The Black Wine of Cahors Turns Into Modern Malbec (Sometimes)

On a recent visit to Cahors, I gained an entirely new view of the effects of terroir on Malbec at two producers. At Cosse Maisonneuve, wines coming from the bottom, middle, and top of the slope of vineyards surrounding the winery showed a transition from fruit-driven at the base to fine and elegant at the top. At Clos Triguedina, Jean-Luc Baldès gave me a box of his Trilogie wines from the 2011 vintage to take home and taste at leisure. I have been waiting for the weather to cool down to provide appropriate tasting conditions for these strong red wines, and August Bank Holiday Monday in London seems the perfect occasion: cold and rainy. (Is this global warming? What happened to summer?)

To best demonstrate terroir, the Trilogie wines are 100% Malbec. Malbec is not a grape that occasions a lot of discussion of terroir. The basis for the old “black wine” of Cahors, it reached its peak in France in the fourteenth century, when Cahors amounted to as much as half of all exports from the port of Bordeaux. One of the dominant grapes of Bordeaux in the nineteenth century, it was replaced with Merlot after the phylloxera epidemic, when it also essentially disappeared from Cahors.

Malbec was revived in Cahors in the late 1940s; when the AOC was created in 1971, regulations required a minimum of 70% Malbec. Most people’s view of Malbec today, of course, comes from its success in Argentina (which now accounts for almost three quarters of world plantings). Yet this has not been bad for Cahors. “The success of Argentina opened the door to export and to making another style of wine. The Malbec from Argentina is a different wine, different terroir, different climate – even here the terroir is not the same 10 km away – that’s what we try to show with Trilogie,” says Jean-Luc.

The terroir of Cahors consists of a plain around the horse shoe bends of the river, rising up a couple of hundred meters to the south across a series of terraces. Each terrace represents a different geological era. Trilogie includes wines from the second, third, and fourth terraces.CahorsCrossFrom the second terrace, closest to the river, Au Coin du Bois comes from near the town of Puy l’Eveque, and its evident ripe fruits give a distinctly modern impression. The black fruits are balanced by a delicious counterpoise of acidity and savory notes. I might not go so far as to draw a direct parallel with the New World, but, this is certainly the most approachable of the Trilogie, and would be a fine introduction to the modem style of Cahors for anyone familiar with Argentine Malbec.

The reputation of the third terrace, a little higher up, is that the wines are richer, but in the case of Les Galets, which comes from the area of Vire sur Lot, I was more struck by its structure. With less obvious fruit and more acidity, there’s a more restrained impression. This is the most backward wine of Trilogie; the fruits can’t quite get out from under the tannins yet. Here you can see the resemblance with the old Black Wine of Cahors, known not only for its dark color but for its impenetrable tannins.

Petits Cailles lives up to the reputation of the fourth terrace for producing the finest, most elegant wines. Black fruits are supported by fine-grained tannins and good acidity, with just a touch of tobacco at the end. This shows most clearly the origin of Malbec in Bordeaux, and there’s a resemblance to the wines of the Médoc.

Trilogie expresses all the aspects of Malbec in one box, running the full gamut from a fruit-forward modern expression of Malbec, to a fine elegant Bordeaux-like impression, to the traditional tough youthful structure. It’s a fascinating combination of showing terroir with recapitulating the history of Malbec

Southwest Diary Part 2 – Cahors: Cosse Maisonneuve, Clos Triguedina, Chateau du Cèdre and a nonVisit to Lagrezette

The old description of the “black wine of Cahors” tells you pretty much all you need to know: the wine was dense and tough. It was Malbec, which fell out of favor in Bordeaux when it did not graft well after phylloxera, began more slowly to be replaced by Merlot in Cahors, and then came back after its rediscovery in Argentina. Now most labels of Cahors also state Malbec in large letters. “The image of Cahors in the 1980s was rather rustic,” says Jean Luc Baldès at Clos Triguedina. “Argentinean Malbec is a different wine, it has different terroir and climate, but now people realize because of Argentinean Malbec that things can be different, Argentina’s success opened the door for us.”

I visit three top producers in Cahors and am impressed with the increased precision of the wines. At Cosse Maisonneuve, Catherine Maisonneuve is exploring her terroir with 100% Malbecs. Why does she make only monovarietals? “It’s the noble cepage, it’s perfectly adapted to climate. Merlot has only been here since the sixties; because they had planted a poor Malbec that was too productive, they authorized Merlot, but it’s the Malbec that really expresses the terroir.”

Tuesday morning: Cosse Maisonneuve occupies a sort of amphitheater rising up to the surrounding woods. Three 100% Malbecs come from different positions on the slope: Le Combal from the bottom (the most gravelly terroir) is fruit-driven with firm tannins, Lafage from the middle (more calcareous) is a bit softer, and Les Laquets from the top (clay on a limestone base) is fine and perfumed. From a nearby site with yet more clay and limestone comes La Marguerite, the finest of all.

MaissoneuveTW

The wines become increasingly fine going up the slope at Cosse Maisonneuve

Tuesday afernoon: Jean Luc Baldès has built up Clos Triguedina into one of the largest producers in the area. “There is no negociant in Cahors, so we are obliged to do everything, to work out techniques for viticulture and vinification, and to commercialize the wine,” he explains. He views his wines in terms of the terraces of Cahors. Rising up from the valley of the Dordogne, as you go progressively higher you come into different geological eras. His box of three wines, labeled Trilogie, has one each from the second, third, and fourth terrace. “The second terrace has clay on calcareous subsoil, which gives fruity notes; the third is at about 100 m and has round calcareous pebbles, giving a ripe richer, wine; and the third of clay and limestone, gives finesse and elegance,” he says. The eponymous Clos Triguedina is the classic assemblage from all terraces. His philosophy is that “Malbec can bring finesse and elegance, it does not need to be massive, it’s fresh and mineral.” His Probus bottling from Vieilles Vignes is the Vosne Romanée of Cahors. Jean Luc’s grandfather had a nursery as well as being a vigneron, so Triguedina now has some very old Malbec, around a hundred years.

TriguedinaTW The oldest Malbec vines in France are at Clos Triguedina

Pascal Verhaege at Chateau de Cèdre has a different philosophy, and believes that assemblage gives a more complex wine. “I came from Burgundy and I wanted to make cuvées from each terrace, but we get more complexity by making an assemblage from all three.” The wines range from entry level to GC, a Vieilles Vignes that’s made by barrel fermentation (the ends of the barrels are left off, and then the cooper comes to install them after fermentation has finished.) We compare current vintages of Chateau de Cèdre and GC with the 2000 vintage for Pascal to make his point that the difference between the wines increases with time: the effects of barrel fermentation are not a flash in the pan, he believes.

Tuesday evening: The strangest visit of the week comes at the end of the day at Chateau Lagrezette. I had emailed to make an arrangement to visit, and received a reply from Marine Grison, which seemed friendly enough: “contact me for all information so we can best prepare for your visit, we’ll arrange to visits the chais and have a tasting.” We arrived on schedule to find the tasting room deserted: should we just help ourselves and organize a tasting, we wondered? There was no way to summons help, but Lagrezette’s phone number was on the boxes that were lying all around so I called. I explained the predicament: no one to organize a tasting. “Ah, you have to have an appointment,” the voice said. I have an appointment, I explained, citing the email exchange. There was a pause. “Ah, you have the wrong sort of appointment,” the voice said. “Anyway, there is no one here and I am going home in ten minutes.” Bienvenue à la Belle France!

LagrezetteTW

Lagrezette has a grand chateau but appears to be run by fonctionaires