The Pour: From an Undervalued Region in France, New Energy, New Inspiration and Great Wines
Those producers include people like Julien Ilbert of Château Combel-la-Serre and Fabien Jouves of Mas del Périé, who are upending the image of Cahors as heavy and rustic by making distinctive wines of elegance and grace.
They include other producers whose wines are not yet available in the United States, like Jérémie Illouz, who is making lovely, easy-to-drink natural wines under the label Parlange & Illouz.
And they include Pedro Parra, a Chilean geologist, and Antonio Morescalchi, a Tuscan wine entrepreneur, who are partners in Altos Las Hormigas, an Argentine producer dedicated to making wines of terroir in the Mendoza region, and who have formed partnerships with three producers in Cahors. Malbec is the primary red grape of Mendoza, and although most people today associate malbec with Argentina, it also happens to be the historic red grape of Cahors, where it was also known as côt or auxerrois.
The malbec connection drew them to Cahors. That, and the fact that Mr. Parra is obsessed with limestone, and believes deeply that limestone and malbec are a wonderful combination for making wines with a distinctive sense of place.
“It took us five years to find limestone in Argentina,” he told me on a recent visit to Cahors. “Here, it took five minutes.”
Vines in Cahors are largely planted on a series of alluvial and gravel terraces rising from the Lot River, or on the plateau (or causse) above the terrace, where the limestone bedrock is covered by only a thin layer of soil. The limestone slopes in between, which Mr. Parra believes are the best terroir of all, are ignored except by Mr. Sigaud’s vineyard. This, to Mr. Parra, amounts virtually to sacrilege.
To Mr. Parra and Mr. Morescalchi, Cahors is a region of wonderful possibilities. In their analysis, Cahors has largely ignored the resources that can make its wines most distinctive. Instead, it has sought to model itself on Argentina, which has achieved great success making ripe, fruity malbecs; or on Bordeaux, which, when imitated by Cahors, yields oaky, blockbuster wines that are seldom interesting.
“A terrible bipolarity,” Mr. Morescalchi called it.
The partnerships they have forged are with Cahors producers who are seeking to make more-elegant wines and who want to work with better terroirs. They include Château les Croisille, whose estate has vines on both the terraces and the plateau; Domaine du Prince, which has vineyards on the plateau, and the Sigaud family.
All are making wines in conjunction with Leonardo Erazo, the winemaker for Altos Las Hormigas. Each has its own label: Causse du Vidot with Croisille, Causse des Ons with Prince and Causse du Théron with the Sigauds. The first vintage of each was 2014, and, though made in small quantities, the wines should be available in the United States beginning this fall.
Mr. Parra and Mr. Morescalchi recognize the dangers of outsiders appearing to tell the locals how to conduct their business.
“Here we are, two weird guys, telling them you have limestone and the future is great,” Mr. Parra said. “‘Who are these people?’”
Mr. Morescalchi added: “If we succeed, it’s great. If not, we’re the snake oil salesmen.”
So far, it appears, so good. The wines I have tasted are superb. A 2014 Causse du Vidot from the terrasses was light and lovely, though they lack a great deal of depth. But a 2014 Causse du Vidot from the plateau was fresh and structured, with earthy raspberry flavors and persistent underlying minerality, an excellent wine.
A 2014 Causse des Ons from the plateau was fuller and more tannic, not as graceful as the Vidot but powerfully mineral. Best of all was the 2014 Causse du Théron En Pente, from the Sigauds’ hillside vineyard, a wine full of tension, with dense mineral flavors entwined with raspberry fruit, long, deep and intense. Grand cru, indeed.
“Our wines have become more elegant and precise, and less extracted,” said Sébastien Sigaud. “We find flavors that our grandfathers knew.”
While their project is the most visible sign of evolution in Cahors, it would be wrong to ignore the young Cahors producers who are themselves bringing change to the region with their excellent wines.
In the village of Trespoux-Rassiels, Fabien Jouves’s Mas del Périé is making superb wines from a number of excellent terroirs. Instead of blending the grapes from the various parcels, as his father did and as has been the custom in Cahors, he now vinifies them separately and aims for grace rather than force.
“I’ve changed the style,” he said. “It was too Bordelais. My philosophy is more Burgundian. Instead of mixing it all together, I want to show different sides. Cahors is very complex.”
His first vintage was 2006, which he dismisses. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. Since 2009, he has farmed organically, and since 2011, biodynamically.
“When I began, the wine was bigger and sweeter,” he said. “With biodynamics, there’s much more tension, precision and salinity.”
Mr. Jouves’s 2014 La Roque, from a vineyard of rocky marl, is clear, precise and savory, and it costs only about $20. His two best sites are Les Acacias, with plenty of limestone, which makes an elegant, gravelly wine; and Bloc B763, fractured limestone with a lot of iron, which makes a softly mineral wine of great finesse.
“You have to show your emotions, your personality in the wine,” he said.
Nearby, in the village of Saint-Vincent-Rive-d’Olt, Julien Ilbert of Château Combel-la-Serre makes easygoing introductions to Cahors, like his 2015 Le Pur Fruit du Causse, which is aged in stainless steel, yet nonetheless demonstrates the underlying mineral character of malbec from Cahors. He also makes exceptional expressions from limestone like Les Peyres Levades, precise, fresh and distinctive with flavors of menthol, herbs and minerals.
“I want Cahors on my labels, not malbec,” Mr. Ilbert said. “Cahors is the region, the terroir, the people. We’re not malbec, not Argentina.”
So far, no other plans have surfaced to plant vineyards on the hillsides. The cost of clearing trees and working steep slopes may be too great. But the wines emerging from Cahors are so good, and are such good values, that somebody before long may be inspired to make the investment.
Looking at the Sigaud vineyard, Mr. Parra said, “There are many places in Cahors like this, but it’s for the future, the next generation.”
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