As we’ve already seen in the Part (I) of this article, Malbec, the flagship grape of Argentina, actually has its ancestral home in the South-West of France, in the „France profonde” region of Cahors. However, if you look to the shelves of any major European retailer in search of Malbec labels, it is highly unlikely you will see any AOC (Appelation d’Origine Controlee) Cahors therein. Nevertheless, things might stand a little different if you perform the same exercise in a high-end wine boutique. How can that be? Let’s pick up where we left off and see.
Malbec vineyard in Puy l’Eveque, AOC Cahors
From the Old World to the New and back…
Following the phylloxera plague of the late 1800s and the 1956 Bordeaux freeze, most of France lost its connection to Malbec, which was deemed too much of a headache to pursue. This translated into a window of opportunity for Argentina, which began cultivating it vastly, at high altitudes, in the Mendoza region. This new style of Malbec, much more fruit-forward, consumer-friendly, unoaked, go-to-market wine became so popular that it fuelled Argentina’s rise, initially as a massive wine producer and, starting with the early 1990s, as a wine exporter.
One should not remain under the impression that Argentina does not produce premium complex Malbec wines. Far from it. It does under the likes of Bodega Catena Zapata (the winery founded by Nicolas Catena and largely credited with putting quality Argentine wines on the map), Caro (a joint venture between Château Lafite-Rothschild and Nicolás Catena), Cheval des Andes (a joint venture between Chateau Cheval Blanc and Terrazas de los Andes, owned by the LVMH luxury group) as well as Clos de los Siete, a venture undertaken by a group of French winegrowers, including Michel Rolland, who acts as blender thereof. It therefore follows that the Old World Malbec beautifully transitioned into the New World and Malbec’s misfortunes at home turned into a rather fortunate re-positioning in terms of both terroir and winemaking style.
Truth be told, the overwhelming majority of Malbec exported by Argentina is fruity, approachable, easy-to-pair, drink-it-now wine and this made it incredibly consumer friendly. Slowly but steadily, the less acidic, less tannic, rounded and medium bodied Malbec conquered consumer tables around the world, getting paired with anything from T-bone steaks to pasta and pizza, simply because it is that versatile.
Seeing its long-lost-son make such a successful comeback in its troubled life did not leave AOC Cahors simply watching passively. Whist, as said, most of France ended its love relationship with Malbec, AOC Cahors never fully gave up on it, although re-plantings were not made on a scale similar to those seen pre-1956 freeze.
However, in light of the ever-growing popularity of Malbec in the 1990s, a rebirth movement began taking place in AOC Cahors, with more and more wineries making wines focused on Malbec. While the AOC Cahors was instated in 1971 with a minimum requirement of 70% underlying Malbec, it is now more and more common to have 100% varietal Malbec. So its epic journey from the Old World to the New, led Malbec right back to its native home.
French Malbec – a tale of rebirth and adaptation
Malbec vineyard in Puy l’Eveque, AOC Cahors
In trying to understand where French Malbec stands now, we visited several wineries located in different parts of AOC Cahors. These are each representative of a different type of winemaker in Cahors: the small-scale niche, creative winemaker (Chateau Famaey, http://www.chateaufamaey.com/index_en.html), the traditional renowned winemaker (Clos Triguedina, https://www.jlbaldes.com/en/) and the high-end, Michell Rolland blended, Bordeaux-style estate (Chateau Lagrezette, https://www.chateau-lagrezette.com/en/home) – each so unique and absolutely fabulous in their own right. In addition, we also had the chance to visit the gem-like Chateau de Mercues, Relaix&Chateaux indexed and part of George Vigouroux Estates (https://chateaudemercues.com/), however, as this visit was more of a tourist nature, we will discuss it separately.
In understanding the recurring theme of the huge gap between Argentinian and French Malbec, which all three estates brought to our attention, one must first and foremost accept that these wines are so different they hardly share anything but name. This is undoubtedly a matter of terroir as the river Lot and its surrounding terraces provide Malbec with much lower temperatures on an average (as the day/night gap is not as broad as it is in the Mendoza region) and a nice flow of currents resulting in pitch dark, high tannins, high flavoured, over the top body Malbec.
One may now easily see why these wines are so different in temper and consumer. Are French Malbec powerful and complex? Definitely! Are they consumer friendly? To a more experienced consumer they might seem so, but it is debateable whether one may say they are day-to-day go-to wines. Even more true since it is well acknowledged that they are not made to be. They are as precious, if not as known, as Bordeaux’s best blends, so due respect is required.
Malbec varietal wine and the traditional Cahors glass
But the market has its own laws and no matter how fine the wine is, it will eventually not be worth much if the consumer does not reach out for the wallet upon seeing and/or tasting it. So solely replanting Malbec over the 4 terraces of the river Lot (which act as a Cru classification, with the best wines coming from grapes grown on the upper terraces) did not suffice.
Cahors winemakers did not simply give Malbec a rebirth, they also gave it a re-interpretation. Winemakers are now taking a step back from oak, placing more focus on fruitiness and primary aromas and no sulphites wines, which go alongside the traditional premium winemaking techniques, as we will see going forward.
Chateau Famaey – Belgian passion at the heart of French winemaking
Chateau Famaey is a niche winery, located in Puy l’Eveque and comprising 33 ha of vineyard, situated on the 2nd and 3rd terraces of the Lot Valley. The property is Belgian owned and we met with Maarten, “Maître de Chai” and son of one of the initial owners. This is a family-run business, which produces “modern Cahors” by focusing on the fruitiness and freshness of the Malbec grape, starting with 2001.
The fact that they are more of a niche winery allows them to make wines by not being bound by the burden of tradition as such. Therefore, we were confronted with a vividly pink Rose Malbec (which is however sold under the Vin de Pays label) as well as Cuvee S, a Malbec varietal without sulphites which was the winery’s top label, alongside the three main labels of the property Tradition, Eleve en Fut de Chene and Cuvee X, all of which were 100% varietal Malbec with or without oak aging, ranging between 14 and 24 months – these three together with the Cuvee S were the wines we tasted.
We scheduled our visit to the property at 4 p.m. as it took about 2 hours from landing in Toulouse Blagnac Airport through renting the car and reaching the property at 3.58 p.m.. At exactly 4 p.m. Maarten drove in and being extremely welcoming and open invited us in the chai. He discussed the wines and the winemaking business of Cahors at length, with a particular focus on the new modern winemaking trends of Cahors, where Malbec raises to fame on itself, less interfered with by winemaking.
Maarten Luyckx presenting his wines and AOC Cahors
Also, unlike Bordeaux for example, the grape variety is present on Chateau Famaey’s labels. It is a mainly a requirement for export we are told, as unfortunately Malbec is presently much more famous per se than is the AOC Cahors.
All the wines we tasted were 100% textbook Cahors, deep, powerful, intense, sour-cherry, cherry, red fruit, jammy and high tannins based. In case of Cuvee X, which benefits from 24 months in brand new French oak barrels, vanilla was definitely on the high side, but so beautifully integrated I was beyond delighted. We ended up purchasing one to enjoy later with our hosts – Domaine d’Isle Basse (http://www.islebasse.fr/), more of which you will hear during the next part of our article.
This new popularity of French Malbec translates, insofar as Chateau Famaey is concerned, into exports to no less than 26 countries – quite an achievement for a niche winery which is less backed by the financial strength of other larger Cahors power houses. However, make no mistake, Chateau Famaey wines might come from a smaller winery but they are fine wines, ranging from very good (Chateau Famaey, Elevé en Fût de Chène Label, priced at EUR 10.50 at the property) to outstanding (Chateau Famaey, Cuvee X priced at EUR 21 at the property).
After almost 2 hours flew by, during which one of the neighbours who seemed quite familiar with the property arrived and bought a carton of 6 Chateau Famaey Tradition wines (no oak aging, priced at EUR 7.30 at the property) – which we took as a vote of confidence from the locals – we took our leave from Maarten and left for Cahors.
We left under the impression that AOC Cahors is definitely not indifferent to the influence that Argentinian Malbec has on the international wine market, however perhaps more progress could be made if the French winemakers were more united. Following our visit at Chateau Famaey we understand this is not the case and ego and financial interests divide here just as much as they do anywhere else.
But then again, there is a place on the market for everyone, should their wine be good and this statement is also just as true here as much as it is anywhere else. For wine should always unite around it and bring people, be them vine-growers, winemakers or wine lovers, together in appreciating the fabulous complex stories that can arise from a bottle of fine wine.
In part (III) of this article, we will be looking at different winemaking approaches at Clos Triguedina and Chateau Lagrezette as well as discuss the tips and tricks to planning a successful trip to the Lot Valley and AOC Cahors, including by having a look at the gem of a property we deem our home away from home – Domaine d’Isle Basse (http://www.islebasse.fr/).