In a way, Bordeaux is like the old British Empire. Although its dominance of the wine world has receded with the emergence of young wine regions like South Africa, South America, and Australia, the tentacles of Bordeaux’s influence are still seen in the character of wine all around the globe.
Consider South America, a continent as distant from France geographically as it is culturally. The principle grapes used to produce South American red wine are not only mostly French, but often Bordelais in origin.
Cabernet Sauvignon, a huge player in South America’s wine scene, is the primary grape on the Left Bank of Bordeaux (Graves, Haut-Medoc). Merlot, which likewise receives significant attention from South American vintners, dominates the Right Bank of Bordeaux (St. Emilion, Pomerol). Even Carmenere, which is produced almost exclusively in Chile these days, was originally a key component in Bordeaux blends until its French vines were wiped out in the late 19th century by phylloxera.
But wait, you might say, you’ve forgotten about Malbec! Surely Malbec, which has been so crucial to the international emergence of the South American wine industry, is truly Argentine. Not so. While it is the case that far more Malbec is grown in Argentina than in any other country, the grape originates from – you guessed it! – Bordeaux, where it traditionally formed a small portion of some Bordeaux blends. One doesn’t find many Bordeaux chateaux using Malbec in their blends these days, but the grape continues to flourish in its true home, a little region near Bordeaux by the name of Cahors.
Cahors lies some 25 miles due west of Bordeaux on the banks of the Lot River, a tributary of the famous Garonne that separates Graves from Entre-Deux-Mers. Often heartier and more rustic than Bordeaux, Cahors is emblematic of the broader region in which it lies, sometimes referred to simply as the Southwest. This country region has always played second fiddle to its urbane downstream neighbor: In the past, Bordeaux merchants would deny Southwestern producers access to the Dordogne port until all the Bordeaux wine had been sold – in some cases even while enriching their own blends with grapes grown in Cahors and its environs.
The Cahors-as-country-cousin analogy is apt. Bordeaux and Cahors aren’t far from each other, and Malbec is traditionally grown in both places. One could say that they’re related. But while a prototypical Bordeaux wine is all about refinement, power married with finesse, elegance and strength at once, a classic Cahors forgoes femininity in favor of a callus-handed masculinity, trades class for brute force, and generally conveys a meat-and-potatoes rusticity. Traditionally known as “black wine” (though “purple wine” would be more accurate), Cahors tends to be deep, dark, and brooding.
This is not to suggest that these wines are all tannin and brawn and nothing else. What is remarkable about better examples of Cahors is the purity of fruit that the wine displays, even in the midst of such a hearty, warming (think hearth, not alcohol) sensation. One of the more distinctive aromas and flavors of Malbec is blueberry, and good Cahors exhibits focused, ripe, fresh blueberry notes that are deftly tethered by the region’s characteristic earthen, savory quality and toothy texture. Almost like eating homemade, freshly-picked blueberry pie with sautéed chanterelle mushrooms.
Sounds gross? OK, so maybe your classic soil-tinged Cahors isn’t for everyone. But if you’re not keen on mixing fungus with your fruit, you should know that another stylistic strain in Cahors these days seeks to emphasize clean, pure fruit tones with just enough of the leavening influence of the forest floor to remind you that you’re not in Napa any more. One such example is the 2006 Clos La Coutale, imported by Kermit Lynch. This wine contains snappy red and black fruit on the front palate folding into deepening waives of earth and spice and just a hint of dark chocolate (from the 20% Merlot that rounds out the Malbec – common in this winemaking style). With air it exhibits s strong berry pie core coupled with hints of iron and earth – in short, a wine firmly planted in the Old World with extensive New World appeal. I suspect that these kinds of wines, if marketed widely enough, would threaten to convince a new generation of the merits of French Malbec.
Cahors is not the only region in France that produces Malbec (or “Auxerrois,” as locals call the grape). Malbec-based wines can be found in the Loire Valley, for example, where the grape goes by the local name “Cot.” But Cahors is the only French AC in which Malbec must account for the lion’s share of the blend. Any wine bearing the name Cahors must be composed of at least 70% Malbec, with the remainder some combination of Merlot and Tannat (Tannat is the dominant grape in Madiran, a neighboring AC).
And Malbec from Cahors doesn’t taste quite like Malbec from the Loire – to say nothing of Malbec from Argentina. Sure, the blueberries are front and center in good examples of all three. But the rustic presence of Cahors, even among the more modern wines, sets it apart. Another thing that sets it apart is its ability to age. Not every Cahors should be laid down for more than a couple of years, of course, but some of the best cuvees can possess the sort of stuffing that rewards mid-to-long term cellaring.
It’s notable that these best cuvees, unlike their upper crust cousins in Bordeaux, can be obtained quite cheaply. I’ve never seen a new release Cahors retail for more than $25, and most are priced well below the $20 mark. Even the bottle of 1989 Chateau Cayrou I drank the other month only ran me $29.84 – the price of a middling Sonoma Cabernet or a 2005 Cru Bourgeois.
Cahors will never surpass Bordeaux in prestige (perhaps nothing ever will). But in terms of distinctiveness and affordability, it stands on its own two feet and cedes ground to no one, least of all those stuffy Bordelais.