The French Connection
Coming from Argentina, the first thing that really strikes you about Cahors is how green it is. Emerald green fields run into sloping lime green lawns with brooding pine green forests above –this is a very lush landscape. And typically on the day we arrive, it’s raining.
Nestled in the middle of Southern France, almost equidistant between France’s two coast lines, the Lot region has a privileged position in the heart of food and wine country between Bordeaux and Provence. So it is no surprise that the local gastronomy is one of the main attractions for visitors of Cahors, as well as the stunning medieval architecture, multitudes of resplendent and crumbling chateaus and a host of outdoor activities.
Arriving at the peak of summer, the city centre is a hub of activity (when the sun eventually does come out) with people wandering the walled medieval town, meandering alongside the river, gawking at France’s best preserved medieval bridge, and indulging in the local cuisine. This is the land of foie gras, duck, truffles and saffron; it would be easy to just spend a week here eating but as much as my stomach would like otherwise – I came to Cahors not just to glut but to get out and see where Malbec came from.
The best place to start your tour of Malbec country is from Villa CahorsMalbec – a trendy bar and information centre where wine guru Jeremy Arnaud helps you taste your way through some of the region’s best wines and lets you into the secrets of Cahors’ rich history. Although Malbec has in recent times only been a famous grape for the last 10 years (mainly due to Argentina’s success), this was the wine of choice for Kings, Tsars and Popes for over a thousand years. The ‘black wine’ of Cahors was one of the most revered, chosen by royalty for weddings, shipped to aristocrats around the world, and was actually preferred over its neighbouring wine region Bordeaux. That was all until phylloxera wiped everything out, the 100 year war put a stalemate to production, harsh taxation punished inland wine producersand two world wars. French malbec has since been hiding in the sleepy hills of Cahors, but this is starting to change again as the wine is now experiencing a renaissance.
With a bit of history stored away and black teeth already, it was time to embark on visiting a couple of vineyards. Although all relatively close (compared to Argentine standards), the hills and narrow winding roads mean that visiting wineries in France needs to take a leisurely pace. And who would want to rush as you pass mist covered valleys, snaking flat rivers and pretty stone houses? With so many postcard moments, the journey could take quite a while.
You will find a hundred different stories and styles of wineries – from families that have been making Malbec for centuries and still use traditional techniques, to flashy investors with all the latest metalwork. But one thing in common is their size (miniscule compared to Argentine giants) and that most of them have a stunning chateau attached. My first stop was Château Lagrézette–a beautiful property and rolling vineyards owned by Cartier’s ex-president Alain Dominique Perrin. As you would expect, this winery has some seriously impressive silverware inside but from the outside you would never guess.
As you arrive all you can see ahead are steep vineyards (the oldest in Southwest France), the fifteenth century chateau tucked around the corner and a large walk-in cellar. Stepping into the underground winery, art adorns the walls and wooden wine boxes show off their wares. If you aren’t enchanted by the castle, the wines will help you along your way with their complex yet elegant rich myriad of aromas weaved in oak. Lagrézette make dark, interesting wines with intense black berries, eucalyptus, chocolate and a fresh acidity. They taste quite different to their Argentine brothers, which is surprising as omnipresent Michel Rolland is their consultant winemaker.
Moving off to the next winery, we drive up to yet another beautiful chateau (this is definitely a pattern in southern France), this time to Chateau Chambert owned by young and enthusiastic software magnate Philippe Lejeune. The benefit of visiting such small wineries (compared to Argentina) is that you are usually greeted by the owner, winemaker or their family. And it’s no exception at Chambert, where Philippe himself welcomes us to walk through the vineyards which have been used to make Malbec for over 10 centuries.
With a growing winepassion for many years, Philippe decided to take a break from software and take the plunge to start making wine in 2007 – buying the chateau and vineyards, and moving with his family to a more peaceful life in southern France. Sounds like a wise decision to me.
Sat on top of the plateaux, from Chambert you have hill top views around its organic and biodynamic vineyards. What’s surprising is how in France there are so many organic vineyards – despite the humidity. “It is not that hard to be organic,” says Philippe. “It is all about good preparation and avoiding problems beforehand.” Good vine management and a breeze on the higher plateaux lands help keep everything tickety boo, and allow Philippe and his wine maker Vincent Neuville to make clean and elegant wines, representative of Malbec and the terroir.
After a tour through the underground winery, the tasting room (to obvious delight) is in the chateau. Working our way through Chambert’s wines, there is a clear fruit forward aspect to these wines, which is more typical of Malbec from the plateaux, and the elegant and honest style makes them easy drinking and could be easily paired with food. Philippe also makes a fortified dessert wine from a traditional recipe used in the Chateau 300 years ago – he cooks the grapes and adds alcohol from Malbec resulting in a dense, silky wine, which is a rich black colour and has spices and chocolate on the nose. Drinking a wine recipe from the 1700s in a castle is a pretty cool experience.
After a pit stop for some lunch in one of the many beautiful villages, and soaking up a bit of sunshine by the river, it is time for our third and final winery – Chateau du Cedre. Brothers Pascal and Jean-Marc Verhaeghe are the second generation in this family winery, and Pascalcomes to greet us and takes us on a whirlwind tour of the vineyards in his 4×4. It’s amazing to see how quickly the terroir changes, literally with a line drawn in the land between limestone and sand. This gives great drainage for vines and is not only good for the region’s signature Malbec but because of the soil, Cahors is an up and coming region for Chardonnay and Viognier.
Pascal and Jean-Marc also decided to go organic after their father became ill and passed away because of the chemicals used when working in the vineyard. Pascal believes that caring for the vines is the most important process in wine making, “the more you do out there [in the vineyard], the less work you have to do in here [in the winery].” And their philosophy certainly works – Chateau du Cedreare one of the leading producers of Malbec in France and it’s clear to see why. After trying their gorgeous Viogner, we move onto the Malbecs, each one getting more and more complex and exciting. Their top wine, GC, is an eruption of dark forest fruits, violet, spices and that classic trace of mint – divine. I don’t know if my teeth will ever be white again.
As we leave Pascal’s winery and head back through the valleys back to the city (for more froi gras and duck), it’s easy to see why Cahors is a great wine holiday. The wineries are all such personal experiences, with histories and families that are engaging and welcoming. The region is beautiful and the wines are too. Much darker in colour to Argentine Malbec, with brick to black hues, and a rich palate of black forest fruits but with a higher acidity and great freshness with expressions of mint and eucalyptus as well as deep earthy and truffle notes. This is a pretty stylish Malbec and you can really see the difference eleven thousand kilometres makes.
Contact UIVC or Villa Cahors Malbec at Place Francois Mitterrand in the city centre, 05 65 23 82 35, firstname.lastname@example.org
Argentina – A Brave New World
So I did my Malbec tour in France and thought it would be an interesting exercise to do the same in its adopted home Argentina. The quaint charm of Gallic laneways and chateaus gives way to the dramatic vineyards of Mendoza, framed by the colossal Andes in the background. Believe it or not there are almost 1000 wineries in Mendoza, a bewildering number if you have just arrived and wish to drop by and try a few. Three hundred of them take visitors but the reality is that only 20 or 30 wineries are worth visiting in the sense they have good wines, knowledgeable winery guides and beautiful locations. The vast majority of these wineries are located in Lujan de Cuyo, the heart of Argentine winemaking.
Lujan is located 30 minutes south of the city, out into the vineyards and close to the mountains, and those are what make Mendoza’s winelands look so stunning. The question is how do you get there? Unlike in Cahors the best wineries are far from the city. Public transport is minimal and renting a car risks a DUI. Also there is the nagging fact that all wineries require pre-booking. I opted to skip the jail time and messy details, and went straight to Mendoza’s best, English-speaking, wine tour company, Trout & Wine. It didn’t take much convincing to sign me up for their Lujan de Cuyo tour which involves four wineries.
The next morning the van picked me up at my hotel and we set out to experience the wines of Lujan de Cuyo. Our guide for the day, explained a bit of history about Mendoza, its culture and winemaking as we came out of the city and into the beautiful vineyards with the classic Andes backdrop. I learned that this desert zone is truly the last frontier in wine making and Malbec was its pioneer yet for many years it was looked upon as a rough diamond that would never equal the finesse of its more famous cousins such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. That all changed in the late eighties when wine making methods improved and Malbec with it. Sadly, in the sixties and seventies thousands of Malbec vineyards were pulled up, ageing vines that would cost a fortune now to buy such is the popularity of the grape, fuelled by a Malbec mania in the United States.
Our first visit was the Argentine owned winery, Mendel. The winemaker is Roberto de la Mota, one of Argentina’s top winemakers, and our enthusiastic guide explained how the emphasis at Mendel is to make Argentine wine – in the style and honour of the region, not emulating anyone else. With an entertaining tour around the vines and boutique winery, we moved into the cosy tasting room where we tried some deeply fruity Malbec and their stunning chart-topping blend. Surprisingly, even at 10.30am the wines go down rather well and we are all in very good spirits as we get back into the air conditioned van.
Taking off further into the vineyards, we pull up at Dante Robino. Designed by architects Bormida & Yanzon, this winery has a really interesting structure with the old historical winery encased by a modern, minimalist shell. Our guide at the winery took us through the old and new parts explaining the different process of wine making for still and sparkling wines, before we moved upstairs to their attractive tasting room overlooking the mountains for everyone’s favourite bit. A couple of Malbecs, a Bonarda and a very elegant sparkling wine later, we are all toasting each other on enjoying the good life.
After two wine breakfasts, the next stop is quite wisely lunch. Before settling in Tapiz’s restaurant, we go to the small olive oil factory to see how they make it and whet our appetite with an olive oil tasting. Moving up to the vineyard surrounded restaurant, we loosen our belts for the four courses all paired with different wines. Starting out with a fresh Torrontes and a light local trout ceviche, we move onto a healthy baby tomato and parmesan salad and then a whopping great Argentine steak with all the trimmings and two glasses of wine – a Malbec and a Syrah – and finally a naughty dessert with Tapiz’s refreshing rosé. Feeling very sated and full, we all hop (or rather roll) back into the van with big smiles on our faces ready for the next and final winery.
Arriving at a beautiful old pink adobe building with vines in front and a few friendly kittens, we were at Benegas Lynch. One of the most historical wineries in Argentina, Benegas is like wine royalty and it feels like it as you enter the big, cane roofed bodega adorned with the owner’s personal collection of traditional argentine gaucho kaftans. His great grandfather Tiburcio Benegas is credited with bringing some of the first vine sprigs of noble vines from France by mule across the Andes. That mule ride was to change a country and transform the region. After taking an informative tour of all the historical winemaking tools and the more modern ones, we moved to the tasting room to try a few of Benegas’ prized wines. It was fitting that I should end my Franco-Argentine experience by trying a French style wine with a New World sensibility. Benegas Lynch Meritage Bordeaux blend is a busty Cabernet Franc driven masterpiece that stands out as spicy, intense and fruity. The surprising thing is it has no Malbec but leans on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot for its complexity. It suddenly occurred to me that just as France is trying to regain the Malbec trophy from its southern usurper, it turns out Argentina has a few more aces hidden up its sleeve.
Trout & Wine conducts daily tours to Lujan de Cuyo and Valle de Uco. Espejo 266, Mendoza. (261) 425 5613. www.troutandwine.com
By Amanda Barnes
Published in the October/November 2011 edition of Wine Republic