Flashback on Malbec

Malbec is French!

When you hear about Malbec these days everyone is talking about the wines that are made in Argentina.  What many people do not know is that Malbec is a native grape variety from the Southwestern French region of Cahors.  

The Romans' Love Affair with Wine

Romans had a particular love for wine and during their conquests around Europe, they brought vine rootstocks with them and planted them in every village that was conquered.  The Romans brought Malbec to the Cahors region (100 miles south of Bordeaux) over two thousand years ago.  They adored the richness of Malbec wines and gave it the nickname of “The black wine of Cahors”, because of its dark almost black color and intense tannins.  Thanks to the Romans, vines and wine spread throughout Europe.  Eventually, they lost their empire but left a lasting wine legacy behind.  

Monsieur Malbec

First known as Auxerrois, Malbec is the oldest grape varietal planted in Cahors. It remained famous for hundreds of years after the Romans departed.  It was not until the 18th century that Auxerrois was first called Malbec.  The story goes as follows: Mr Malbeck owned a wine estate in Médoc in Bordeaux where he planted Auxerrois vines.  They successfully propagated in his vineyards and then the grape was named after him.  

Wine Loved by the Royals and Pope John XXII

Pope John XXII was born in Cahors in 1244.  He attended canon law in Montpellier and theology in Paris.  He taught law in Cahors and then canon law in Toulouse where by 1295 he was annointed the Bishop in Toulouse.  He was elected as Pope on 7 August 1316 and decided to set up his papal residence in Avignon rather than in Rome.  He was a big fan of the wines of his native Cahors and decided to plant Malbec and other local Cahors varieties in the papal vineyards in the Southern Rhône Valley.  These vineyards kept the local peasants busy and provided a decent amount of revenue that helped to fill the papal coffers.

Photo courtesy: Wikipedia

Eleanor of Aquitaine was another fan of Cahors wine.  She served it at her parties (her guests loved the rich flavors and almost black color of the wine). She even served it at her wedding reception when she married the future king of England Henri Plantagenet in 1152.

Cahors - An Important Financial Center

During the 13th century, the city of Cahors was bustling and a center of financial activity with people from all over Europe coming to visit and carry out business transactions. This large influx of visitors meant that fine food and good wine were readily available.  During the Middle Ages, the wine from Cahors had such a distinguished reputation that it was well-known and exported worldwide.  Its prestige meant that it was served at some of the finest royal tables, and it also gained recognition from fine wine lovers. 

The Decline of Malbec

Cahors is situated two hundred kilometers west of the Gironde estuary. Cargo ships carrying wines would travel on the Lot River that flows to the Garonne River continuing into the Gironde estuary where the wine was then exported and shipped by sea. Surprised by the great success of Cahor's wine export business, the Bordeaux courtiers felt threatened by the thriving wine commerce.  They decided to tax the river passage in favor of the exportation of their wines over those of their southern neighbors.  This taxation meant that the demand for Cahors wines dropped, resulting in a reduction in the amount of vineyards planted.  Sadly, the once-famous Malbec slowly sank into obscurity.

Cahors the True Home of Malbec

Malbec is commonly known by its local name of Côt and is the most planted grape varietal in southwest France.  With a long and turbulent history, it has not always been a star in the wine world. However, the winemakers of Cahors are determined to ensure that it regains its rightful place among the finest French wines. 

In its natural home in Cahors in Southwest France, grapes of exceptional quality grow on vines that are planted in a thin soil that covers the limestone alluvial terraces, limestone plateaux (Causse), and the stony hillsides that descend into the valley to the banks of Lot River.  To meet the requirements of the Cahors appellation, there must be at least seventy percent of Malbec in the blend.  The rest of the blend can be complemented with Tannat or Merlot grape varietals.  Wines that are blended with the robust Tannat grape seem to have a better-aging potential than if they are blended with Merlot. The most common winemaking trend in Cahors is to make single varietal wines that are one hundred 100% Malbec.

Malbec around France

Malbec is one of the six varieties permitted in the Bordeaux Blend but lost popularity among viticulturists when the severe frosts in Bordeaux in the winter of 1956 decimated more than 75% of the Malbec vineyards.  It was singled out as a troublesome grape that was disease-prone and had difficulties ripening correctly in the cool, often wet weather typical to Bordeaux.  Though the same frost also destroyed many of the Malbec vines in Cahors, it remained popular among the locals who consider it to be the true home of Malbec.  

It is also grown in the Loire Valley on a very small scale and is added to the blend of the Anjou-Touraine appellations in minimal quantities.

The French Malbec Revival - Return to the Source

Despite its decline, the finest Malbec wines from Cahors were appreciated well into the 19th century, however, the Phylloxera infestation brought the region to its knees.  In the past fifty years, there has been a revival of French Malbec and a new young generation of winemakers such as Fabien Jouves of Mas del Périé who is producing extraordinary wines using traditional methods that are respectful to the environment and creating Malbec wines in their finest glory.  The winemakers of Cahors have dedicated themselves to the revival of Malbec through the production of exceptional wines that once again are gaining attention locally and internationally.  It is time to re-discover French Malbec!

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