Though Argentinean Malbec may seem like an overnight sensation, the grape has another home, one with a long history. In France, Malbec carries on a tradition of wine production that dates back hundreds of years.
Though vineyard records are spotty, it seems likely that Malbec played a prominent role in the red wines of Bordeaux long before the 19th century. It was also a mainstay of Cahors, east of Bordeaux, up the Dordogne River, where it was probably an important part of the "black wines" for which the region was famous even in medieval times.
When disease ran rampant through Bordeaux vineyards in the 1850s, the region around Cahors rose to prominence as a major area of production, at one point farming more than 140,000 acres of vines. Then phylloxera hit, and Cahors was never the same. Bordeaux reemerged to become the world's most prominent wine region, while the hinterlands sunk into obscurity. Because Bordeaux basically abandoned Malbec when replanting after phylloxera, the grape, too, nearly disappeared.
After years of struggling with its quality and for an identity, the region south and east of Bordeaux began to find its way. Today Cahors is one of its leading appellations, and Malbec now plays the dominant role there. Granted appellation contrôlée status in 1971, Cahors now consists of just less than 11,000 acres of vineyards, a fraction of Argentina's 42,000 acres (and growing) of Malbec.
While Argentina's Malbecs burst with vivid fruit and intensity, the red wines of Cahors rumble along with tannic purpose. There are few cases where so stark a distinction can be drawn between New World and Old World wines made from the same grape. Cahors' show more austerity, with a pronounced iron and mineral profile and occasional notes of hot stones and tar. The differences stem from many causes: terroir, weather and temperament.
"In Cahors, they have very old traditions," says Alain Dominique Perrin, 62, owner of Château de Lagrézette, the region's foremost producer. "They are victims of tradition. It is very hard to modernize here."
The pressure of tradition is reinforced by inflexible AOC rules, such as Cahors' inability to irrigate its vines. Climate also plays a role: Argentina enjoys more sun, and a drier, longer growing season that results in riper grapes.
"The difference is the weather, more than just terroir," says Pascal Verhaeghe, 42, whose Château du Cèdre produces about 8,000 cases of Cahors each year. "In Cahors it is difficult to have mature seeds [which affect the ripeness of the tannins] but in Argentina, the seeds are too mature."
Verhaeghe's comments echo with the influence of a European palate, one likely to prefer the structured profile of a Cahors to the opulence of an Argentinean Malbec. It is not surprising then that much of Cahors' production is consumed in Canada, Germany, Britain and Japan, as opposed to the United States.
But Cahors is no viticultural backwater. Perrin has brought investment and media attention to the region, and he's not alone. Vic Pauwels, 66, a Belgian entrepreneur, bought Domaine du Théron in 1997. The previous owners merely sold off the grapes, but Pauwels wanted to bottle the wine himself. "I was looking for a wine with a past history, but [which] was also a challenge for the future," says Pauwels, about his choice of Cahors.
Despite their divergent pasts and present, the common link of Malbec gives Cahors and Argentina the same promising future. Verhaeghe plans to visit Argentina next year to begin some experimental vinifications with his colleague Patrick Ducournau. Michel Rolland, the well-known enologist who consults for several Argentinean wineries in addition to owning his own property in Mendoza, works for Perrin at Château de Lagrézette.
Perrin is a rare conduit between the two regions. After studying in Argentina as a youth, he still travels there annually. When he drinks an Argentinean Malbec today, he gets to the heart of the matter.
"I recognize it as Argentinean, but I recognize it as Malbec too."