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Tough Going for Malbec

Cahors is a medieval town on the River Lot in southwest France and at the heart of a wine region by the same name. It’s not far from Bordeaux, but it might as well be on another planet.

Cahors the appellation is the last great repository of Malbec vines in that country, a grape variety that once occupied significant acreage in Bordeaux and the Loire. Malbec has become well known to Americans because of its success in Argentina, where it’s employed in fairly inexpensive reds as well as an increasing number of very fine, if uncomplex, premium wines. As a category, Argentine Malbec has been wildly successful; in fact in every corner of the world (except France), Argentine Malbec has eclipsed French iterations.

‘Malbec Days’ aims to bring attention to French producers

This may have been the motivation behind “Malbec Days,” which I attended in late May, billed as a celebration of the variety and the inky dark wines to which it contributes. It was an attempt to bring some attention back to Malbec’s ancestral home, and perhaps to draw some of the spotlight away from Argentine efforts, even as Argentine producers (well, one Argentine producer) shared the dais with the host country.[1] But the presentation, much like the wines of the region, came off as a little clumsy.

Cahors is nothing if not beautiful; a medieval town that projects like a short thumb against the river’s gentle contours, with narrow ancient streets that exude a provincial charm. The place and the people, like the wines, feel completely lost in time.

It is the Lot River itself that literally forms the appellation — virtually all of the vineyard land bears a view of the river, which snakes through the countryside in an undulating sequence of hairpin turns, lazily making its way toward the Garonne River and on to the Atlantic. With each bend the river has produced a complex alluvial plain, and above the plain it has carved through slopes and terraces of limestone and clay. That makeup, according to many a local vigneron, compares favorably to Burgundy. Indeed the famous French soil scientist Claude Bourguignon, a man who literally bears the name Burgundy in his own, was so impressed with the soils here that he and his wife Lydia decided to plant a vineyard. It is unfortunate then that the wines struggle to convey these exceptional terroirs.

A somewhat somber wine

Featured wines at Malbec DaysMalbec from Cahors isn’t necessarily the stuff of grande fetes and lively celebrations. Malbec from Cahors isn’t lively at all: It’s a thick, brooding wine exhibiting an array of black fruits — cassis, black fig, prune, blackberry — usually interlaced with a complex melange of savory notes, like leather, licorice, violets, India ink and bay laurel. All of these descriptors suggest a compelling wine, but a typical bottling never showed any appreciable lift, that invigorating feeling of length on the palate. Instead, the wines were frequently and abruptly brought up short by tough, aggressive tannins, with the astringency of oversteeped tea.

I had hoped to see a region which, with an eye to its Argentine counterpart, not to mention the rest of the world, might have learned to tame somewhat these massive tannins. After all, for the rest of the world’s red winemakers, tannin management is a keen concern and a finely honed skill; an out-of-balance, overly tannic wine is practically a global exception. But in Cahors, it is the rule. The wines were defiantly blocky and tannic, and the message from producers of the conference is that that is what Malbec is and how it should be.

Indeed, in a place so lost in time, the winemaking appeared to be in a similar state. At harvest, we were told time and again that Malbec grapes were left to macerate for weeks, sometimes for as long as 40 days. It’s like leaving a pot of tea to steep for hours rather than a few minutes, rendering a jaw-clenching wallop of tannin with each sip. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “wrenching” so often in tasting notes.

Surroundings too hot, meals too rich

Such wines occasionally age beautifully, as those aggressive tannins are given time to soften and burnish. It was a shame then, that during the presentations so few older bottles were uncorked for us to bear witness. Instead, a number of counterproductive decisions actually made the wines show worse. If you’re keen to show off the region, for example, why place your celebration in a dark, poorly ventilated convention hall where the temperatures quickly rose to more than 80 degrees, rendering those tannins even more ungainly? Why taste these wines in the full sun of a warm spring day on the ancient medieval Valentre Bridge — a gorgeous setting, admittedly, and with a cool river breeze on your back, quite pleasant; but alas, the bridge had been draped in clear plastic tenting, which produced an ovenlike greenhouse effect, once again rendering the wines undrinkable.

A proper meal might have put them in a better light, too; highly tannic wines are often employed to cut into the rich specialties of the region like duck confit and cassoulet. But these weren’t served. Instead, the festival organizers seemed to have wiped out an entire population of local geese for the extraction of their inner organs. It was foie gras in many forms that weekend, with such delectables as foie gras “tacos,” foie mousses, foie empanadas, foie tiramisu, and my personal favorite, the heart-stopping foie gras “sushi roll,” with rice wrapped with prosciutto instead of the traditional nori. Never mind that the best foil for foie is a light, sweet white wine; these attempts to appear progressive and international felt instead to be fairly tone deaf and insensitive, and did little to promote the wines themselves.

There were, of course, a handful of exceptions among wineries. Chateau du Cedre is clearly one of the standard-bearers of the region, under the watchful eye of winemaker Pascal Verhaeghe, who is now consulting for many other more forward-thinking wineries. Chateau les Croisille showed some remarkable promise, as did the wines of Clos Triguedina and Lacapelle Cabanac.

Perhaps the most interesting was a wine called Un Jour sur Terre by the winery Clos d’un Jour, whose winemaker Stephane Azemar took the very untraditional step of aging his wines in terra cotta amphorae, which were buried for 12 months in cellar earth. With its bright nose of raspberry, hint of eucalypt, its fresh yet very deep black cherry flavors and elegant tannins that actually contributed length rather than constraint to the finish, it was the most compelling wine of the week and left a sense that non-traditional approaches may rescue Cahors from being mired in its own tradition.

[1] There was much speculation as to why, in a celebration promoted as international, there appeared just one Argentine producer: Ricardo Giadorou of Bodegas Dolium, from Lujan de Cuyo. It almost suggested a bit of insecurity on the part of the hosts as they strove not to be outshone by the visitors, though it must be said that Mendoza producers had little to gain by participating.

Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.


Photos from top:
Cahors and the surrounding area.
Featured wines at Malbec Days.
Credits: Patrick Comiskey

Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.

  • Barry Phillip 9·13·15

    Not everybody wants a fruity Argentine style wine so leave the tannic mans wine from south France alone and let us that enjoy tinnic wines enjoy it without the wine wimps trying to turn in into grape soda pop !