Vines were planted in Cahors, France as early as 50 BC.
The wine, made primarily of deeply colored, highly tannic Malbec and Tannat, flourished and was well known in the 12th century as the “Black Wine.” Eleanor of Acquitaine, one of the wealthiest and most influential women of the High Middle Ages, and Henry II, King of England, chose to serve the wine at their wedding in 1152. In the late 1600s, Peter the Great was fond of the wine and demanded that Cahors be the communion wine in Orthodox churches across Russia.
It was the Bordeaux of the world before Bordeaux mattered.
The wine was historically successful largely because it transported well – the deep color and powerful tannic structure enabled it to survive the long journeys up to Bordeaux and England.
However, in 1865 the history of Cahors changed dramatically when phylloxera hit, wiping out the entire region in less than twelve years. Farmers, who had for generations relied on the wine trade for their prosperity, fled the area. Some moved to Argentina to begin replanting the grape, which had been brought over by French soil expert, Michel A. Pouget, in 1852. You’re welcome, Argentina.
Gradually the vines of Cahors were replanted only to be wiped out again by frost in 1956. To provide context as to the magnitude of this destruction, in the 1800s, the region was planted with 60,000 hectares of vine; at present, plantings amount to around 4,000 hectares.
Walking around the city of Cahors today, you feel like you’ve been picked up and plopped back into the medieval times. Like its wines, it has a marked hearty and resilient character. You’ll find old stone buildings, a spectacular medieval bridge, and giant doors on building facades, where the horse carts used to be stored.
As I toured the city and visited several producers, I was struck with the age and strength of the region’s history. But I wondered what will be next. As of recently, Cahors’ cooperatives have been working tirelessly together to regain recognition for their “Black Wine.” The Cahors region was finally recognized as an AOC in 1971 and received accompanying quality standards. For example, Cahors AOC requires that wines with the designation be at least 70% Malbec, with the remaining 30% Tannat and Merlot.
Regional winemakers are making bets that “Black Wine” will come back into fashion. I can attest that the wines overall are, indeed, very black. I.e., don’t choose Cahors for a boozy lunch out of the office – your teeth will give you away immediately. The wines are more rugged, dense and grippy than their popular counterparts in Argentina. Wine marketers in Cahors are also experimenting with the introduction of different styles – ranging from “round and structured” to “powerful and tasty” and “intense and complex” (as the tasting room in Cahors’ city center labels them).
This all got me to thinking. What led to the wine’s success in the past – its power and ageability – may actually not be what it needs to succeed in today’s marketplace. Which begs the question, what is the new generation of producers in Cahors going to do to get their wines back on the map?
In my next post about Cahors, I’ll talk to several young, up-and-coming winemakers who are leading the charge. In the meantime, you can check out more photos from the trip to SW France on our Facebook page.