Cahors has taken a pummelling from history. These almost secretive vineyards, basking on the terraces of the serpentine middle Lot, were one of medieval France’s great commercial success stories. First lauded by the Romans, its wines flourished as part of English Aquitaine, especially during the prosperous early 14th century: in 1310, half of the wine exported from Bordeaux came from Cahors.
Bordeaux’s merchants, though, controlled the mouth of the river. They soon erected trade barriers against their rivals upstream; 750 years of struggle ensued. Even so, the quality of Cahors’ structured “black wines” (made from heated, reduced grape juice and sometimes oven-baked grapes) continued to win foreign admirers in Russia and elsewhere; prior to the phylloxera crisis, there were almost 48,000 hectares planted here. By the mid-20th century, though, Cahors had almost been annihilated (there were just 208ha in 1962), and its recovery has been slow. Even today, many of the region’s greatest vineyards lie sleeping under dappled oak woods, their old stone walls fragmenting in the frosts, their silence broken only by yaffling woodpeckers.
The grape variety that made the reputation of Cahors, Malbec, is most readily associated today with Mendoza in the Argentinian Andes. Argentina has more than 70 per cent of the world’s Malbec, and recent marketing strategies for Cahors have resorted to badging this noble progenitor “the French Malbec”. Catchy, perhaps, but the style of Cahors is intrinsically different to that of Mendoza: tougher, tighter and more ferrous, with a more austere fruit spectrum. Perfect for seasoned mealtime drinkers, but without the easy-access ideals of varietal wine. Cahors’ most promising path is to try to re-establish its reputation as one of France’s great terroir wines.
The appellation of Cahors has just celebrated its 40th birthday, and earlier this summer local growers organised a tasting of some of the region’s historical bottles as well as of wines from the last three commercially available vintages of 2007, 2008 and 2009. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much to pick over prior to the 1980s, but wines such as Clos du Gamot’s 1955 still had a core of glowing, meaty ripeness that suggested the best vineyards in the region should indeed be able to produce wines to endure. The Baldès family’s Clos Triguedina fielded 11 wines from almost three decades, and the 1975 in particular was in fine form, full of creamy, textured warmth and with the gamey undertones that render the pleasure of old red wine a gastronomic one.
An extensive blind tasting of 108 wines from the three more recent vintages shows that Cahors is not only aloft once again, but that its best wines also have a stylistic precision that differentiates them from the more opulent Argentinian Malbecs, and from other local French competition such as Madiran (whose dark, lunging reds are even more texturally prolific) and Bordeaux itself (less savoury and less rugged).
If the region has a hero, it is probably Pascal Verhaeghe, a winegrower whose work I have long admired. This tasting showed me just how positive his influence has been on the region, since many of the finest wines were those made along the stringent lines recommended by the Cahors Charter of Quality, which he was instrumental in creating. Not only that, but his own wines from Château du Cèdre, together with those he helps to create (such as Château Haut-Monplaisir and Château les Croisille), collared most of my top scores.
Best of all was the 2008 Château les Croisille “Divin Croisille”: a wine of startling aromatic refinement (tea leaf, elderberry fruits, roasted meat, pounded earth, moist vanilla pod and crushed black pepper), with a cascade of fruit on the palate. Many of those aromatic complexities return as the wine warms in the mouth, while its refined yet ample tannins suggest it will make benchmark Cahors for a decade to come. It inched ahead of Verhaeghe’s own 2008 Château du Cèdre “Le Cèdre”, whose deep, dark fruit scurries and eddies across the palate. In third place was the 2007 Cuvée le Graal from Domaine Les Roques de Cana, a lighter-framed wine that seduced on the basis of its lifted perfumes and the elegant, poised disposition of its flavours.
Almost as influential in Cahors as Verhaeghe has been Alain Dominique Perrin, a former CEO of Cartier International and later of the Richemont luxury goods group. Perrin bought Château Lagrézette in 1980 and spent the following 10 years restoring the 15th-century château and renovating its vineyards, as well as creating a three-tier range of wines with the consultative help of Michel Rolland. Perrin’s commercial dynamism (which includes a retail outlet close to Cahors’ celebrated 14th-century Pont Valentré) hasn’t always been popular locally, but it has helped carry the region’s wines to locations and contexts no one else could have reached. In 2006, Perrin bought a new property, Domaine de Landiech, in one of the finest zones of Cahors, though the vineyards required replanting. It’s rumoured that Verhaeghe will help to create the Landiech wines: an exciting prospect.
Another new arrival who promises to be just as influential is the celebrated soil consultant Claude Bourguignon who, with his wife and fellow consultant Lydia, has bought land at Laroque-des-Arcs, attracted by its Kimmeridgian limestone slopes. Indeed the fact that many of Cahors’ finest historic vineyards are still hidden in forest land leads Jérémy Arnaud, the marketing director of the Union Interprofessionnelle du Vin de Cahors, to “call for the Indiana Joneses of terroir to come and explore here”.
There’s only one problem: the Cahors AOC boundaries were slackly drawn back in 1971. They now include vineyards that merit exclusion and exclude high-quality land (like that which Claude and Lydia Bourguignon have purchased). Attempting to re-draw appellation boundaries always entails civil war. Cahors’ historic struggles may not be over just yet.
Jancis Robinson is away
2007: Château Haut Monplaisir Prestige
Château du Cèdre, Le Cèdre
Maison Cantaury, Paradoxe
2008: Château Haut Monplaisir Prestige
Château du Cèdre, Cuvée GC
2009: Clos d’Un Jour, Un Jour sur Terre
Château Combel La Serre, L’Elite
Château du Cèdre and Clos Triguedina are imported by Caves de Pyrène (www.lescaves.co.uk, 01483 554750), Haut Monplaisir by Berkmann Wine Cellars (www.berkmann.co.uk, 01249 463501). For all stockists see winesearcher.com.