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Discovering the “Black Wine” of Cahors

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Ah, the Malbec grape! In Argentina, Malbec forms the basis of a rich, ripe wine with flavors of sun-warmed plum and a velvety texture. In its hometown of Cahors in southwest France, Malbec can take on hundreds of guises, from tender and fruity to feisty and powerful to intense and complex.

Today at New York’s Astor Center I enjoyed a rare treat in that I was able to sample the three main “types” or “quality levels” of Cahors (in France, it is typical to order a wine by naming the AOC, instead of the varietal) in a tutored tasting led by author, columnist, and wine expert Elin McCoy. I had met Elin several times before yet I was particularly impressed by the way she orchestrated the tasting and her poetic choice of words about the wine and the region. As she spoke, gorgeous pictures of the region and the cuisine of the city of Cahors flashed across a sleek monitor above.

Before the talk the audience – an assembly of people from the trade and journalists – heard Alain Janicot, Co-President of the Cahors wine negociants, speak about the history of the region through a colorful translation courtesy of fellow Wine Media Guild member Peter Hellman. Cahors became an AOC in 1971, with its wine having achieved worldwide fame in the Middle Ages as the “Black Wine” of Cahor. I have never found the wine to be particularly “black” – it is somewhat of a violet-ruby color when young – so perhaps the “black” refers to the typically strong, sometimes astringent tannins or its often masculine nature.

In any event, with Elin’s poetic words and the gorgeous scenery I was curious to start tasting the wine arranged before me, which represented the three basic categories of Cahors. Inexpensive (under $12) wine is tender and fruity, the medium range (under $21) is described as fiery and powerful, and the more expensive category is described as intense and complex.

After sampling the young and fruity wine, I could see that they could have their place with dishes like pizza or maybe chilled in a refrigerator and served outdoors on a hot summer day. I found several favorites in the feisty, powerful, intense, and complex category, especially the older wines in the walk-around tasting that followed. The most complex of these wines could hold their own against the Chateauneuf-du-Papes of the world at a five-star restaurant. The challenge is tasting enough Cahors so that you can become familiar with the producers. Happily, magazines and newsletters offer tasting notes to help you mentally “try before you buy.”

As you may imagine, one of the reasons for this tutored and walk-around tasting is to bring Cahors to the attention of the world. The region wants to increase exports during this five year period, perhaps more of a challenge today than ever before as so many wine regions around the world have the same self-described mandate. One key element in the region’s favor is that a new generation of Cahors winemakers have come of age, and unlike their predecessors, have attended enology school and are keen on maintaining a high standard of quality. They are lowering the average yield in the field and are refining the winemaking traditions of the region while conserving Malbec’s fresheness and terroir typicity.

Even before attending this lecture, I’ve always liked this wine and found it to be a great value on many wine lists, both of the five-star restaurant variety and French bistros. Though you will find sophisticated Cahors with subtle complexities, to me an everyday Cahors is the kind of wine that confidently announces itself with a joyful shout, not a subdued whisper. So look out for Cahors the next time you go to your local wine shop. It may be just the thing for steak grilled on your summer barbeque.

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