The Brothers Verhaeghe’s continuing terroir quest

by Tom Fiorina on July 12, 2013

Pascal Verhaegue in the Chateau du Cèdre vines.

Pascal Verhaeghe in the Chateau du Cèdre vines.

The Chateau du Cèdre is one of the reference domaines in southwestern France’s Cahors appellation. Its wines regularly receive 90+ notes from the Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, The Wine Spectator, The Revue du vins de France, Le Guide Bettane & Desseauve and other international wine journals. Eighty percent of the wine produced by the 27-ha domaine is exported to 35 different countries.

I discovered Chateau du Cèdre wines at one of the February 2013 “Cahors Malbec Truffle Festival” dinners organized to show off the relationship between Cahors wine and another of the region’s specialties—the black truffle. The dinner consisted of 11 different tasting dishes prepared with black truffles, with each dish served with a different Cahors Malbec from several of the appellation’s top vineyards.

Even amidst this hedonistic feast, the Chateau du Cèdre stood out like a Thoroughbred black stallion galloping away from the other horses in a Triple Crown cup race. A dish of beef ravioli topped with aged Parmesan cheese and sliced black truffle was made even better by the densely-rich, elegant 100% Malbec 2000 Chateau du Cèdre with its intense truffle and chocolate aromas and velvety tannins.

Two brothers, Jean-Marc and Pascal Verhaeghe, run the domaine. Their grandfather had settled in the Cahors region in the early 20th century after having left his native Belgium. His son Charles started a polyculture farm, which included, in addition to vegetables and cereals, raising and distilling lavender. Being this was Cahors, he also planted some vines. In 1973 he started to bottle his wine.

Pascal was more interested in math and physics, and motorcycles (he still owns four vintage motorcycles and competed, until recently, in sidecar races with his brother Jean-Marc) more than vines. While competing in a motorcycle race in Burgundy, he stopped to see a friend, Jean-Marie Guffens, another winemaker with Flemish roots. It was there, in Burgundy, Verhaeghe says, that he became interested in making wine. After studying oenology in Macon Davayé, in Burgundy, he worked for several years in the Napa Valley.

He and Jean-Marc, who is also an oenologist, took over the family estate in 1988. This followed, Pascal Verhaeghe explained, a terminal illness that their father suffered (he believes) as a result of chemicals used to treat the vines and soil. [Blogger’s note: I know personally of two other winemakers from Verhaeghe’s generation who lost their winemaker fathers to cancer. Although it’s difficult to present a casual link, it’s likely that several generations of French winemakers have paid (and are paying) a heavy price for the post-World War II, industrial farming revolution, with its heavy promotion of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides].

The death of their father, plus a 1995 hailstorm that destroyed 80% of their grape crop, caused Pascal and his brother to rethink their method of agriculture. They stopped using synthetic chemicals in the vineyard, going to mechanical means to control weed growth and to work the soil in the vineyard. The conversion to organic farming began in 2000, and the vineyard was certified organic in 2012. Today, they have combined these mechanical soil-culture methods with certain biodynamic techniques to maintain the vines and to control plant and insect pests.

Verhaegue examines the flowers that will produce the Malbec grapes. "Floraison" was difficult this year because of a wet, cold spring.

Verhaeghe examines the flowers that will produce the Malbec grapes. “Floraison” was difficult this year because of a wet, cold spring.

Verhaeghe said that the vineyard’s three different parcels are on the two best soil types in the Cahors appellation. The largest plot, 12.5 ha, which faces southwest, is on argilo-calcareous (colluvial limestone) soil, an extremely rocky ground that plays an important role in soil-temperature regulation and providing moisture to the vines during periods of drought. The wines produced in this type of soil, he explained, are particularly well structured and “long,” with very fine tannins.

Two other smaller plots face directly south. Their surfaces are covered with a mixture of limestone pebbles and rust-colored, iron-rich sand, with a sub-structure of siliceous earth and clay. Wines from these vineyards, he said, are powerful, dense and more complexly textured.

Using these soil management techniques and the move to organic vine culture has paid off in several ways besides increased wine quality. They now have fewer problems with wood diseases (maladies du bois in French), such as esca and eutypiosis, two fungal infections that attack the vine trunks and finally kill them through decay. And Verhaeghe feels strongly that providing the vines with a chemical-free soil that has increased microbial activity gives their wines its minerality and complexity.

Verhaeghe-squared: Linking Burgundy and Bordeaux
Jean-Marc is responsible for the vineyards, while Pascal takes care of the wines and their commercialization. It goes beyond a partnership, he explained. From the beginning, they have tried to take their individual strengths and points of view to obtain something that is greater than the sum of their efforts. Through observation and reflection they have tried to obtain the best from Cahors terroir by combining Burgundy’s use of place to highlight a single grape variety with Bordeaux wine-blending and aging techniques. In effect, as their excellent website explains, they blend wines from a single variety—in this case, Malbec, from different “climates.”

An "Assemblage" of different barrel samples illustrates the Burgundy-Bordeaux philosophy at the Chateau du Cèdre.

An “Assemblage” of different barrel samples illustrates the Burgundy-Bordeaux philosophy at the Chateau du Cèdre.

He illustrated this point in the estate’s wine cellar with its large area for aging wine. The estate’s top cuvees are fermented and aged in 500L barrels that are upended and opened on one side during fermentation and closed and placed on their sides during aging. They use gentle pigeages (punch-downs) to wet the floating, solid grape matter (“cap” in English and “chapeau” in French), extracting desirable phenolics that add color, flavor, and longevity to the wine. But, increasingly, he explained, they do less and less to the wine, limiting the extraction and making the wines less tannic and more enjoyable at younger ages than the Cahors wines of old that would require 5 or 10 years of aging before they could be drunk. However, as evidenced by my aforementioned February Truffle dinner that was accompanied by a deeply-colored, spicy, and velvety-textured, 13-year-old Chateau du Cèdre, they can create complex wines that will evolve for years. And an on-site, barrel tasting of wines ranging from simple, lighter, fruitier wines to more complex wines with increased structure and minerality illustrated how different parcels and vines of different ages provides them with a rich and varied palette of wine cuvées.

The two brothers created a consulting organization in 1995 to advise neighboring Cahors wine estates on vineyard management as well as in their wine cellars. Wines from Le Cèdre Difussion, which carry the names of these partner estates, are further helping to develop the reputation of the appellation.

And their influence has even spread to the Roussillon area between the Pyrenees Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. In 2000, they, along with a friend of theirs named Guy Prédal, created the 12-ha Domaine Marcevol wine estate in the Côtes du Roussillon appellation. It’s located on small terraces between 300 and 600 meters in altitude, allowing the grapes to ripen slowly, while preserving their acidity and freshness. All of the cultivation of the old Carignan, Grenache and Syrah vines (some of which are almost 100 years old) is done by hand.

This estate is now producing some of the best organic wines from the Roussillon, showing that the Brothers Verhaeghe’s philosophy of making quality wines with a “sense of place” is a moveable quest that is still evolving.

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