Paul Hobbs can grin like a Cheshire cat, especially when he has a new project up his sleeve. The California vintner, who has consulting projects and partnerships in Argentina, Armenia, Canada, Chile and France, as well as his home state, is now getting ready to release his latest venture. It's a red made from Malbec, but it doesn't hail from Argentina, where the grape is a star and Hobbs has long made memorable versions.
Instead, it comes from the historic home of Malbec, in the Cahors region of southwest France.
It's called Crocus, after the flower that is used for saffron production in Cahors. He's making it in partnership with Georges Vigouroux, a historic but forward-looking producer in Cahors, whose Château de Haute-Serre Malbec Cahors White Label 2010 (92 points, $24) came in at No. 40 on our Top 100 Wines 0f 2013.
The success of Haute-Serre is due in part to Hobbs' influence: He's been a consultant at Vigouroux since 2009, helping to raise quality by modernizing cellar equipment and vineyard management techniques. In the past, Malbec from Cahors was plagued by rustic, chewy wines dominated by drying tannins, and sometimes by the curse of too much brett.
Today, thanks to the influence of Hobbs and others, the best Cahors Malbecs are much more fruit-driven. Yet they retain the strengths of Cahors—firm structures, with savory, minerally components that stand in contrast to the voluptuous fruitiness of Argentine Malbec.
For Bertrand Vigouroux, the winery's general manager, it's been a challenge to change the winemaking culture in his estates and elsewhere in Cahors. "In France it is not easy to start something different. In Argentina, they are focused on Malbec, but in Cahors sometimes people didn't believe in Malbec."
"I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the terroirs [in Cahors]," Hobbs said. "The main challenge in raising quality was to change how the grapes are grown." Canopy work and leaf thinning seemed like new concepts to growers when he first arrived. And cleaning up the winery was key also, as well as putting a clamp on overextraction. "The pump-overs never stopped," Hobbs chuckled.
He credits Vigouroux for making the necessary changes. "Bertrand made it happen, just like that," Hobbs said.
The results are impressive. The pair have made two Crocus wines, one that sees 50 percent new oak aging and a grand vin that sees 100 percent new oak. The wines see no fining or filtration and are fermented using native yeasts. The Crocus Malbecs will selections from two of Vigouroux's best estates, Haute-Serre and Château de Mercuès, with the grand vin coming entirely from Haute-Serre.
In a non-blind tasting, I rated both wines outstanding. The first wine was firm and filled with delicious red fruit and mineral flavors, while the grand vin was more lush and powerful, with plenty of spice and chocolate overtones. These are not shy wines, and neither is their pricing: $45 for the regular Crocus and $125 for the grand vin. Hobbs has always pushed the pricing boundaries wherever he has gone, but in turn, he has mostly delivered the goods. "It will be interesting to see how the grand vin performs," Hobbs said with a grin. The wines will be arriving in the U.S. beginning this summer.