Savoring the black wine of Cahors

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.

“You’re aiming at excellence,” he said. “You want to be innovative and creative, and you work hard but you can’t control everything. Here at Château Chambert wine itself is only half the job.”

For Lejeune, and for an increasing number of wineries in Cahors, the history of the chateaux and vin noir are assets but not in themselves sustainable businesses. For that, the Cahors industry needs to reinvent itself. “Before, the people who held the power had never left here,” Lejune said. “The wine was shipped and drunk in France and they didn’t do sales and marketing. Now there’s a new generation. People are getting sales and marketing degrees too, and then they’re coming back to their family vineyards.”

The future of Cahors Malbec should find strength in the number of next-generation winemakers, many of whom grew up in their families’ vineyards then (unlike the previous generations) traveled abroad for studies and work experience. They’ve now returned home, full of new ideas yet grounded in the soil of their childhoods.

Anne and Emmanuelle Burc, for example, are the sixth generation (and the first women-only team) to lead Chaeau Pineraie; their 2006 L’Authentique won a silver medal at the 2008 Decanter World Wine Awards. Fabrice Durou, at age 31, works in the cellar at his family’s Château de Gaudou and, drawing from his experience working abroad, travels extensively and has expanded Gaudou’s placement in Canada and the United States in particular. One after another, very promising and very young winemakers present themselves in a parade of Cahors’ prospects for the future.

With the financing and the winemaking in order, it’s time to sell. In that arena, too, is Cahors exhibiting its own new brand of rugged individualism.

Breaking from the staunch tradition of French wine labels that focus — often unintelligibly to non-French speakers – on the chateau, terroir and place, Cahors marketers divided their Malbecs into three different styles: "Tender & Fruity" (where the wine is composed of 70 to 85 percent Malbec), "Feisty & Powerful" (85 percent Malbec), and "Intense & Complex" (100 percent Malbec).

The segment of the U.S. market that Cahors Malbec seeks to fill is the second category. Argentine Malbec has essentially cornered the market on the first category, which normally retails for less than $15, but Arnaud argued that the second category (which retails for between $15 and $25) is full of Cahors’ best producers.

It’s an odd system of classification at first, especially for those of us used to thinking of French wines as Grand Cru, Premier Cru and Village, but frankly, it is a welcome change to consider a wine by descriptor rather than delimited geography. It is like a wine shop being organized by style (“Light and Fruity” or “Aromatic Whites”) rather than by region: unusual for traditionalists but liberating for newcomers or new-perspective-seekers.

Still, wine in Cahors means Malbec. The changes underway may affect the wine business in Cahors for better or worse, but the dedication to Malbec is unflinching. “We aren’t doing Malbec because it’s current,” said Bertrand Vigouroux of Château de Hate-Serre. “We’re doing it because it’s our history.”

Note: The Union Interprofessionnelle des Vins de Cahors paid for Cathy Huyghe's travel to Cahors.