It is often said that magic can be found where one least expects it. Cahors wine country in the region of South West France is one of those spots. Here, about two hours north of Toulouse, wine lovers find an area rich with history that predates the Middle Ages, where visiting is possible at a fraction of the cost one might spend in its neighboring region, Bordeaux. This countryside AOC lies nestled among the twists and turns of windy roads and the gravelly banks of the Lot River. Grapes are grown above the slopes that form the Lot Valley.
The magic is in the wine that is being produced here; namely, Malbec, the primary grape, known locally as Côt, along with Tannat, Merlot, and a few others. When most people think of Malbec, they think of Argentina and its less tannic, fruitier, rounder style of wine. But Cahors is Malbec’s original home.
Yet despite the region’s reputation for heavy wines, consumer trends toward lighter biodynamic and natural winemaking have sparked a renaissance in Cahors. Winemakers are going back to basics, as they cycle back from highly-extracted, tannic styles of Malbec, to a fresher take on wines that speak of place.
The term “black wine” dates back to the Roman era, and refers to the rich, deeper-than-red hue that colors wines of the area. In fact, the reputation of Cahors was built on the promise of such wine, densely structured, and suitable for long aging. But change has come from all directions, beginning with the consumer market. Wines are less likely to be bought to age and meals are becoming lighter and fresher, with less meat on the menu. Not only are consumer preferences evolving, but so are those of the farmers in the region.
Domaine la Calmette’s Maya Sallée and Nicolas Fernandez are one young couple whose wines are imported to the U.S. exclusively by Becky Wasserman & Co. They are making waves with both fresh wines that are delicious at the point of purchase and traditional styles more suitable for cellaring. They are pioneers in the new wave of Cahors wines, with a focus on terroir, and less tendency to perfume wines with too much oak. Fernandez notes, “Today we find relatively few old school wines in Cahors. There are of course several styles that co-exist, from the most traditional to the most modern. But the whole region has evolved towards more delicate tannic structures and a search for the expression of the fruit.” Domaine la Calmette was recently Demeter certified, but to Sallée and Fernandez, this is only the beginning, “We do all the work by hand, from pruning to harvesting. We practice organic and biodynamic farming, but we are not yet in the no-till phase. But this is our objective, and we progress every year.”
Domaine la Calmette also makes a Malbec cuvée called Serpent à Plumes, which is released as a Vin de France designated wine, as it’s made using the carbonic maceration technique, producing a juicy, light wine. Appellation laws in France are strict, and this winemaking style doesn’t fall within what the Cahors AOC requires.
Not far from Domaine la Calmette, another Cahors winemaker, Fabien Jouves, of Mas del Périé, has challenged the status quo altogether with labels such as You F^&K My Wine?!; a controversial statement for a lighthearted wine. It contains the indigenous variety Jurançon Noir. This variety isn’t permitted in the AOC; hence this wine also carries the Vin de France designation. This label’s reference to Robert de Niro in “Taxi Driver” is his way of expressing his frustration at the AOC laws. Jouves comes from a winemaking family with deep roots in Cahors, but his wines couldn’t be more different from the wines of his parents. Easily recognizable in a shop, his style is experimental and unique. Although he produces select Cahors wines, he also creates wines that are known as “vins de soif,” or thirst-quenching wines, orange wines, and blends in other unpermitted varieties such as Muscat of Hamburg and Cinsault. These details disqualify certain cuvées from being designated as AOC Cahors, but they are also precisely what creates such a distinct experience.
American love affair
Back in Napa, Cahors wines are making a comeback for some, and for others, a debut. Bay Grape owner, Josiah Baldivino, says about his selection of Cahors wines, “Fabien’s wines are great because they are fun and fresh for the Cahors region, where I would expect to find something big, bold, and sturdy.” When asked if he carries other wines from Cahors he says encouragingly, “Yes. Both have their place, but it depends on the time and meal. For example, I would not want to drink the bigger wine on a hot summer day, but a slight chill on a lighter style would be great, and both styles have their place at a dinner table.” At this, he pauses and chuckles, “Actually, it looks like we’ve only got one bottle left of You F^&k My Wine here at the shop,” he continues, “There’s a great backstory to this label and it really is a nice alternative to Pinot Noir or Gamay if you are willing to try something new with your holiday meal.” Being that wines from Cahors are generally more affordable than a Burgundy or Bordeaux, make French Malbec an idea well worth trying out this holiday season.
3 Malbecs from Cahors to try:
Medium body, yet feels incredibly light and juicy, this wine is the epitome of hometown glory with indigenous grapes, a balanced acidity, and medium tannin. Red fruit dominates, with tart cherry, pomegranate, and red raspberry on the palette with surprising fresh anise candy on the finish. Would be great accompanied by grilled chicken or lamb.
If you are looking for a red wine for curry night, this is it. With black currant and blueberry on the palate, this wine is the best of both the new and old era of Cahors wines, showcasing a youthful spin on what is traditionally loved from the region. Whole cluster press and slight carbonic maceration in the cellar gives the wine a freshness, while 12-month aging on the lees bring in depth and nuance.
This deeply pigmented and intensely flavored wine is the embodiment of “the black wine of Cahors.” Rich blackberry and tart black currant are lifted by bright aromatics and a fresh energy that can only be attributed to the vineyard’s high altitude and quality grapes, making this wine truly a riddle in its own right.