Malbec — deep, inky and so earthy — conjures up South American vistas and plush Mendozan nights, as you sit back in a balmy outdoor café snarfing yet another steak, while sipping a lusty, sleek glass of vino in the land that produces this great grape which leapt meteorically to the top of international sales charts during the last decade.
But before of the Italian and Spanish immigrants came to Argentina in the early 1900s to craft their noble wine out of their own European sensibilities, the newly renowned malbec already had a millennium of growth and its own leaves of laurel. It was said to have been planted as early as 50 B.C. by the ancient Romans, around the historic town of what is known today as Cahors, along the Lot River, which coils its way underneath dramatic limestone cliffs and rock formations through this region. Other names for which this historic malbec have gone by are côt, côt noir or auxerrois.
By the middle ages the legendary wine was referred to as the “Black Wine Of Lot,” and also as the “liquor of fire.” Even though it conjures up images of some type of whiskey, I’m guessing that is an ode to the sun, which malbec requires to thrive in. Just as in present day Argentina, with its perennially sun-baked alluvial plains streaming down from the Andes Mountains, the region around Cahors offers warm micro-climates where malbec grows on sunny hillsides that are shielded from cooler prevailing breezes. Lest we forget, Bordeaux, especially in the Medoc, where malbec was always used in the classic blends, is cold, blustery and wet. Exactly the opposite of what malbec likes. To wit, today, the Bordelais have uprooted their malbec vines.
Cahorsin malbec grew in stature during the middles ages as popes such as John XXII (around 1315), who was born around Cahors, loved it and deemed it sacramental wine. Russian emperors drank it (calling it karop) and the Russian Orthodoxy also used it as holy wine. Francis I of France appreciated it to the point of delegating to the Cahorsin vintners the task of creating the vineyard of Fontainebleau, at the forested and idyllic suburban Paris retreat. By the 1700s, this malbec eventually gained favor over the classic claret in Britain as tens of thousands of cases were sailed down the Lot River-past Bordeaux-and onward to Britain, the Antilles and even the Americas. At one point, the Bordelais vintners attempted to suppress it, but French King Louis XVI intervened as a mediator at the centuries’ end.
A century later — from 1883 to 1885 — the great California-inspired Phylloxera plague blighted most of France, and Cahors’ vines were not exempt. Finally, a severe and widespread killing frost 1956 devastated most of the remaining vines.
The dormancy period for this great grape and region did not last long, and even during that period, the legendary 1959 Clos De Coutale was produced, which many place up alongside the great Burgundies and Bordeaux vintages of all time. By 1971 production had resumed on approximately 4,000 hectares and the region was granted A.O.C. status, which remains so today, noting this area’s warm climate, gravelly/silica/limestone soils and vigorous vines, which are all ideally suited for a bold, dark, supple and extremely cellar worthy wine.
Coutale, which I have been happily drinking for the past decade, thanks to the great price (around $18 retail) and listing at Six89 over the years, is at the top of the list. They made a “splash” at the 1895 Paris Agricultural Show and today, release the Clos De Coutale, along with the Grand Coutale, which is produced using much lower yielding fruit for even more intensity. Famed importer Kermit Lynch “discovered” this old world gem alongside great Rhônes, Burgundies and the iconic Domaine Tempier, from Bandol. Coutale is quite like a poor-mans’s Bordeaux, with that same earthiness, graphite-like minerality and abundance of tannin, sous-bois (woody) tones, with loads of black currant and blackberry flavors. Blending practice over the years has led skilled wine maker Philippe Bernède to add twenty percent merlot to soften the youthful wine, a common theme in Cahors, while some others may add a dash of tannat.
Last week, I enjoyed a bottle with a roasted duck breast with balsamic confit, blackberries and rosemary and I will be having that again, sooner than later. Perhaps with a ‘59 Clos De Coutale.
Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at email@example.com