While Argentinian Malbec may be stealing the limelight, the best producers in its homeland of Cahors are welcoming in an era of finesse and elegance. Stephen Brook highlights the stars to watch...
Seven of the best: Cahors’ great estates
Château du Cèdre
Pascal Verhaeghe is a familiar sight in Cahors, since he advises many properties and also purchases fruit from his clients. Relaxed and cheerful, he exudes competence as well as confidence. His own 28 biodynamically farmed hectares in the choice village of Vire-sur-Lot are divided between two terroirs: half on a well-drained limestone fan, the remainder on clay with large stones. All his wines are made from a blend of the two.
Over the years his winemaking has evolved. His barriques have gradually been replaced by 500-litre tonneaux and large oval casks to reduce any pronounced oakiness. The estate wine is 90% Malbec, aged mostly in tonneaux and extremely reliable. Le Cèdre is a pure Malbec aged for two years in wood, mostly in large casks. The costliest wine is GC (Grand Cèdre) from very old Malbec, cropped at 20hl/ ha and given long ageing in new tonneaux. In some years the GC can be too dense and imposing, and I often prefer Le Cèdre.
The Burc family claims that Pineraie has been in the family’s hands since 1456. The current owners, sisters Emmanuelle and Anne, both studied in Bordeaux before returning here. It’s a large property, with 50ha under vine: 10ha on the plateau, the remainder on the terraces.
The regular wine is softened with some Merlot, while the more serious Cuvée Authentique is pure Malbec. The estate wine is no slouch, coming from 30-year-old vines and aged in 20% new barriques. Authentique is sourced from a 3ha parcel more than 60 years old, and the terroir is remarkable, being composed of the potato-like galet stones more usually associated with Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It’s fermented with natural yeasts and aged in 70% new barriques.
There’s no doubt that Authentique shows greater concentration and personality, but the estate wine, at less than half the price, offers tremendous value. In both wines the balance of ripe fruit and supple tannins is impeccable.
Château de Chambert
This property lies on the plateau above the town of Puy-l’Evêque. In 2007, the Delgoulet family sold the estate to a young software businessman called Philippe Lejeune, who hired Stéphane Derenoncourt as his consultant and adopted biodynamic farming. There are 65ha of vines, mostly around the château. Lejeune’s primary concern is to realise the vineyards’ full potential. Two top parcels, Les Puits and Cerisier, are vinified separately, then incorporated into the top wine, the Grand Vin. The long-term goal is to commercialise the single vineyards individually.
The estate wine, formerly rather rustic, has improved greatly since Lejeune took over. There is far more complexity, although the wine retains a light touch. Nor is there a vast difference in quality between the estate wine and the Grand Vin, which is made from old-vine Malbec picked entirely by hand (machine-harvesting is common in Cahors) and aged in one-third new barriques.
Domaine La Bérangeraie
The Béranger family acquired and renovated this property in 1971. The 32 mature vineyards are located on two contrasting soil types. Near the winery are 10 hectares on sidérolithique soils, with a high iron content over a limestone subsoil, while on the limestone plateau there is an additional 15ha. Maurin Béranger runs the property and produces two ranges of wines, corresponding to the terroirs of origin. The cuvées from the sidérolithique soils are unoaked, yet never lack richness and complexity. The wines from the plateau are more conventionally aged in barrels. Cuvée Maurin, from low-yielding Malbec, is given a six-week maceration but no oak ageing. Les Quatre Chambrées is similar but from the oldest vines.
>Of the three cuvées from the plateau, Les Nuits des Rossignols is very consistent. Produced from 50-year-old vines, it is aged in one-year barriques and tonneaux. La Gorgée de Mathis Bacchus comes from a 1ha parcel and is aged in new barrels. I keep my own cellar well stocked with these wines, especially the Maurin. The combination of a fine site, good farming and unpretentious winemaking proves a real winner.
This fine estate in Vire-sur-Lot is in the hands of the seventh generation of the Baldès family. Jean-Luc Baldès worked in Napa Valley and at Château Coutet in Barsac, so he has a rare breadth of experience. His 66ha have attained an average age of 50 years, with parcels both on the plateau and on the terraces.
The property produces a wide range of wines. The standard wine is the Clos bottling, which includes Merlot and Tannat. Yields are moderate and this is a consistently satisfying wine. Probus is more serious, though some may find it too oaky and austere. It is made from 50-year-old Malbec and aged in a good deal of new oak.
In the mid-1990s, Baldès began to revive a traditional style of Cahors, heating selected Malbec bunches in steel tanks for half an hour before vinifying them. Since 2010 this has been known as the New Black Wine. Dense, grippy and infused with liquorice flavours, this is imposing but can be angular and overbearing. There are also three single-vineyard wines, Les Parcellaires, each expressing a different terrace soil. While all these are very good, Probus remains its finest expression of Malbec.
Daniel Fournié, a former cereal farmer, changed career after his wife Cathy inherited vineyards near Lacapelle-Cabanac. The property consists of 30ha, and the soil is mainly clay with some galet stones but no limestone. Organically farmed grapes are machineharvested and fermented with selected yeasts.
Fournié admits that it has taken him a while to tame the exuberant tannins. He learned that, without long ageing before bottling, the wines tended to close up and become tough for some years. So today he ages them for two years in barriques and tonneaux.
The Tradition, always good and not expensive, is mostly unoaked. Cuvée Prestige, picked at lower yields, is aged in 20% new oak. The top cuvée is Pur Plaisir, made from 45-year-old vines and aged in new tonneaux. This can be too assertive and is not always superior to the more harmonious Prestige.
Emmanuel Rybinski’s 12ha property in Villesèque produces numerous bottlings, all variations on the letter K. Thus K-Nom is a blend of Malbec with 15% Merlot, while K-Or is Malbec, aged two years in cement tanks, and K is a rather strenuous low-yielding Malbec from sidérolithique soils. Rybinski has moved towards organic farming. The vineyards are on the plateau and mostly machine-picked, then fermented with natural yeasts.
The cuvées that have impressed me most are the inexpensive K-Or and the ambitious K-Lys, pure Malbec aged for two years with much new oak. The top wine is K-2, also pure Malbec, from a site with 50-year-old vines. Picked by hand with an average yield of 20hl/ ha and aged in amphorae, it shows no trace of oxidation. The Rybinskis produce something for everybody, and all are well crafted.
… and the rest
Other excellent and steadily improving estates include: Bout du Lieu, Caminade, Cantury, Capelanel, Dom de Cause, Cayrou, Cayx, Cosse Maisonneuve, Croisille, Eugénie, Gaudou, Lagrézette, Lamartine, Mercuès, Metairie Grande du Theron, Nozières, La Reyne, Rouffiac, Vincens.