New Generation of Cahors – An afternoon with Fabien Jouves and Emmanuel Rybinski
Irreverent men make the best wines
On a recent trip to southern France, one of the most memorable visits took place in the Malbec country of Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). Cahors, France, a picturesque region along the Lot River.
Wines from this AOC must contain at least 70% Malbec grapes. These days Malbec, also known as “Cot Noir,” is widely regarded as the signature grape for Argentina, which boasts over 70% of worldwide plantings of the variety, yet its roots are firmly planted in French soil. Malbec was introduced to Bordeaux in the 18th Century. This dark and opulent variety was blended into Bordeaux to bolster color and deepen flavor. Cahors gave Argentina its first Malbec cuttings in 1852. French versions are invariably dynamic, energetic, age worthy and quite restrained in their youth. Malbecs made in Argentina tend to be more lush and fruit-forward.
The variety dates back to ancient Rome.Throughout the Middle Ages, the “Black Wine” was drunk in Europe by royalty, clergy and other privileged members of society. In the late 1860s, Phylloxera wreaked havoc on Cahors vineyards. A hundred years later, severe frosts ensured yet another slow, painful road to recovery. Today, Cahors seems to be thriving once again, in no small part due to the “new generation” of young, driven winemakers who farm their vineyards organically and biodynamically. They fuse modern winemaking techniques with centuries-old traditions.
Cahors was granted its appellational status in 1971. Since then, the region has begun to return to its original prominence. In addition to the famous Négrette grape, Cahors’ 16,000 acres are planted to Merlot, Tannat, Mauzac, Fer Servadou and a few other heirloom varieties. Cahors enjoys a maritime influenced Mediterranean climate. With warm and sunny summers, the grapes grown in the region easily achieve full proper phenolics.
Cahors is a small medieval town in south-western France, lies near equal distance from both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean coasts. There is a fascinating museum located in a 14th century building, called La Chantrerie. The museum is devoted to the history of wine and cuisine.
Twenty-five kilometers south of Cahors is Lalbenque, the home of the largest truffle market in southern France. If you are in the region between December and March, be sure to take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy a fragrant sample of the “black diamond.”
Cahors wine production is classified in three categories, known as Tradition, Prestige and Spéciale, meant to distinguish the geographical position of the fruit source, flavor profile and price point.
A visit to the area should begin at the Cahors Malbec Lounge. It is a visitors’ center for local wine and gastronomy. Located at Place François Mitterrand in the town center, it provides an opportunity to taste a number of local wines. The friendly staff will help you plan your visit to the wineries in the region.
Cahors’ young winemakers deserve a lot of credit for their spirit of camaraderie and innovation. Their fresh approach results in expressive, stunning wines. Forget the old guard’s secretive nature, family feuds and reliance on synthetic pesticides and additives in the cellar. The vast majority of the “new guard” farms organically and biodynamically with either no additives or a bare minimum application of chemical sprays.
There is a push to identify specific terroirs as “Grand Cru” sites. Additionally, there is massive amount of cellaring experimentation, starting with concrete eggs and ending in artisanal, handmade vessels. There is more than wine blending that takes place in the cellars of Cahors. Innovation, bold experimentation, challenging the old ways, that is reminiscent of Silicon Valley’s mentality abounds.
Fabien Jouves is a self-proclaimed Burgundy producer of Malbec. He feels that fine Malbecs, like fine Pinot Noirs can have profound range and depth of flavor, can be age worthy, and highly refined. Born into the fifth generation of a farming family, Fabien wanted to study medicine, not viticulture. However, when his parents stated that they will sell the property if he doesn’t get involved, Fabien reluctantly journeyed to Bordeaux for his viticultural studies. To his surprise, he fell in love with the winemaking craft. Upon completion of his enological studies, he took over the family vineyard. Winemaking, he feels, is a mysteriously complex craft that involves a multitude of disciplines, such as astronomy, geology, agriculture, oenology, chemistry, managerial skills, and more.
He started farming biodynamically before it was en vogue. He does not fine, filter, or use sulfites. Not a fan of extracted, chewy, dense wines, he strives for wines of elegance, freshness, minerality, purity and depth of flavor. Interestingly, there were “jambons” (cured hams) hanging from his cellar ceiling. Apparently there is a symbiosis between the enzymes of aging ham and wine.
It became very clear very quickly how fiercely dedicated Fabien is to all things Malbec. He compared the vines to his children and the harvest to meeting your wife for the first time. He shared how temperamental Malbec is to grow, how stimulating, complex, mentally taxing it is to tend to the vineyard, and yet, how deliciously addictive and fulfilling it is to take up the challenge of producing Malbec wines. To preserve and maintain authenticity, Fabien utilizes a variety of vessels for aging, including concrete and handmade Italian Amphoras, in a variety of sizes.
He practices low intervention and shepherds his wines as if they were his children, “a stable child doesn’t need supervision, only the difficult one who wasn’t raised properly.” During my visit, I tasted five wines, some of which were just opened, and others that had been open for several days, yet showed no hint of flavor loss, or oxidative qualities. All from 2013 vintage, there was Les Escures, La Roque, Les Acacais, Amphore and La Piece. Fruit core, concentration, delineation were superb. The wines were fresh, pure, and authentic.They covered a range from rustic, rich, opulent wines, to a more modern, high strung bottlings with no hint of oak.
My second stop was at Clos Troteligotte for a visit with Emmanuel Rybinski. Emmanuel’s mission is to craft wines of consummate integrity. He accomplishes this by wearing a grower’s hat first, and winemaker’s second. He believes that the prized minerality and acidity truly comes from the soil, which requires clever shepherding. He believes in being meticulous in the vineyard, practicing green harvest, sticking to low yields, and having a gentle hand in the cellar. He advocates hand extraction, long maceration, separating each lot individually for aging, and letting the wine take the lead.
An undisputed labor of love, forsaking holidays, vacations, time with family and hobbies, the dogged pursuit of perfection comes with a hefty price tag. At the end of the day all vignerons are subject to Mother Nature—one hail storm could redefine the entire harvest. But rather than living in fear of nature, as a farmer and vintner, it pays to embrace it.
A great Cahors commands a fraction of the price its close cousin, Bordeaux. Even though qualitatively, they are highly comparable. After tasting these wines and listening to the folks that make them, I can’t wait to drink more French Malbec.