The Lot is southwestern France’s longest river. It snakes its way across five French departments in four regions for almost 485 kilometers (300 miles), but only actually travels 200 kilometers (124 miles) as a crow flies. Nestled within the wide, meandering loops is a UNESCO World Heritage Site river valley, several spectacular hilltop villages honored as being among France’s most beautiful, and the city of Cahors, a former Roman outpost and now the largest city in the Lot department.
The Cahors wine region, which lies west of the city, benefits from the diversity of the granite, limestone and sandstone soils that the river cuts through. This is the birthplace of the Cot, the local name for the grape variety more commonly called Malbec. The dark, earthy wines of Cahors have been appreciated since Roman times, and they were a favorite of the Russian Czar Peter the Great. AOC Cahors wine regulations require at least 70% Malbec to be in the blend, with the remainder either Merlot or Tannat. The addition of Merlot makes for a more elegant wine, while adding Tannat produces more tannic and robust wines.
The 60-ha Clos La Coutale is one of the region’s oldest domaines, dating from before the French Revolution. Philippe Bernède is the sixth generation of his family to make wine here. Benefiting from a southwestern exposure and protection from frosts that sometimes threatens the higher-elevation Causses plateau, his Malbec vines produce grapes with aromatic red-fruit intensity and rounded tannins. The rich, alluvial terraces have more siliceous clay than the limestone plateau, generally producing wines that are more approachable and fruitier. In keeping with this general rule (which is easily broken because of different soil- and vine-management techniques or different vinification and aging approaches), wines from the Causses are more tannic and require additional time for the tannins to soften.
Clos La Coutale wines, which are 80% Malbec and 20% Merlot, are exceptional. The 2011 Clos La Coutale has a lively attack, a very ripe plum and cherry nose, a delicious, dark and meaty, coffee-licorice-peppery mouth, and a distinctive, if somewhat brief, dark chocolate finish. It’s almost as if someone had taken a rich stew and infused it with a cherry compote, but the wine’s fresh, spicy minerality makes it work, holding it all in delightful tension.
It’s easy to see why The Wine Spectator named Clos La Coutale one of the world’s 100 best wines in 2009. This is just one of many awards that have been given to the domaine through the years. Prominently displayed in its tasting room is a Bronze Medal awarded to Bernède’s grandfather at the 1895 Paris Agricultural Show.
A 1999 bottle of Clos La Coutale that Bernède gave me to take home to taste paired magnificently with a thick steak. The 14-year-old wine was full-bodied, with traces of its dark red fruit still remaining, and the round tannins had melted into a complex medley of earthy, peppery licorice and caramel flavors with that wonderful chocolate finish. This is proof that, while these wines can be drunk young, they are capable of aging for ten years or longer.
Bernède’s interests go well beyond wine. An avid amateur pilot, he flies his own plane throughout Western Europe and even to Morocco. He’s also an inventor, holding several patents for a series of ingenious and very functional, double-hinged corkscrews. He sells over 60,000 of them per year, and they represent, he says, over 40% of the domaine’s sales revenue.
It’s rare to find such an entrepreneurial winemaker in France. He says that he’s now working on a new clip for use in plant nurseries to attach grape vines to stakes. If it works as well as his corkscrews, nursery owners will be singing his praise as loudly as I now do when effortlessly withdrawing a stubborn cork with my Bernède corkscrew.