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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.

“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.