~ South West of France ~

Cahors Malbec stars with a host of unknown grape varieties

On their way down from the Massif Central, the valleys of the rivers Tarn, Lot and Aveyron are host to vines whose names are known only to a handful of locals and wine buffs. They are waiting to be discovered for their excentric character and splendid value for money. You will look in vain for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, here found only as guest artists in a programme which stars unknown performers such as Mansois (Marcillac); Braucol, Duras, Mauzac and Len de l’El (Gaillac); Négrette (Fronton) and, perhaps more familiarly Auxerrois (aka Malbec) in Cahors. The vineyards are on or close to the roads taken by pilgrims in the Middle Ages to St-Jacques de Compostelle, and historians believe that these rare grape varieties were perhaps brought back from Spain by the pilgrims as they stopped off for refreshment, rest and worship at the medieval abbey churches such as Conques.

The countryside is breathtakingly beautiful, sometimes wild as the rivers tumble through chestnut woods, or sometimes gentle and pastoral as they water the duck farms, walnut plantations, strawberry fields and plum orchards of the valleys further west. The limestone plateaux above the Lot are an important centre of truffle production, the ‘black diamond’ as it is called by cooks all over the world. The local cuisine is equally famous, for here you find confits and magrets of duck, the decadent cheesy potato dish enriched by cream and garlic called aligot, an inexhaustible range of charcuterie, pâtés and, of course, the famous foie gras.

Geography

The variation in soils is so wide that it seems that each region and each grape has its own specific kind of terroir. In Fronton, on the terraces which separate the Tarn Valley from Toulouse, the silts, clay and pebbly soils are perfect for the lightish fruity reds from the Négrette grape. At Gaillac, one bank of the river is gravelly, the other partly on clay and chalk, and partly on white chalk; the local grapes find a perfect home here, while nowhere in France does Malbec find such an ideal environment as on the terraces of the Lot at Cahors. Here the wine gets better as the land rises above the sinuously winding river.

The climate is more Mediterranean than further west in Bergerac. The warm sirocco-like wind from the southeast called ‘Autan’ is an important element in keeping the grapes dry and free from rot. Rainfall is lower too and the steep banks of the rivers largely protect the vineyards from frost. Hail from summer storms can however be a menace, a five-minute burst being enough to ruin a year’s crop.