The Cahors Malbec Lounge in the city of Cahors is a worthy symbol of the resurgence of the southwestern France wine appellation of the same name. Long before the 1855 Classification of Grand Crus de Bordeaux and long before wine speculation pushed Bordelais chateaux into the hands of insurance companies, banks and other corporate giants, Cahors wine, with its hearty, black Malbec tannins, descended by long boats down the Lot and Garonne rivers to be mixed with Bordeaux wine, giving it the necessary structure to withstand the voyage to England and other northern European markets.
As if using Cahors wine to adulterate their wine wasn’t insult enough, the refined Bordelais gentlemen stuck it to their country-cousin neighbors 275km (170 miles) to the southeast by passing a chain across the Dordogne port in Bordeaux. No wines from Cahors, or other regions in southwestern France (Bergerac or Gaillac, principally) could be sold until all of the Bordeaux wine had been shipped. So much for fraternity…
Phylloxera in the late 19th century, and then a devastating frost of 1956, decimated the Cahors vineyards, shrinking the area planted to one-tenth of its original 40,000ha of vines. The dark wines from this region, which tend to require five or more years of aging for their rustic tannins to soften, have also fallen out of favor in today’s wine culture that appreciates more-approachable, earlier-drinking wines.
It was primarily the success of Argentinian Malbec in the U.S. market that wrenched Cahors out of its stupor, showing the winemakers here the advantages of marketing a grape variety to New World wine drinkers. With true Gallic flair, Cahors has altered Argentina’s strategy of marketing easy-drinking, fruity, ready-to-drink-when-young Malbec wines to better reflect Cahors’ reputation of rugged individualism. Breaking with the tradition of marketing French wine by using chateaux, terroir and place, Cahors marketers, led by Jeremy Arnaud, director of marketing for the Vins de Cahors professional association, have divided Cahors Malbec wine into three different styles. The first style, “Tender & Fruity,” is quite close to Malbec wines from Argentina; in Cahors parlance, this corresponds to 70 to 85% Malbec (the remainder is either Merlot or Tannat). One step up in style, and this is where much of the Cahors wine sold in the U.S. is being positioned, is a “Feisty & Powerful” 80% Malbec. The third style, which corresponds to traditional Cahors that will need up to a decade of aging before drinking, is 100% “Intense & Complex” Malbec.
It’s a novel marketing approach for French wine—wine by descriptor rather than delimited geography, and the Cahors Malbec Lounge is equally different from other wine-tasting venue’s run by a southwestern France wine appellation. Starting with the name, which is unabashedly anglophone, and continuing right through the chic, purple-and-black décor that wouldn’t be out of place in New York City, London or Shanghai. There are walls of the distinctive Cahors wine glass with its stylish ring in the middle of the stem, subdued ambient lighting, large-screen televisions with images of different Cahors vineyards, and a purple ceiling that wouldn’t be out of place in a discotheque.
Traditionalists might run screaming from here, but for the New World Generation Millennium wine drinkers who sit squarely in Cahors’ marketing sights this is the place to be. For five euros you can taste all three of the Cahors Malbec wine styles. In 2011, the first year of the lounge being open, over 8,000 such tastings were done. And special events are held here the first Thursday of each month. Between 80 and 150 people have participated in events such as “Malbec électro cheese” where cheese, electronic music and Cahors Malbec are the stars, “Malbec in Black” where Cahors wine is drunk in chocolate glasses, and the “Malbec Show” where artwork is on display.
There is a more serious side to the lounge. Conferences on terroir, wine production and marketing, and wine tasting classes with an oenologue are frequently held. And in January and February a series of weekly “Cahors Malbec Truffle Festival” dinners explores the relationship between the wine and another of the region’s specialties—the black truffle.
The marketing campaign appears to be working. The U.S. wine market is now Cahors’ second largest in value, just after France. And over 350,000 bottles of Cahors wine were shipped to China this past year.
I had the good fortune to be invited, as part of a three-day tour of the Cahors appellation organized by the central tourist agency for the Lot department, to one of the February “Truffle Festival” dinners. The dinner, which was prepared by David Blanco, a chef from the Restaurant Côté Sud in Cahors, consisted of 11 different tasting dishes, each prepared with black truffles. Each dish was served with a different Cahors Malbec from several of the appellation’s top vineyards, including Domaine du Prince, Château du Cèdre, Domaine Cosse-Maisonneuve and Château la Caminade.
The top wine, without any doubt, was a magnum of 2000 Château du Cèdre that was served with beef ravioli topped with aged Parmesan cheese and sliced black truffle. Rich and elegant, with exquisite truffle and chocolate aromas, and velvety tannins, this 100% Malbec was a category-three, “Intense & Complex” Cahors at its best.
This one dish and wine summed up for me the true potential and meaning of Cahors Malbec terroir. Together, they might qualify as a new category altogether: “Heavenly & Delicious”!