Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

A Glance at Cahors

September 2010


I’ve just paid a quick visit to Cahors, famous for its “black wine”, to sample wines from two of the region’s top estates. The two are completely different – their terroirs have little in common – but their wines are archetypical Cahors: dark in colour, richly aromatic, dense, and very tannic. The two estates are alike the way great artists are alike: they strive with all their might to achieve perfection, doing their utmost to wrest from the soil and the grapes all their finest qualities.

 

The main grape is the Cot, alias the Malbec. Rather looked down upon in Bordeaux (I always relished that the maître de chai at Château Latour was called Malbec!) it is nonetheless enjoying a minor renaissance there, no doubt because of its powerful personality and its sheer richness in pigment.

 

Domaine Cosse Maisonneuve is a 26-hectare estate whose largest plot consists of a vinous amphitheatre in a secluded valley close to the tiny village of Lacapelle Cabanac. So secluded is it, in fact, that joint-owner Catherine Maisonneuve arranged to meet us at a nearby landmark, a lofty church, knowing that if she didn’t show us the way we would have got hopelessly lost in a network of lanes as convoluted as Theseus’s labyrinth.

 

A rare sight: Cosse-Maisonneuve's "black wine" vineyard under thick white snow. Cahors is one of France's most sun-drenched wine regions.

Catherine Maisonneuve is a charming, vivacious lady with an unruly mass of black hair and shining dark eyes. She looks you straight in the eyes,  and you feel she confronts fate, whatever it may deliver, with the same steadiness. Very open, she’s extremely observant too : while talking at full throttle about her beloved vineyards and busily pouring out samples whe was able to see, upside down, that I’d misspelled a vineyard name and was able to put me right.


“One of the special features of that vineyard” – she waves an arm towards the amphitheatre – “is that it contains a lot of crasse de fer” This refers to lumps of iron-rich, crumbly rock, red in colour, that most notably in Pomerol – helps to give fine wines a distinctly truffly aroma and taste. As the tasting was to show, they have a similar effect here.

 

2008 CABERNET FRANC (25-year-old vines) **

An opaque black-purple, this has a nose of uncommon density that leaps out of the glass, laden with black fruit scents mingled with violet: a Cabernet-Franc with a Syrah-like power. The flavour is fresh and vibrantly fruity , the texture slightly furry. An amazing CF that makes many Chinon look pallid. Drink around 2012-17.

 

2007 CAHORS COMBAL (100% Malbec)**

Black as ink (it looks like crème de mûre), this shows colossal weight and power but restraint too. The gorgeous blackberry nose (there’s truffle too) leads into a lovely fresh flavour, soft and expressive, whose long nuanced finish carries the imprint of crasse de fer. Needs about 4 years to shed some of its “sooty” tannins and should then drink well for 5 or so.

 

2006 CAHORS “LES LACQUETS” ***

Place this dark yet lustrous wine beside a young Cheval Blanc and you wouldn’t see much difference. The aroma is another matter: faintly oaky, it evokes black fruits, violet, smoke, prunes, and underbrush. A hint of beetroot and liquorice creeps into the flavour, which is sinewy, voluminous, and tannic (there’s a catch at the back of the throat). 6-7 years’ cellaring should soften this wine, which will then drink well for at least 8-10 more.

 

2007 CAHORS “LES LACQUETS” ***

This is blacker still, with winking purple highlights. The aroma of black fruits, berries, and violets is huge and glossy, introducing a flavour that, while powerful, is very fresh. The flavour gives hints of fig and damson and – what seems to be the house style – a classic restraint lurks behind the wine’s sheer wiriness.

 

Going back to the ’06, however, shows that the slightly older wine has more subtlety and elegance, with a hint of sleekness emerging. Lovely texture, given precision by fine fruity acidity.

 

2002 CAHORS “LE SID” (100% Malbec) **

An exceptionally deep, rich colour, while the concentrated nose evokes quite different traits: burnt cork, espresso, walnut, damson jam, and molasses. Though the grapes must almost have roasted on the vine, there’s good fresh acidity on the finish of black cherry, fig, date, and smoke. At best around 2016-22.

 

2004 CAHORS “LES LACQUETS” ***(*)
l’m staggered at the sheer depth of colour. The vast aroma is smooth, juicy, and dense, calling to mind black fruits and ripe berries. The flavour is big and rich; full of energy, and crammed with ripe lush fruit. The finish is, however, gritty and firm; 4-5 years are needed to bring this to a maturity that should last a further 8-10.

 

 

On to the next property, Château du Cèdre, which many consider to be the region’s top estate. Everything looks different here: the land is much flatter, more like the Médoc in that respect, and the soil is very different too, also more like that of the Médoc. “We have two types of soil. Half is limestone – otherwise only 4% of Cahors has limestone soil – and the other half is clay-siliceous. We use grapes from both types in all three cuvées. There’s no crasse de fer here.”

 

This is oenologist Olivier Teisseire talking. He came to du Cèdre in 2001 and has clearly moulded his life around the property and its wines. There are 25 hectares of vines, all but 1,5 of them planted in red varieties. Malbec accounts for 90% of these and Meriot and Tannat for 5% each. The three different bottlings, in ascending order of quality, are the Château, made from 30-34 year-old vines at 40 hectolitres per hectare; Le Cèdre, 40-50-year vines at 30 hectolitres per hectare; and GC, from vines over a half-century old at 20 hectolitres per hectare. The vatting – fermentation and maceration – lasts 4-5 weeks and takes place in concrete vats.

 

2007 CHATEAU ***
Dark and viscous as crème de cassis, this has a smooth, refined nose of berries, black fruits, and liquorice. Despite its great density there’ s a feeling of buoyancy and Iift. Closed but of great richness in the mouth, evoking blackberry, Iiquorice wood, elderberry, and prune. The long aftertaste is straight and gritty, and the wine needs cellaring for 5-6 years before opening out fully – and shedding any harshness.


2007 LE CEDRE ***(*)
Still darker, this has a bigger, oakier nose, faintly sulphury still, with hints of fig and a range of ripe black fruits. Lushly fruity on the palate, with a long, masterful aftertaste of dark chocolate and black fruits. Though very full there’s no heaviness. There’s so much to it I take another sniff, to discover an emergent scent of red rose and peony. The tannins are very fine. Drink around 2022-45.


2007 GC ****
Truly a “black wine”, the GC has a smooth, intense aroma, round and juicy, that calls to mind a young Pomerol (despite the absence of crasse de fer!). Sloe, bilberry, and fig mingle with cinnamon – the latter from the medium- and high-toast oak casks used for this cuvée. The lushly ripe flavour can only derive from totally mature grapes, evoking black fruits and liquorice. The long rolling finish has power and density but elegance too, with fine ripe tannins leaving an emphatic but subtle aftertaste. A velvet fist inside an iron glove! A forty-year wine.

 

2000 GC ****(*)
A Cahors needs a decade at least – and here we have it. The aroma is big, soaring, and spicy, with hints of clay and graphite, suggesting all manner of black fruits and berries and smoke. Despite the power, there’s an incipient elegance too. The flavour, deep and balanced, is lushly fruity, the finish nuanced and protracted. It ends on a note of black cherry with stone. A glorious Cahors that will live 20-30 years.


Like a fond father who, after introducing his toddlers, cannot resist also presenting his newly-born, M. Teissier leads me to a 60-hectolitre wooden vat, in which the latest vintage is maturing:

 

2009 LE CEDRE ****(*)
The vast aroma is so round as to be globular, the colour as rich and dark as arterial blood. It would take five minutes just to jot down all the flowers, fruits, and berries that come to mind. The flavour is simply gorgeous: velvety, full, complex, and long, with a touch of black pudding within the generous fruit. Weighty yet aerial, with sumptuous tannins. So fresh you could drink it now (why not with black pudding) but able to live several decades. A vin gourmand as the French say.


2008 LE CEDRE BLANC (100% Viognier) **
(17-vines vines yielding 22 hectolitres/hectare; one-third barrel-fermented)
A bright oaky yellow-gold, this has a distinct Viognier scent of green fig, lemon, and pineapple. A touch of kiwi too. In the mouth, a taste of kiwi and pear. The juicy finish ends up dry. This wine will improve with each vintage, as the vines age.


*****

Had an excellent lunch at the nearby Le Gindreau, a Michelin one-star in the nearby village of Saint Médard. One of the things I most appreciate about provincial France is being able to find an elegant restaurant, with good food and first-rate service, in a village or hamlet where the restaurant’s guests almost outnumber the local inhabitants! The chef, with a huge handlebar moustache, was jovial, the staff efficient and civil, and the guests gently exuberant in a way so typically French. An excellent pigeon was preceded by an elegant langoustine-and-avocado dish and accompanied by a good but all-too young Cahors. With a long journey ahead we had to content ourselves with a half-bottle. But the excellent – and well-priced wine list – would justify a special journey and a long session at table with wine-loving friends.

 

Back in Paris we dined at Carré des Feuillants – and were disappointed. The place used to have some of the best dishes in France. On this occasion it was packed with what looked like expense-account executives and the dishes were in what I call the Madame Tussauds style: they looked excellent but were somehow lifeless. Dutournier himself was nowhere to be seen. “He’s become a businessman,” my companion remarked. The sommelier suggested a 2002 Chassagne Montrachet Vieilles Vignes. I’m always keen to try something new but was a bit wary about an 8-year-old white Burgundy from a grower didn’t know, knowing that white Burgundy has, in recent years, shown a tendency to oxidize quite early. He assured that there was no danger of that. I was alarmed at the wine’s telltale coppery tinge as it was poured out, but the sommelier insisted there was nothing wrong. The first mouthful or two were all right, if not very exciting, but – as I expected – the wine grew steadily more oxidized as the evening progressed. The wine waiter steered clear of us thereafter!

 

A lunch at the de luxe Le Bristol the next day gave very different results. The young wine waiter was really passionate about wine and extremely knowledgeable. He recommended a glorious Saumur to begin with, then an irresistible Côte-Rôtie (from Gerin) to accompany the main course. I almost forgot the delectable Riesling from Domaine Weinbach that I took as aperitif. The bill was hefty but we got something for our money!

 

Before leaving Paris we had a dinner at a truly authentic bistro somewhere in the outer reaches of Paris. It was packed with locals and the good-humoured staff worked like Trojans to keep guests happy. The food was freshly-cooked and delicious: artichoke salad followed by superb roast cod and a light, refreshing dessert. With two bottles of wine the three-course meal cost 176 Euros for three.

 

I’m not going to give the name of the place. Why? When a local restaurant starts to attract an international clientele the dominant language switches from French to English (or German) and the locals begin to stay away. The staff become demoralized, the cooks take less trouble, and standards falter. The whole ambience changes.

 

I don’t mind mentioning another Paris restaurant, l’Enoteca, by name: somehow I feel it’s strong enough to take care of itself. The food is acceptable, without being exceptional, but the wholly Italian wine-list is superb. In addition, the sommeliers (anyway, the one who served us) show exceptional breadth of knowledge as well as an unusual degree of intuition.

 

“What I’m looking for to begin with,” I told him, ”is a fresh, flowery, medium-bodied white, unoaked, with a long finish and plenty of elegance.” He came up with a 2009 Sartarelli Classico – Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi – which exactly filled the bill. I then asked for a red, preferably from old vines, which was round, quite full, deep-flavoured, harmonious, and utterly delicious. Again he came up trumps: a 2007 Lagrein Riserva from Taber in the Alto Adige. Dark, full, with miraculously mild tannins and velvety texture, it had a lovely savoury quality and was long on the palate. I’d asked him if it should be decanted. “II don’t think so, but we’ll see what you think when I serve it. ” I took one mouthful and was seduced. It was perfect just as it was, direct from the bottle. It was (as the Swedes say) “disappearingly good”.

 

The sommelier at another restaurant, the highly elegant Domaine des Hauts de Loire near Onzain, in the Loire, appeared not to be quite so close to his wines. He very pertinently drew my attention to a ’99 Bandol from Château de Pibarnon – on balance that region’s best producer – but strongly argued against having it decanted. Decanting was the very thing it needed most: the wine was still closed up two hours later. A superb wine; but Bandol, just like Cahors, takes years to soften up and needs all the help it can get towards the full expansion of its aroma and flavour. And decanting, even double-decanting, is surely the simplest and best way to hurry this process along – at least in the short term.

 

****

 

An example of how chemistry affects wine. Some time ago I uncorked a 2005 Sancerre Les Romains from Domaine Vacheron. It was a painfully truthful, intense Sauvignon Blanc, full of rectitude and fidelity to its origins, its terroir. It smelled of whitecurrant, white smoke, a hint of rhubarb, a suggestion of gunflint. On the palate, rectilinear, severe, very pure. The first glass, taken as an aperitif, was admirable but forbidding. It opened up somewhat with Gillardeau oysters (France’s finest) but was not ideal. But with a crottin de chavignol goat cheese it was suddenly sublime. The powerful acidity of the wine was tamed by the cheese’s chalky dryness and the cheese itself (like a pretty but virtuous nun) was almost seduced but managed to retain its straitlaced virtue while giving out hints of what, in another world, would have been a delicate sensuality.

 

© Frank Ward 2010

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