Cahors is a small town in south-western France, located 100 miles (160km) east of Bordeaux. In wine terms it is known for its deeply colored reds made predominantly from Malbec (known locally as both Côt and Auxerrois), with small quantities of Tannat and Merlot. Interestingly, Cahors is the only red-wine appellation in the French south-west to use neither Cabernet Sauvignon nor Cabernet Franc.
The typical Cahors wine is darkly colored and has a meaty, herb-tinged aroma, with hints of spiced black cherries and a whiff of cedar. Cahors is invariably tighter and leaner than the rich, opulent style of Malbec being made in the variety’s new-found home in Mendoza, Argentina.
Cahors lies 130 miles (210km) from both the Atlantic coast (to the west) and the Mediterranean coast (to the south-east). As a result, the climate here is subject to multiple influences: continental, maritime and Mediterranean. Summer days are warmer and sunnier than in Bordeaux, making it easy for the local vignerons to achieve full phenolic ripeness in their grapes. This is important for Malbec and even more so for tannin-rich Tannat, which is offensively astringent if not properly ripened.
Rainfall here is significantly lower than on the Atlantic coast (700mm a year, compared with 950mm in Bordeaux). Consequently, the risk of fungal issues in the Cahors vineyards is quite low, minimizing the amount of disease-preventive spraying required. The dry climate also means that vines experience slight hydric stress, forcing them to dig deep, strong root systems in search of water and also increasing the concentration of sugars and phenolic compounds in the grapes.
The key vineyard sites for Cahors wines are roughly divided into two categories. Those on the limestone plateaux of the area (known as the Causses) produce more tannic, longer-lived wines. Those on the gravelly slopes between the plateaux and the rivers turn out more approachable, fruitier wines.
The official Cahors viticultural area spreads for 25 miles (40km) along a tightly meandering section of the Lot River. The Lot rises in the hills of the Massif Central and winds slowly westwards through the southern French countryside before flowing into the Garonne, which then continues on to Bordeaux. This navigable link with the port of Bordeaux (and export markets beyond) was once of vital economic importance to Cahors’ winemakers. The Bordelais also benefited from the connection, not just because they imposed high taxes on the incoming wines, but also because they blended the dark, rich Cahors wines with their own, which in those times often lacked color and depth. It wasn’t without good reason that Malbec was introduced to the vineyards of Bordeaux in the 18th Century.