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Andrew Jefford: ‘Places and origins build the architecture of scent, shape and flavour in a wine’

Attractive but treacherous – that’s varietal thinking. If you want the clearest of insights into particular wines, try to forget about grape varieties. They’re a seductive distraction.

Many of us, I know, assume the opposite: that the easiest way to understand wine is by learning about grape varieties. They seem to offer a map to help us grope our way around the wine labyrinth. Just 16 cultivars account for half the world’s plantings (2016 figures: from p45 of the free-download pdf Which Winegrape Varieties… ebook by Kym Anderson and Signe Nelgen, 2020 edition); fewer still outside Europe. Great: the map’s simple.

The grand error, though, is to assume that wines from a given grape variety will taste alike wherever they are grown. Mostly, they don’t. Expecting variety to be the primary generator of a wine’s aroma, taste and style will crumble our map to dust.

It’s places and origins that build the architecture of scent, shape and flavour in a wine – the music of wine, if you like. Grape varieties are no more than the instruments used to play that music; winemakers are the performers. It’s the music that counts. A changed place means different music… regardless of the instrument, the variety.

Take Cahors, for example. The best Cahors is pure Malbec. This also happens to be Argentina’s leading variety; indeed Argentina is where you’ll find most of the world’s Malbec – latest figures show it has 7.5 times more plantings than France. Argentina produces magnificent wines from Malbec; so does Cahors. But the variety name is about all those wines have in common.

If you buy Cahors because you love great Argentinian Malbec, you’ll be disappointed. The Cahors region is often cooler, lower-lying, less sunny and has different soil types: the wines are brooding, brisk, pungent, challenging. Cahors lovers experimenting with Malbec from the super-solar, high-altitude vineyards of Uco or Cafayate will, likewise, be disconcerted by their aerial lyricism, openness, scale, savoury wealth
and fruited gloss. Climate change and generational churn compound these differences. To bracket the wines because of ‘Malbec’ is a trap which will only frustrate.

In the case of Cahors, history is a trap, too. Wine students learn about the region’s historical conflicts with Bordeaux, and about Cahors’ medieval ‘black wine’ – leading to the expectation that a glass of Cahors will be dense, sturdy, strapping and tannic, like a pumped Pauillac or an up-country Madiran. But it isn’t like that at all. If you try to produce a wine of that sort in Cahors, you’ll create a pastiche.

Malbec grown along the serpentine middle Lot river and the surrounding limestone uplands (or causses) is more acidic than tannic, with an inner athleticism and vigour, and fruit flavours that are matched by something unfruity that seems soil-related, with a deft and (at best) beguilingly scented leafiness. Yes, they are very dark, almost black – but colour (or its absence) bears little relationship to tannin or structure. Pale yet grippy Barolo underlines this point, too. If you want to find comparisons for Cahors, think of Spain’s Bierzo – or the wines of the northern Rhône. Sure, their varieties and soils are different from those of Cahors, but the shape and the nature of their energy (for me, often a measure of how well acidity is bonded to fruit, and the quality of that bond) shows a clear kinship with Cahors. All are brightly focused, mid-latitude classics of mouthwatering pitch and pungency.

This sense of unfettered origin is increasingly evident in the work of influential younger Cahors growers such as Germain Croisille of Château Les Croisille, Fabien Jouves of Mas del Périé and Jules Verhaeghe of Château du Cèdre. It’s clear too, though, in the wines of leading domaines with a more traditional approach (Domaine du Prince, for example, Château Eugénie, or the high-sited Château de Chambert). Weighed in the glass and the memory, all will tell you much about their place on earth – and very little about ‘Malbec’.

In my glass this month

Great Cahors ages effortlessly. I enjoyed an impeccably preserved 2008 from Chambert at home recently, while in this year’s Cahors tasting the most impressive older wine was the Lou Prince 2017 from Domaine du Prince, with its flower-brocaded wild-plum fruits. The long, dramatic palate intensity and singing balance will have no trouble tunnelling through the years. It’ll still tell its story at the end.

A bottle of Lou Prince 2017 from Domaine du Prince

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