Cahors Crash Course Part 1: History

To say that Cahors Malbec has been the wine of kings, popes and tsars is not an understatement. From the Middle Ages onward the “black wine of Cahors” was enjoyed by such notable figures as Henry II of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, King Francis I, Peter the Great of Russia and Pope John XXII (who was born in Cahors). Experts in the 1700s wrote about the high quality wines of the region, as did French agronomist Dr. Jules Guyot in an 1868 text, where he also described Malbec’s aging potential.

So why is Cahors Malbec not the go-to wine for celebrations, gourmet meals or tonight’s dinner?

To understand this one must look to the unique history of Cahors, a region that faced a number of setbacks over the centuries.

There were locational setbacks.
The city of Cahors is situated inland in the Lot department in southwest France, about 115 km (72 miles) north of Toulouse and 200 km (124 miles) east of Bordeaux. The mountainous terrain made for an impression of isolation, with the winding Lot River the most practical way for exporting wine. The development of the French rail system in the 1850s was a game changer for Cahors, allowing the transport of Malbec to new regions.

There were economic setbacks.
There was somewhat of a love-hate relationship with Bordeaux. Cahors was considered a part of Bordeaux until 1911, and both regions share the Malbec grape – it is one of the five grapes allowed in red wines from Bordeaux. In an attempt to thwart the competition, a mandate in 1373 established a higher taxation rate on Cahors wines, which naturally decreased exports (and knowledge) of the wine. This wasn’t overturned until the 1700s.

There were agricultural setbacks.
In the 1700s there were restrictions on planting vines. In the late 1800s the phylloxera crisis devastated the vineyards. Cahors replanted and rebuilt, only to have the frost of 1956 destroy a significant amount of vines. Then came Chile in 1990, and Argentina in 2001, to change how Americans view Malbec.

Really, can’t Cahors catch a break?

Today Cahors Malbec is ripe for rediscovery. Cahors received AOC status in 1971, and since then has undergone a massive reorganization and revitalization. Winemakers know how to best use the land and techniques to produce top wines. And in recent years the labeling has become more standardized. No need to remember synonyms Côt or Auxerrois, it now says Malbec on the bottle.

Continue to Part 2: Terroir and Terraces

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