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Savoring the black wine of Cahors

New world wine drinkers associate Malbec with Argentina, but it has a much bigger older brother.

CAHORS, France – Old-world Malbec is a little bit like the Marlboro Man, but without the nicotine.

It's rugged. Long-lasting. Original. It does its own thing, current tastes be damned.

“Current tastes,” if you’re a Malbec drinker, likely means the Argentinian iteration of the grape. Transported to South America from Europe in the second half of the 19th century, Malbec in the New World has skyrocketed to popularity in recent years. Argentinian Malbecs in particular are generally easy-drinking, easy to find and ready to drink when young.

Malbec wines from Cahors, on the other hand, have a rather gothic reputation as a brooding style of vin noir, literally: Malbec from this part of France has been called “the black wine of Cahors” since the 13th century. For hundreds of years it was sought-after as “the wine of popes, kings and czars.”

Cahors Malbec’s descent from popularity and prestige in the 20th century began well before Argentine Malbec’s steep rise. “Twenty-five years ago people didn’t think they could make good wine here,” said Pascale Verhaeghe of Château du Cedre who, when he arrived in Cahors and first surveyed the landscape with his practiced winemaker’s eye, couldn’t understand why everyone wouldn’t want to plant here.

The problem, in part, was one of confidence and dedication. “There were a few families who made wine but most came from another job,” he said. “It wasn’t their passion.”

The problem was also quantifiable: the yields were too high and hectares planted for Malbec in France were declining. (Even today, with Malbec seeing a resurgence, only 4,000 of Cahors’ 21,000 hectares are planted to vine.) Rows of Malbec, originally valued for the color and fruit it added to Bordeaux blends, were also being replaced by rows of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Cahors Malbec was in a rut.

Two of the factors bringing Cahors out of that rut today were inevitable: a younger generation of winemakers coming of age and the arrival of technology in terms of viticultural practices and ease of travel to other winegrowing regions around the world.

The other two factors changing the face and the prospects of Cahors Malbec, however, are surprisingly au courant in this region that still prides itself on its rusticity and distance from more urbane hustle-and-bustle. Those two factors — “neo-vignerons” and some very forward-thinking marketing strategies — represent the convergence of culture, timing, entrepreneurial spirit and economic necessity.

The future of winemaking in Cahors lies with the neo-vigneron, believes Jeremy Arnaud of the Union Interprofessionnelle des Vins de Cahors, referring to the group of people who retire from financially successful careers elsewhere and relocate to Cahors to begin a new life. They want to do something useful, Arnaud said, something that gets their hands dirty. They come to Cahors for the vineyards.

What the neo-vignerons also bring, aside from their enthusiasm, is investment capital and often a lifetime of experience in sales and marketing. What Cahors needs today, Arnaud said, “is to market a commercially successful wine. We can not be only paysant.”

The face, and the personal history, of Philippe Lejeune is anything but paysant. Lejeune, perhaps the most notable and emblematic of the neo-vignerons, purchased the 60-hectare Chateau Chambert in 2007 and has been restoring and updating both the buildings and the vineyards. Lejeune, the CEO and founder of Galaxy Semiconductor Solutions, sees similar skill sets between business and wine.