whose debt is the stronger. While Cahors has only recently expropriated a few rays of Andean sunshine, Argentina picked up the baton in the 19th century and ran with it after the French agronomist, Miguel Aimé Pouget, took malbec to Mendoza. By the second half of the 20th century, Argentina was planted with some 50,000 hectares of malbec - roughly half the size of Bordeaux. Despite the vandalism that saw the majority of its old vine legacy disappear when the vines were uprooted during harsh economic times, Argentina is still planted with the lion’s share of the world’s malbec, with over 70 per cent of the world’s 34,000 hectares compared to France’s 19.5 per cent. With a maximum yield of 50 hectolitres to the hectare and a minimum of 70 per cent of malbec - and merlot or tannat as potential partners - Cahors today runs to some 4,600 hectares. Petite bière by comparison.

Given the huge debt Argentina owes to Cahors, perhaps it’s only fair then that its producers should be repaying the favour with interest by responding positively to Cahors’ overtures. In addition to the creation of cultural links, it has opened the science books to the French, some of whom, like Chateau Haute-Serre’s Bertrand-Gabriel Vigouroux are proposing to bring the best of the 20-plus Argentinian clones in commercial use, more some believe than in Cahors itself, back to the Lot Valley. It will be interesting to see how such clones adapt to Cahors. More than a century’s transformation of the malbec grape in Argentina’s sun-drenched uplands into an exotic beauty makes it easy to overlook the beast in the variety. For malbec can be deceptively tannic with a tendency to poor and uneven fruit set, and a susceptibility to frost and downy mildew. These problems have been factors in the clonal selection trials carried out in Argentina that have led to use of material better adapted to sunshine and altitude.

Despite common ground in the variety, the terroir, climate and clones, not to mention the people, are as different as limestone and gorgonzola. There are no irrigation waters or rays of Andean sun in the isolated Lot Valley, whose vines, naturally drenched by an average 650 mm rainfall, are supplicants for the September sunshine needed for ripening. In fine vintages like 2005 and 2007, it gets it, others can be more problematic. Where Argentina’s widespread vineyards sit high in the semi-desert of the Andes, the silex and iron-rich chalky-clays and chalky-gravels of the Lot’s river terraces are studded with galets roulés, stony boulders that act as storage heaters. On the limestone causses, or plateaux, the ground is desperately poor, making it all the harder for the vine to yield. Not surprisingly then, in place of Argentinian malbec’s puppy fat, generosity and power, the malbec of Cahors shows a spine of tannin and natural acidity that tends to greater austerity, longevity and savoury notes of sour cherry, plum and damson.

While there’s a grain of truth in the proposition that a heady mix of Argentinians tangoing into town arm-in-arm with Michel Rolland and Stéphane Derenoncourt from Bordeaux has brought a glossy new sheen to Cahors, there are several strands to the renaissance. The new generation of winemakers at leading estates like Clos Triguedina, Château Haute Serre and Domaine de Gaudou are keen to improve on a grand terroir that’s not always lived up to its potential. Outside investors such as luxury goods tycoon Alain Dominique Perrin of Château Lagrézette and the youthful software magnate Philippe Lejeune, who recently acquired Château Chambert, have the means, the motivation and the vision to change the nature of Cahors. Uncompromising growers such as Pascal Verhaeghe of Domaine du Cèdre, Maurin Béranger at La Bérangerie, and Catherine Maisonneuve and Matthieu Cosse of Cosse Maisonneuve believe deeply that Cahors malbec can take on the world. Allied to this newfound self-belief comes an upsurge of approachable modern reds in brands such as Vigouroux’ Pigmentum, Luc Luyckx’ Château Famaey, Pascal Verhaeghe’s Cèdrus, Arnaldo di Mani’s Cahors-Malbec and Jeanjean’s Prieuré de Cénac.

A common desire to improve the quality of malbec, irrespective of widely differing means, objectives and markets, has led to concerted efforts in the vineyards to bring yields down and to achieve better levels of fruit ripeness. According to Michel Rolland consulting at Lagrézette, ‘no-one thought about changing things 20 years ago because the knowledge wasn’t there; but we know today that with better viticulture and control over yields, we can make big improvements in the wine’. There’s not a soul working in Cahors today who’d disagree with the Bordeaux maestro. Not least Stéphane Derenoncourt, taken on by Philippe Lejeune last year to supervise the vineyard work and vinification at Château Chambert. After tasting a variety of wines from the estate’s 60 hectares, Derononcourt has started to re-balance the soils by cutting out herbicides, replacing tannat with higher density malbec and bringing in natural compost for yields of 35 – 40 hectolitres per hectare. Aiming to bring extra flesh and minerality to the wines, Derononcourt believes that ‘by understanding malbec, it’s possible to make wines with balance, freshness and complexity’.

One of the problems for Cahors, as Bertrand-Gabriel Vigouroux, acknowledges is that ‘Argentinians make a very good standard quality at 70 or even 80 hectolitres to the hectare. This is more difficult for us because of labour costs and because to get quality here you can’t go above 55 hectolitres to the hectare’. Yet at the same time, he complains, and he’s not alone, that the Argentinian style is often too powerful, over-technological and overoaked. ‘Cahors has a rôle to play because it’s essentially more drinkable’, says M.Vigouroux.To achieve their objectives, Cahors growers are drawing from both their experience of their own conditions and comparisons with Argentina to improve the raw material they obtain from the vineyard itself.

Maurin Béranger, whose parents replanted the vineyards of La Bérangeraie in 1971, says that ‘the secret of Cahors is maturity, so a great Cahors has to be really ripe with a week at harvest making the difference between an average wine and a great one’. Catherine Maisonneuve, who’s been in Cahors for nine years, agrees that ripeness is crucial, citing manual harvest and sorting as critical factors. ‘Viticulture is 80 per cent of the job’, she says. ‘If you do that right, there’ll always be typicity and better wines, but if you’re making wines like Dutch tulips, it will never be more than average’. With her partner Matthieu Cosse, she is also doubling some of their plantings to 7,500 vines per hectare, allowing the vines to grow without hedging and seeking an expansion of the canopy area for yields of 30 – 35 hectolitres per hectare. ‘Our aim is to avoid green harvesting and allow the vine to find its own way naturally’.

Sue and Mike Spring made similar points when I visited them at their property at their tiny 2.5 hectare property at Domaine du Garinet in the little hamlet of Le Boulvé. A thoughtful English couple who could be retired schoolteachers on a lifestyle project, Mike (he was in computing) and Sue (an ex-headhunter) obviously think and care deeply about quality and the kind of wines they want to produce. Acknowledging Cahors’ debt to Argentinian malbec, they nevertheless set out when they bought Domaine du Garinet in 1994 after selling up in Oxfordshire’s Kidmore End, to make ‘not New World style, but good quality Cahors’. Their first preoccupation was to get as much fruit as possible into the wines, so they changed the trellising to vertical shoot positioning for expanded canopy area. ‘A lot of Cahors was thin on fruit and high in tannin and not very attractive’, says Sue. ‘It’s very easy to make wine with a lot of tannin because of the grape and the conditions. People got what they got rather than what they chose. It’s getting better now’.

They’re also ultra-careful with the oak handling. They use a touch of new oak in one blend but not in the Classique because of the sensitivity of malbec to new oak. ‘It’s more interesting, softer and more complex when younger but as it ages, it’s the wine that’s not matured in oak that improves most’, says Mike Spring. Maurin Béranger at Domaine La Bérangeraie also uses a minimum of oak to retain the natural fruit vibrancy of the grape. Yet you can see the temptation to increase the use of new oak because while malbec’s natural fruit qualities are sensitive to it on the one hand, there’s a feeling on the other that oak will not just soften but add a flattering edge to the rustic tendencies of the grape itself. Clearly if this means making a wine with a reputation for ageing slowly drinkable younger, so much the better. At properties such as Château du Cèdre, Gaudou, Lagrézette and Chambert to mention just a handful, oak is routinely used, in combination with gentler handling of the grapes in the cellar, to make the wines more accessible.

Accessibility is at the heart of what most producers of Cahors are now aiming to achieve. While a decade ago, it was thought that merlot could help achieve this, progress in getting malbec riper and softer has not advanced the cause of merlot, although a number of producers like Clos Triguedina’s Jean-Luc Baldès remain fans. In recognition that a relatively small appellation can’t and shouldn’t try to compete with the giants of Bordeaux and Côtes du Rhône but should establish its own policy and direction, a flurry of new brands such as Pigmentum, Cahors-Malbec and Cèdrus are aimed at fleshing out the middle market. At the same time, while the likes of the Springs are aware of a demand for making Cahors for drinking younger, and that in France Cahors has an ‘awkward image of being very strong and tough’, they’re also keen to preserve what they see as Cahors’ uniqueness – its complexity, its ability to go with food and, yes, its drinkability. So there’s a certain reluctance to change the style towards an identikit Cahors, and a strong feeling that Cahors should collectively be educating consumers into accepting a variety of styles from the approachable to the more complex.

The situation is made more complicated by the fact that over the last decade or more, Cahors wines have put on a degree or more of alcohol. According to Mike Spring, ‘there’s a global warming factor which is noticeable. When we came, all the wines here were routinely chaptalised, but now it hardly happens at all. Everyone gets a degree more these days and too much alcohol is beginning to become a source of irritation to our customers’. Everyone acknowledges this increase in alcohol levels, although Michel Rolland and growers such as Pascal Verhaeghe put it down to the general trend towards picking later. Whatever the cause, the irony is that in its increasing use of oak and riper grapes, Cahors is edging just a little bit closer to Argentina. Which underlines the fact that in all the euphoria from the new rapprochement with Mendoza, Cahors must not lose sight of its identity. In fact vive la difference! might well be a handy rallying cry for the producers of the Lot Valley as they look to the future with confidence.

Cahors - The Wines


2005 Château la Caminade, La Commandery *****

Dense and ruby black in colour, pungent smoky oak aromas indicate modernity in its styling, and while the oak is stylish and cedary with rich underlying blackberry fruit that’s still vibrant while a firm backbone and vanilla and cedar-sweet oak add a complexing element, if perhaps masking the terroir a tad. 2010 – 2018.

2005 Cosse Maisonneuve Les Laquets *****£16, Genesis Wines, 020 7963 9060

Released two years after the vintage, this dense ruby-hued malbec displays fine aromatic power, a succulent, opulent middle of richly concentrated sweet dark cherry and blackberry fruit with a touch of oak spice, supple yet firm backbone and plenty of intensity of minerally flavour with a slight fresh twist of astringency on the finish. 2010 – 2020.

2005 Château du Cèdre, GC *****, around £50, Lea & Sandeman, Great Western Wines.

Standing for ‘J’essaie’ (I try), Pascal Verhaeghe’s de luxe red fermented in open 500 litre barrels from a blend of mainly old malbec vines sets stylish spicy new oak aromas against attractive dark cherry fruit concentration with savoury mulberry and dark cherry undertones and spicy cedary oak enlivened by a bite of fresh acidity all contained in a polished, modern style. 2010 – 2018.

2005 Château Lamartine, Expression *****, around £16.99, Imperial Wine Company

Vivid and almost black in colour with violets and vanilla oak on the nose, this is a self-evidently modern style showing loads of stylish, flattering new oak, an attractive sweet fruit core in the modern vein excellent concentration of dark cherry and mulberry fruit, a firm backbone of tannin suggesting a modern wine whose muscular tannins are built for the long haul. 2010 – 2018.


2005 Domaine de la Bérangeraie, La Gorgée de Mathis Bacchus **** , £14.50, The Vine Trail, Bristol

From 25 year old malbec vines planted in Jurassic limestone and marl on the hillsides of Floressas, this pure malbec aged in 100 per cent new oak shows poised vanilla on the nose, and is richly endowed on the palate with black cherry, cassis and kirsch-like richness, while it’s mouthwatering cedary oak adds to the impression of fine tannins and firm structure. 2010 – 2018.

2005 Château du Cèdre, Le Cèdre ****, around £20, Lea & Sandeman, Great Western Wines.

Vibrant dense ruby with powerful, smoky vanilla-suffused nose of oak in a stylish modern vein, this shows sweetly concentrated pure black fruits character with almost silky tannins in the context of Cahors malbec, i.e. an inevitable chewy streak of tannin and fresh acidity, but the fruit is opulent enough with a nice bittersweet twist of astringency to carry it through. 2010 – 2018.

2005 Probus, Clos Triguedina, PoA, Caves de Pyrène, Thierrys ****

With its dense ruby hue and well-integrated spicy oak, this top of the range red from one of Cahors’ leading estates displays plenty of attractively juicy blackberry fruit whose fine supple tannins, pure fruit quality and fresh acidity suggest approachability, while the back palate of powerful firm tannins slowly creeps up on you to warn you to wait a while yet. 2010 – 2020.

2004 Clos Triguedina, The Black Wine ****, £32, Waitrose

An attempt at a recreation of the original black wine of Cahors, but in a modern vein, the grapes are heated in an oven for one night at 55C to concentrate them, then added in a ration of one to three, creating, after 18 months in oak, a rich, blackberry jam malbec with vanilla undertones and an almost Argentinian accent that imports powerful alcohol, while the Cahors hallmark of firm tannins and acidity distinguishes it from New World. 2010 – 2017.

2004 Cosse Maisonneuve Les Laquets ****, £16, Genesis Wines, 020 7963 9060

Starting to evolved a little now, the nose shows oak-derived note of liquorice spice, while the blackberry fruit mid-palate is rich and concentrated with substantial tannins and savoury acidity adding freshness, minerality and backbone to a stylish red. 2009 – 2016.

2005 Domaine du Garinet Classique ****, PoA, French Regional Wines, Fitzwilliam Wines

The floral, berry aromas of Mike and Sue Spring’s traditional style lead into vibrant and invitingly sweet fruit that comes across as almost Argentinian in its juicy sweetness of red berry fruit flavours, while behind the attractive supple tannins there’s deceptive concentration with a backbone of tannin that creeps up on you almost unawares. 2010 – 2015.

2002 Château de Gaudou Renaissance ****, £9.99, Majestic , buy any 2 French Regional wines save 20% =£7.99 from 5/02/08.

Made from low yielding old vines, this top cuvée from Gaudou shows good stylish cedar and vanilla new oak aromas with evolved cassis notes, a hint of minty freshness, vibrant blackcurranty fruit with excellent concentration and richness, fine tannins and fresh balancing acidity in an attractive framework. Now – 2012.

2005 Château Haute-Serre, Cuvée Prestige ****

Fermented in new barriques, this malbec-dominated blend from Bertrand-Gabriel Vigouroux displays a stylish nose with a nice sweetly concentrated red fruits quality, good intensity of flavour, an undertone of smoke and vanilla and fresh balancing acidity and fine tannins. 2009 – 2013.

2005 Château Lagrézette Cru D’Exception ****, £14.99, Laithwaites.

This blend of 80 per cent malbec with a balance of merlot and tannat, is sur l’argent. While the 2004 is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, lightly smoky oak aromas on the 2005 lead into a palate of rich sour cherry and damson fruit that couldn’t be further from Argentina if it tried. Which makes it all the more intriguing that it’s made with Michel Rolland as consultant since no-one could accuse the Bordeaux maestro of taking the Cahors out of this firmly structured red. 2010 – 2017.


2005 Domaine de la Bérangeraie, Cuvée Juline ***, £7.95, The Vine Trail, Bristol.

This blend of mainly malbec with a dash of merlot from the estate’s iron rich soils is deep in colour with slightly peppery, spicy blackberry and blueberry fruits character, an almost minty freshness, nicely rounded tannins and savoury fruit quality made in a balanced, classic modern style. 2009 - 2012.

*** 2005 Domaine de la Bérangeraie, Cuvée Maurin ***, £8.95, The Vine Trail, Bristol.

Pure malbec from the home vineyard, there’s a hint of cherry and raspberry jam on the nose followed by a pure, concentrated red berry fruit quality whose freshness and smooth tannins are crafted with more power and structure than the traditional style and a zesty twist of astringency and minerality. 2010 – 2015.

2002 Domaine de la Bérangeraie, Les Quatre Chambrées, PoA, The Vine Trail ***

Four years chambrées in their cellar, hence the name, has given this pure malbec an evolved, slightly leathery, expressive raspberry and cherry fruit quality with a hint of mint and although from a rainy vintage, its sweet fruit concentration is backed up by silky, supple, tannins and a refreshing undertone of menthol in the mineral aftertaste. Now - 2012

2005 Domaine de Capelanel, Mythique ***

Stylish oak and an attractive blackberry and damsony fruit quality characterise this attractive malbec-based red whose mid-palate richness comes in a classic Cahors style with modern touches in terms of a light touch of vanilla oak and pure, approachable, juicy, fruit quality. 2009 – 2012.

2005 Château de Cessac, Harmony ***

Dense and ruby black in hue, this wine is sweetly scented and opulent on the palate to match, showing blackberry fruit juiciness on the mid-palate with well-crafted lightly spicy oak and a beguiling fruit sweetness just masking that trademark touch of astringency that kicks in on the back palate, leaving you crying out for food. 2010 – 2015.

2001 Château de Chambert, Orphée ***

Matured in two-thirds new oak, this limited production top of the range red from Chambert, recently acquired by the Parisian software entrepreneur, Philippe Lejeune, shows complex liquorice, leather and camphor aromas, with tannins just starting to ease towards a savoury character and a slightly drying finish that calls for comfort food. Now – 2012

2005 Clos de Chêne, 100% Malbec ***

Dark, vivid and youthful in colour, there is plenty of immediately appealing fresh fruit on the nose with a sweet and silky palate of attractive mulberry fruit that’s well-crafted, and despite the name, it’s not overoaked but fresh and juicy in an approachable style, easy-drinking red fruits style. Now – 2012.

2004 Château La Coustarelle, L’Éclat ***.

Stylish vanilla and cedary oak on the nose almost suggest Bordeaux grand cru while, the rich concentration of fruit is tight at the moment with strong muscularity, a firm tannic backbone and plenty of damson fruit sweetness that needs time in bottle to come round. 2011 – 2016.

2001 Domaine du Garinet, Classique ***, PoA, French Regional Wines, Fitzwilliam Wines.

This pure malbec from Mike and Sue Spring is nicely evolved now yet still deep in colour with black cherry and blackberry on the nose, juicy, fine tannins and a n appealing sweet black fruits quality with firmish tannins following in the aftertaste. Now – 2012.

2005 Château de Gaudou Tradition ***, £6.24, Majestic, buy any 2 French Regional wines save 20%=£4.99 from 5/02/08.

Mainly malbec and matured in large oak vats for nine months, this is an accessible Cahors made in a traditional style with the addition of 15 per cent merlot and five per cent tannat for an attractively juicy red of mulberry fruit freshness and juiciness and supple finish. Now – 2012.

2005 Château du Gautoul, Commanderie de Padirac, ***

Deep in youthful dark ruby colour, there’s a strong, ‘modern style’ smoky oak aroma and equally flattering sweet cinnamon spicy oak overlaying sweet ripe strawberry fruit, which is attractively modern and made a tad more complex, and friendly, by its spicy oak underpinning. 2010 – 2016.

2005 Clos Triguedina. ***, PoA, Thierrys, Caves de Pyrène, Waitrose

Mainly older oak on this malbec helps retain freshness of aroma with just a whiff of spicy new oak, while the attractively sweet strawberry and cherryish fruit quality has an Italianate almost Tuscan twist of fresh astringency, ending in a clean and refreshingly fruity style. 2010 – 2015.

2004 Château Haute-Borie ***

Densely coloured and youthful in appearance, a veneer of smoky oak suggests the modern style, while the juicy, concentrated rich damsony fruit is well-proportioned and attractive with the tannins already becoming approachable in a well-crafted framework of fruit, oak and acidity. 2010 – 2015.

2005 Château Haute-Serre ***, PoA, Arthur Rackham Emporia, Guildford

A blend of 90 per cent malbec and 10 per cent tannat, stylish aromas of red fruits and spicy liquorice and tobacco lead to juicy mid-palate sweetness and concentration, with subtle oak delivery, attractively textured finesse and a hint of dryness on the aftertaste. 2009 – 2012.

2005 Château Haut-Monplaisir Prestige ***

Almost black in colour with a flattering touch of cedary oak sweetness on the nose, this wine shows sweet-savoury dark cherry fruit on the palate, whose mid-palate sweetness is enhanced by a light spiciness of stylish oak, followed up by a typical bite of firm, slightly astringent tannins and fresh acidity; needing food. 2010 – 2015.

2004 Mas Del Périé Prestige ***

From Fabien Jouves, this estate wine is up-and-coming one judging by the style of this red, which, showing, good concentration and raspberryish flavours tinged with understated oak, crafted in a juicy modern style with an attractive sweet middle palate and well-managed tannins that are halfway to Argentina. Now – 2011.

2005 Château Pineraie, L’Authentique ***, around £8.99, Boutinot Wines, D.Byrne & Co.

Deep and dense in ruby colour and with quite a pungently smoky ‘modern’ nose, there’s some good concentration of juicy red and black fruits flavours, mulberry and blackberry, with a refreshing twist of damsony acidity and chewy, vigorous tannins indicating this wine needs time to soften down. 2010 – 2015.

2002 Château de Rouffiac, L’Exception ***.

Showing good youthful colour for its age, nicely evolved undertones of coffee oak and vanilla on the nose lead into good mulberry and damson fruit intensity with the tannins starting to yield nicely into a classic red of fine mid-palate richness and kirsch-like fruit quality. 2009 – 2015.

2004 Serre de Bovila Prestige ***

Bright with a nice touch of cedary, vanillan oak, this Cahors shows a well-crafted fruit quality whose mulberry and cherry sweetness is supported by silky tannins and fresh acidity and a fine overall balance of medium-bodied fruit made in one of the more readily approachable styles. Now – 2013.

2005 Domaine des Trois Cazelles, Cuvée Prestige ***

Good youthful ruby colour and a slightly peppery nose make this Cahors interestingly different, almost syrah-like in its dark red fruits character whose damsony acidity and nicely balanced fruit is juicy and drinkable in a full-bodied but not monster-like style. 2009 – 2014.

2004 Un Jour Sur Terre, Clos d’Un Jour ***

This attractive (everyday?!) red shows good colour, a spicy nose, an immediate sweet blackberry fruit quality suffused with well-integrated oak and nicely textured rich fruit with good structure and balance without excessive astringency and tannin. Now – 2011.

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