CAHORS, southwest France. Mention ‘Malbec’ and chances are your mind and palate will go straight to Argentina. That’s not surprising: the South American producer has done for Malbec what Australia did for Shiraz, or New Zealand for Sauvignon Blanc. However, the fact that Malbec is now a household name—even if propelled by far away Argentina, hasn’t hurt the cause of this impossibly beautiful corner of France, and the variety’s ancestral home.
Here, chateaux—in some cases dating back to the middle ages—sometimes seem to command almost every hilltop, with often (though not always) immaculately nurtured vineyards rolling down its slopes. As in many of the regions bordering the Mediterranean, grape growing dates from Roman times but the vines were devastated by Phylloxera in the 19th century—a fact that very much propelled Malbec’s New World propagation.
A further series of events from great wars to the devastating frost of 1956, almost killed the resurrection of what had once been one of Europe’s most prolific varieties, while even in Bordeaux it fell from favour as a long used blending grape.
Now, with a new and well traveled generation of winemakers holding the reigns, as well as an influx of investment from all corners, Cahors fortunes—still closely tied to Malbec, are once again on the rise.
While the variety enjoys a reputation for approachability, over the years, the scale of production from Mendoza’s valley floors has been such that it’s sometimes dismissed as being too homogenous—although, often taking their cue from Cahors, growers are planting higher up the Andean slopes.
Nurturing tradition with progress
Blending their New World exposure with traditions that in many cases date back several generations, this new breed of Cahors vigneron is able to combine the incomparable benefits afforded by centuries of learning the terroir with a balance modern outlook that combines the best of all worlds.
At Château de Gaudou, Vire sur Lot (beside the Lot River Valley) still youthful but well traveled, seventh generation winemaker Fabrice Durou gained some of his new world experiences working at a multi-client Yarra Valley crush pad. That experience helped propel him in a new direction from that pursued by his father and grandfather (and their forebears over 300 years), he explains.
The winemaker now makes two distinct lines, one carrying on the family style, defined by more traditional labelling with a ‘tier’ selection that gives prominence to the higher terraced and more complex geologies, and another that explores new techniques and directions.
Chateau Gaudou Grand Lignée Malbec (with 15 percent Merlot) 2012, from a higher elevation, yields aromas of black fruit, cedar and vanilla, followed by a plush palate of red and black fruit with a generous mouthfeel and lengthy, polished finish. 90 pts.
Chateau Gaudou 2012 Le Sang de la Vignette, a luscious, velvet toned generously black fruited but superbly structured Malbec, was fermented in a newly acquired concrete egg fermenter of the kind now employed by leading edge winemakers the world over. (91 pts).
Château de Gaudou Reserve Caillou 2011, from 60 year old vines on a high elevation, south west facing, almost all gravel slope, Durou ferments in a large wooden vat, using carbonic maceration and punch down to make a plush and opulent wine that sports a complex, definite schist-y edge beneath its floral, violet toned opening and lingering pepper spice that often accompanies more premium offerings. (91 pts)
This project—to focus on just one stoney enclave—was a departure from what had been done before at Chateau Gaudou but there’s no question it challenges the best of any premium ‘New World’ styled Malbec I’ve seen from elsewhere, while retaining all the appeal and complexity that this ancient place so often reveals.