I was recently browsing the aisles of my favourite booze merchant, when a bottle from Cahors caught my eye. For those readers not familiar with every unique wine region of France, Cahors is a protected designation for wines grown around the town of the same name in southwestern France.
The interesting thing about Cahors is that it is the birthplace of the Malbec grape, which has since been made famous by Argentina, which imported the grape from France in the 16th century, and is currently home 70% of the worldwide plantings of the Malbec grape.
Indeed, the world has been awash in cheap & cheerful Malbec from Argentina for the past few decades, and its surging popularity has many consumers believing that Malbec is entirely an Argentinian grape.
In its ancestral home of Cahors, the Malbec grape is known by various names, including Côt, Côt Noir, and Auxerrois. To make matters more confusing, there is also a white grape named Auxerrois Blanc, which is often shortened to Auxerrois, leading to much confusion among the teeming millions that do not spend their time memorizing all the alternate names of each wine grape.
As many of the stodgy old-world wine growing regions are wont to do, the labels on bottles of Cahors wines indicate the place of origin, rather than the type of grapes in the bottle.
Under the complex wine labeling laws of France, bottles labeled as Cahors must be grown in a designated region around the town of Cahors, and the grape known variously as Malbec / Côt / Côt Noir / Auxerrois must make up at least 70% of the wine, with the remaining 30% usually a blend of Merlot or Tannat.
With close to ten thousand acres under vine, Cahors may not be a huge wine growing region on the world stage, but its pedigree goes back to the days of the Roman Empire, with the first vines planted around 50 BCE.
The Cahors region punched above its weight for centuries, and was considered a premier producer of wine from the middle ages all the way up until 1883, when the entire French wine industry was hit by the phylloxera epidemic, which decimated the grand old vineyards of Europe.
Tragedy struck again in 1956, when an unexpected killer frost destroyed nearly all the vineyards of the region, which required the large-scale replantings.
Staying strong the face of adversity, the brave winemakers of Cahors continued the work of their forefathers, keeping alive the fine reputation of the so-called black wines of Cahors, so named for the naturally dark color of the Malbec grape.
When aged in oak, the rough tannic edges are smoothed off, with hints of vanilla and smoky leather balancing the rich fruit flavours.
Due to differences in terroir and winemaking styles, the wines of Cahors tend to be more firm and tannic than their Argentine equivalents, where the hotter climates produce a Malbec that is more fruit-forward and lush, with a more velvety texture on the tongue.
If you have ever sampled a Malbec from Argentina, think of a wine from Cahors at its more elegant and distinguished older sibling, although perhaps a wee bit less fun at wild parties.
In the spirit of cooperation, the wineries of Argentina and Cahors have joined forces to promote the Malbec grape on a global scale, with joint marketing efforts that include the any-excuse-for-a-drink World Malbec Day to raise awareness for their signature grape.
The climate here in Canada is not ideal for growing the Malbec grape, but there are a few adventurous winemakers with appropriate microclimates for the grape to flourish.
I remember my first taste of a domestic example many years ago, while visiting the the Church & State winery in the southern end of the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, where the desertlike climate allows production of the Malbec grape.
In what was surely a shock to the wineries of Cahors and Argentina, the Church & State winery in BC was awarded the ribbon for world’s best Malbec in 2012 at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, proving that Canadian vinters are increasingly a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.
So, the next time you are reaching for a bottle of Argentinian Malbec, grab a bottle from Cahors as well, and compare them for yourself!