09 June 2015

Cahors Black Wine: A Brief History

The A.O.C. of Cahors has a fascinating history.  It was established in 1971, but winegrowing of Malbec goes back far beyond that.  In fact, its history in intertwined with Bordeaux:  the famous appellation used to buy "black wine" from Cahors to mix into its otherwise "weak" claret.

Here is the beautiful Lot river.  All of the grapes are grown along the river, with the lesser vines in the valley and better ones on plateaus with higher elevation alongside the river.  The vines grown on the valley floor are more fruity, basic, and less expensive; mid-level terraces are richer and more elegant.  The plantings farthest away from the river on plateaus, which are less fertile, higher elevation, and higher acid, make the most finessed, ageable wines of the best quality.  The river also provided Cahors with a way to move the juice easily so it could be sold.This river helped Cahors become a viable appellation, after all.

You see, the reason Bordeaux had such a profitable life early on was because it was along 2 rivers that empty out into the ocean and are a short trip to England, where it could be sold at a premium price.  The Lot River heads straight toward Bordeaux, so growers centuries ago had a great audience.
Chateau Haut-Serre's barrels.  Did the kings, popes, and tsars who loved Cahors so much listen to fermentation too??  These wines have been famous since the Middle Ages.
We are waiting for a Quercy (Cahors area) style buffet.  Which is largely consisted of foie gras and truffles, the 2 other things the area's known for.
But the area is best known for the wine.  Cahors, far from surpassing Bordeaux as a region, has been growing wine before the birth of Christ.  Its height of popularity was during the Middle Ages, and events like the week I attended have the express mission of putting Cahors back on the world stage.
Click HERE for a map of the AOC of Cahors in map form showcasing the terroir if you would like a geological reference.  For a historical reference, check out an induction of several sommeliers from the Northeast US into an ancient group that swears to uphold the standards of the land of black wine.
So, what is the region like today?  For starters, 90% of the plantings are Malbec.  Now, to claim the wine as Cahors, the wine only has to be 70% Malbec, with the remainder a blend of Merlot and Tannat (talk about another black wine!)  A whopping 80% of the vines are from independent growers!
Cahors went through many crises that should have shut down the entire appellation.  It is isolated by rivers and mountains from other regions within France, for a start, which provided a lack of integration.  More notably, phylloxera almost killed off the wine business.  In 1956, a severe frost coupled with negative-20 degree weather did a number on the crops.  And the French government taxes Cahors at a higher rate than the popular Bordeaux.
But the Quercy press on.  Here are some ancient vines at Chateau Cedre.  The DNA in Cahors is one of the most consistent in viticultural history.
The levels in Cahors have a lot of different factors, but the better the wine, these factors change: percentage of Malbec, longer ageing times, years the wines will last, and compatibility with food.  When some or all of these factors come into play, the price is higher as well.  One of the flagships in Cahors of better wines is higher density of soil, which is the lesson we are learning from an oenologist (above) and are seeing in the end product (below).
Though the fertile lowlands are great for crops such as vegetables, the plateaus are greatly preferred to grow high quality Malbec grapes.
The Lot sure is pretty.  By the way, Bordeaux folks did not make trade easy.  It took 3-5 months for grapes to get to Bordeaux by boat, and the wineries there were extremely focused on selling their own wines, rather than Cahors.  
As early as 1785, Malbec itself was mentioned as a varietal in a wine text.  Unfortunately, this region has a lot to overcome in the modern age to become viable once again, though Malbec is now famous in its own right.
Luckily, the region has proven itself resilient through what it has endured in the past, and will surely move on to a successful future.