Best of the Lot

  • Thursday 1 August 2002

Downstream from Cahors the River Lot meanders west towards the Garonne and eventually to the Atlantic. Tiny villages and imposing medieval châteaux line the river, while on the outside curve of each U-turn wooded slopes descend steeply to the water's edge. The Lot Valley is also home to the vineyards of Cahors, situated mainly on the undulating alluvial debris of the river's inner loops and to a lesser extent on the limestone plateau above the valley.

Downstream from Cahors the River Lot meanders west towards the Garonne and eventually to the Atlantic. Tiny villages and imposing medieval châteaux line the river, while on the outside curve of each U-turn wooded slopes descend steeply to the water's edge. The Lot Valley is also home to the vineyards of Cahors, situated mainly on the undulating alluvial debris of the river's inner loops and to a lesser extent on the limestone plateau above the valley.

Pre-phylloxera there were 40,000ha (hectares) under vine in Cahors but a combination of the deadly aphid and competition from the Midi virtually wiped out the industry. A modest revival inspired by the establishment of the Caves d'Olt cooperative in 1947 was halted by a devastating frost in 1956 and consequently the modern vineyard was reestablished from the 1960s onwards. Full AC status was granted in 1971 with the stipulation of a minimum 70% Malbec (the region's adopted grape variety, known locally as Auxerrois) in the blend, supplemented by Merlot and Tannat. There are now 4,346ha under production for a volume of 253,517hl of wine (2000 figures).

MYRIAD TERROIRS

Equidistant from the Atlantic and Mediterranean, Cahors is influenced by both climatic regimes. Winters are slightly colder than in Bordeaux but a warm, dry southerly wind, the vent d'autan, helps ripening in September. Vineyards in the valley gain some protection from cold winds, while the River Lot provides thermal heat.

Much of the vineyard resides on material eroded and deposited by the River Lot. But this varies in form, exposure and inclination and has a bearing on maturity, date of harvest, style and ultimately the quality of the wine. Close to the river a sandy, silty band known as the première terrasse produces at best light, easy-drinking wines. For some this should not be included in the appellation's delimitations. Away from the river and on to a gradually inclining gradient the soils become older, originally from the Massif Central. A second terroir, the deuxième terrasse, is a mix of clay, quartz and silex and a third, the troisième terrasse, more limestone-clay. The drainage and hygrometry are better, the exposure is often southerly, and the clay content gives an added power and volume. This area represents a good 50% of the vineyard and most of the better estates have land on these soils.

At the foot of the plateau are pockets of eroded limestone known as cones d'eboulis calcaire. The style of the wines can be quite fine but they are usually used as part of a blend. As with the plateau above, the lack of water in dry years can be a problem. At least 80% of the Cahors vineyard is now located south of the Lot. Malbec is the grape of Cahors, producing dark, minerally, tannic wines that are not effusively aromatic but benefit from a few years' bottle age. Yields have a bearing on quality and the permitted 60hl/ha (50hl/ha plus 20% plafond limité de classement) seems excessive in all but outstanding years. The top cuvées are mainly 100% Malbec from lower yields. Merlot is less of a success than one would imagine, needing really ripe years (1990, 1995, 2000) to gain full maturity and avoid a dull, vegetal edge. The tannic Tannat is used in sparing doses. Recent top vintages include 1998 and 2000, with 1999 a little lighter and 2001 set to demonstrate the best and worst in the appellation. A lot of progress has been made over recent years thanks to new capital and the increased efforts of home-grown producers. There have been a number of high-profile arrivals including the queen and prince of Denmark at Château de Caïx and Alain Senderens, the three-star Michelin chef at Château Gautoul, since resold to Belgian Eric Swenden. But undoubtedly the outsider who has most marked the appellation is Alain Dominique Perrin, patron of the Richemont Group, owners of Cartier.

Since buying Château Lagrézette in 1980 Perrin has renovated the château, extended the vineyards to over 60ha and built a three-level, gravity-fed winery, which would be the envy of Bordeaux, into the hillside. The vinification is modern Bordeaux with advice from Michel Rolland, hand harvesting, selection and the evolution of a number of different cuvées including the Dame Honneur and Le Pigeonnier. 'We want to make Cahors presentable for this day and age with more elegance, polished tannins and a seductiveness right from the start,' says estate manager Jean Courtois.

QUEST FOR ELEGANCE

The focus on taming Malbec's tannins and producing wines with more elegance has led to a number of winemaking practices being refined at the better domaines. Grapes are harvested with improved phenolic ripeness, there's a softer approach to extraction through the use of pigeage and longer post-fermentation maceration. Micro-oxygenation has been borrowed from the cousins in Madiran and the percentage of new oak has been increased for ageing the wines.

Two of the leading producers to embrace these techniques are the Verhaeghe brothers at Château du Cèdre and Alain Gayraud at Château Lamartine. Pascal Verhaeghe worked with Jean-Marie Guffens in Burgundy in the 1980s before returning to the family domaine. Much of the estate's success is due to the terroir (troisième terrasse and cones d'eboulis calcaire) and the clinical management of the vineyard. Chemical fertilisers and herbicides have been eschewed for a number of years. Micro-oxygenation has been used since 1990. 'It works for Malbec and Tannat by stabilising the tannins and anthocyanins,' explains Pascal Verhaeghe.

Alain Gayraud was born at Château Lamartine. The 30ha domaine is regularly one of the earliest to harvest. The wines have not been chaptalised since 1993 and maintain a wonderfully lively, fresh, fruit-driven character. Alain Gayraud has been experimenting with new oak since 1985 and ages the Cuvée Particulière in 30% and Expression in 100%. Both have a harmonious feel.

In a move towards quality a new standard, Chart de Qualité, has been launched in Cahors. Only wines from selected terroirs that have followed a stringent set of viticultural rules including maximum yields of 40 hl/ha and that have passed a double tasting examination are to be granted this distinction. The project was launched with the 1999 vintage and judging from a tasting of several samples the fruit seems more concentrated but the oak is too dominant. A greater knowledge of oak management looks necessary.

Clos de Gamot remains staunchly linked to tradition. Produced from low-yielding Malbec, a percentage of which is over 100 years old, the wine is aged for up to 24 months in large wooden vats. A minimum of eight years' bottle age for better vintages is recommended. It's a wine from another age but a reminder that the identity of Cahors is closely linked to the expression of its terroir.

James Lawther MW is a contributing editor to Decanter.

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