Saturday, October 10, 2009

In Cahors: Château de Haute-Serre

Cahors has a long and often unhappy history. Its days of glory go back to 1225, when Eleanor of Aquitaine (and all of London) was sufficiently impressed with the wines to dispatch English engineers to make the Lot River safely navigable for shipping. Unfortunately, producers in Bordeaux were all too aware of the reputation of these wines, and by the 15th Century had created as many roadblocks as possible, in the form of taxes and other restrictions, to discourage winemaking in Cahors. On-and-off war between France and England (a major Cahors market) through the 16th and into the beginning of the 18th Century did not help matters.

Then, in the mid-19th Century, disease (oidium) struck Bordeaux but spared Cahors, and the region came back to life—but only for about 30 years, when phylloxera arrived and very nearly destroyed the wine business. The vines recovered, but there was little cause for celebration, because by the 1930s Cahors was suffering another onslaught, this time from cheap imports from Algeria. The region survived even this, and not long after the end of World War II was gaining strength—until the crippling frosts of the mid-1950s. But Cahors came back yet again. In 1971, Cahors achieved AOC status, and the canny Georges Vigoroux celebrated by replanting his 165 acres with new vines.

Vigouroux, depending upon who you talk to, is either the savior of Cahors or Satan incarnate. For centuries, the red grape of Cahors was identified either as “Cot” or as “Auxerrois.” The name “Malbec” wasn't used. No one seems to know for sure, but I'd put my money on Georges Vigouroux as the first vigneron in Cahors to put “Malbec” on his label. I first saw “Rosé of Malbec” on a wine from his Pigmentum line in 2004. The following year, “Malbec” appeared on his “Château de Haute-Serre” label. Today, of course, the vignerons of Cahors and those of Mendoza actually have a joint-marketing agreement to promote Malbec, and Vigouroux looks just as prophetic as he did in 1971. He has quite an empire these days, including a chain of retail stores under the “Atrium” name. Château de Haute-Serre is his flagship property, now under the direction of his son, Bertrand-Gabriel Vigouroux.

We arrived there on Wednesday the 7th. The vendage had been underway since Sept. 29, but there didn't seem to be any great sense of urgency to bring the fruit in; the weather was cooperating—warm but overcast, and no threat of rain. The big blue mechanical picker was chugging across the vineyards just to the north of the handsome winery, known as “Atrium,” which was opened in 1987. (See photo)

Walking through the vineyard, our guide, Camille, remarked on the soil, which is basically chalk with quartz pebbles and a little alluvial soil. Asked what else would grow here besides grapevines, she paused for a moment and replied, “Trees.” Most of the vineyard is planted with Malbec, along with small amounts of Merlot and Tannat. There is also a small area—less than four acres—set aside for the production of chardonnay.

Back at the chais, we watched as a tractor-load of grapes were dumped into a feed hopper. An augur fed the grapes into a crusher-destemmer. The resulting juice was pumped via an overhead line into an assigned fermentation tank. The tanks had concrete bases, but the upper two-thirds were steel—a design I hadn't seen before. Each tank holds juice from a particular part of the vineyard, and fermentation is controlled accordingly. The whole setup—no sorting tables, no bladder presses—seemed almost casual compared to the relentless modernity of the wineries I saw earlier this year in Mendoza.

Fermentation takes about seven days; maceration about 20 days, with regular pumping-over. The regular Haute-Serre wine is then aged for about a year in neutral-oak tuns of 70 hectoliters (about 1,850 gallons). The estate's first wine, the Château le Fleur, is bottled from these tuns without further aging. The Haute-Serre and the Cuvée Géron Dadine de Haute-Serre (the estate's new prestige cuvee, created by Bertrand-Gabriel Vigouroux) receive additional aging in a combination of French and American oak, of which one-third is new each year.

We tasted the 2005 Haute-Serre, which had a lovely nose of licorice and cedar, and a sturdy palate (I think it is law that every Cahors tasting note include the word “sturdy.”) of plum and red berries, with a distinct tangy note of cranberry, and a finish emphasizing forthright tannins and earth. The 2005 “Prestige” had a similar aroma and flavor profile, but was softer and more polished. Harry bought a sixpack of the Chardonnay, called Albesco (“I Become White” in Latin). We drank some that evening and found it innocuous. I have heard that many French winemakers who specialize in reds feel obliged to produce at least a little white to be used as a starter wine for formal tasting. When I mentioned this to Eb, he told me it could also be that the Chardonnay might have a more practical purpose: adding a little bit to kick-start fermentation of the reds.

As we prepared to depart for downtown Cahors for lunch (at the excellent Restaurant du Marché—thanks for the steer, Camille!) we were advised that the 2009 vintage was expected to be an exceptional one. Can't wait to find out...

(Check out the wineglass with the round fingerhold in the stem. This is, I'm told, the "classic Cahors wineglass.")

PS: In the event, we were unable to make it to Château de Chambert. I hope to be able to take advantage of Phillipe Lejeune's offer to visit in the not-too-distant future.

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