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The Malbecs of Cahors

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

cahors/malbec Ask the average wine drinker to name the home of the Malbec grape and chances are that they will answer, "Argentina." The South American country is a relatively small player on the global wine stage in absolute terms, but today it is Malbec's greatest proponent and can boast over 70% of the entire world plantings of the variety. Malbec has become synonymous with Argentina - truly it's 'signature grape' - and it is Malbec that has spear-headed strong export sales for Argentina, particularly to the UK, USA, Canada and Brazil.

Seven thousand miles north in the historic Cahors region of South West France, wine producers must view this 21st century phemomenon with a mixture or wonder and disbelief. For Cahors is the historic and once world-famous home of Malbec: it was Cahors that gave Argentina its first Malbec vines, when French agronomists took cuttings there in 1852. Today, the winemakers of Cahors are determined to reclaim Malbec as their own.

The French Malbec

map Cahors' vineyards were first planted 2000 years ago by the Romans, though it was the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henri Plantagenet in 1152 that began a period of intense growth. Sales of the 'black wine' of Cahors reached dizzying heights in the 14th century. In 1310 the wines of Quercy (the province of which Cahors was the capital) accounted for 50% of all exports from the Port of Bordeaux - some 85 million litres of wine, much of it bound for the UK.

At the end of the 14th century the 100 Years War led to punitave taxes being levied against the wines of Cahors and the South West (this was the last enclave of English rule), leading to a long, slow period of decline - aided also by jealousy from the Bordeaux industry which blocked exports from the South West. But it was the arrival of Phylloxera in the 1860s that sounded the death knell for the Cahors wine industry, destroying the entire vineyard area over the next decade. Winegrowers tried replanting with native Malbec, but it remained susceptible, and the decision was taken to replant instead with hardy, American hybrid varieties. These proved viable, but unfortunately did not produce wines of quality, leading inevitably to further decline in Cahors' reputation and output.

Cahors revisited

Cahors remained in the doldrums into the first half of the 20th century, its glorious history remembered, but its reputation in tatters. But the story of Cahors' revival can be traced back to the late 1940s, when a group of producers set out to restore the reputation of the region, and to do so based on replanting Malbec. Seedlings sourced from Bordeaux were planted, and became the foundation of Cahors today. In 1971 the region gained AOC status, the regulations insisting on a minimum of 70% of the blend being Malbec, with up to 30% of Merlot and Tannat also allowed. Today, the proportion of these other varieties is falling rapidly, with most top wines 100% Malbec. But the unofficial classification of Cahors wines has taken an interesting turn, and one that has been informed by Malbec's position in the world, especially in Argentina.

The producers of Cahors have formed some strategic alliances with Argentina (including jointly-promoted events around the world), and have emphasied Malbec in their marketing, including the creation of a chic and contemporary centre of wine and gastronomy called the 'Malbec Lounge' in the town of Cahors, with plans for branches in New York and around the world. The USA and Canada are mow Cahors' two largest export markets, no doubt due in part to the success of Argentine Malbec having opened the doors.

Cahors style(s)

vineyards The famous 'black wines' of Cahors were true vins de garde, suitable for long cellaring but needing that time to soften their sometimes brutal tannins. Such wines do not suit today's consumer, especially when the warm and sunny conditions in Mendoza amplify Malbec's sweeter, riper and creamier side. The winemakers of Cahors have new vineyard regimes that harvest riper grapes with less strident tannins, and gentler winemaking that can still harness the power and depth of Malbec, but without the level of extraction that once made these wines so tough in their youth.

Of course some producers have done this more successfully than others, and there are philosophical differences between winemakers in the style of wine they strive to deliver. There are still wines that could be described as 'rustic', and some of the wines I tasted were a little too anoymously 'international' perhaps. The scourge of Brettanomyces also reared its head in a handful of bottles. But those are the negatives: so many of these wines exhibited the gloriously violet and kirsch-scented purity of aroma that Malbec can deliver, plus the strapping plum and chocolate richness of flavour that is both modern, and yet expressively Cahors: the silkiness of Mendoza's best, combined with the juice and savoury grip of Cahors. Above: Château Lagrazette.

Three slices of Malbec

malbec grapes Part of the marketing and educational strategy has been to segment Cahors production into three levels, known as 'Tradition', 'Prestige' and 'Spéciale'. This is a voluntary code, but one which is very widely adhered too. So that consumers can know broadly what to expect, each of the three levels is meant to fit a certain stylistic profile and price bracket. Partly this is down to where the vineyards are sited, from the rich alluvial valley of the river Lot, or on one of the mid-slope terraces with less generous soils, to the highest plateau with limestone soils and 300 metres altitude, including areas of 'terra rossa', iron-rich soils that produce some of the finest wines. Photo: the distinctive Cahors wine glass with Malbec grapes.

Higher proportions of Merlot and Tannat appear in the 'Tradition' wines too, which are normally blends, whilst at the 'Spéciale' level the majority of wines are 100% Malbec. Each of the three tiers fits a recommeded price bracket too: under 7€, 7 to 14€, and over 14€ respectively. But some of the top estates fetch significantly more.

The wines

During three days in the region recently I had the opportunity for a formal tasting of 110 wines, and for two very interesting visits: one to Château du Cèdre, undoubtedly one of the most respected estates, and another to meet six young winemakers representing the new generation. But below you will find links to the 110 Cahors wines tasted blind over two days in February 2013. The identities of the wines were not revealed until after the tasting.

There is certainly no sense that Cahors is resting on its Malbec laurels, with many innovative young producers embracing organic and biodynamic farming and winemaking techniques, pushing to identify and have recognised specific terroirs and 'Grand Cru' sites, and flirting with everything from high-end white wines to 'natural' wines made in concrete eggs. It is a dynamic area, blending ancient history with a youthful sense of challenge and opportunity.

See all UK stockists of Cahors wine on

Level 1: Tradition

'Tender and Fruity' is the designation of these wines, which generally sell for 7€ or less locally, and which will normally have 70% to 85% of Malbec in the blend. I found that these wines ranged from the easily quaffable to the quite serious in style, and the advice is that even at this level the wines will age for five years.

for tasting notes on 23 'Cahors Tradition' wines

Level 2: Prestige

'Feisty and Powerful' is the strapline for the middle group, which generally will have at least 85% Malbec (and so can be labeled as Malbec). The wines aim to be age-worthy for up to 10 years, and are noteably more vinous than the Tradition level wines, some of them amongst the most powerfully-built of the tastings.

for tasting notes on 45 'Cahors Prestige' wines

Level 3: Spéciale

'Intense and Complex', these wines are almost always 100% Malbec. This third tier should age for 10 years plus, and undoubtedly included the finest Cahors wines in my tastings. But it is also the tier of experimentation, with perhaps the widest variety of styles and wines were single vineyards and specific soils are celebrated.

for tasting notes on 42 'Cahors Spéciale' wines

Parts II and III:
a profile of Château du Cèdre and Cahors' new generation.