Cellar Direct Winter Wines: Clos Siguier Cahors

28 12 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

Today’s release is a fun one. You’ve probably had this grape variety before, or have at least heard of it. Malbec has become the premier grape variety in Argentina, and such wines remain immensely popular. But I’m willing to bet that you haven’t had Malbec from this wine region, which is far closer to its likely place of origin in northern Burgundy, although the grape is far better known as one of the six classic permitted black grapes of Bordeaux (due to climate change, a few more are now being trialed there). Let’s investigate further.

malbec

Malbec

Malbec is often described as inky purple and tannic, although the tannins are typically round and mouth-filling rather than scratchy and abrasive. In the glass, Malbec often yields correspondingly dark fruit flavours as well as some smoky notes. The grape became less popular in Bordeaux after 1956 when frost slaughtered around 75% of the crop. Malbec’s reputation in Bordeaux has only continued to decline since then. According to Stephen Brook, the variety has “little to contribute” to the Bordeaux blending regime, offering large berries that yield dilute, soft wine. There is actually more current interest in reviving Carmenere (!), the obscure “sixth Bordeaux grape” that all but disappeared after phylloxera, a pest that did Malbec no favours either. Rest assured though, all is not lost. If fortunes are decidedly bleak in Bordeaux, the wine region featured here, Cahors, seems hell-bent on ensuring that Malbec will always have a place in its native land. The same frost that wiped out the variety in Bordeaux also devastated the grape in Cahors, the difference being that the latter vignerons dutifully replanted with the same grape. Although the region remains besieged, one of many rustic bastions in a world of homogenized commodity beverages, this enclave of winemakers refuses to go without a fight.

You see, Cahors is shrinking. Part of a hodgepodge of small, rather rustic wine regions often grouped together under the uninspiring and purely geographical moniker “south west France”, Cahors is unique in France in terms of yoking its fortunes to Malbec, originally called Cot across the country (a delightful name that deserves to spread elsewhere; I’ve seen it used on bottles from the Loire Valley) as well as (confusingly) Auxerrois in Cahors itself (also a white grape variety best known in Alsace, itself historically confused with Pinot Blanc. If this stresses you out don’t worry, we are cracking the bottle momentarily). Neither black Cabernet is even permitted in Cahors, with this red wine-only appellation requiring Malbec to constitute a minimum of 70% of the blend. Merlot, Tannat (max. 20% of the blend), and the obscure underperformer Folle Noir (aka Jurancon, max. 10%) are also permitted. Historically respected for its ability to age and valued for its opaque colour and body, Cahors “black wine” was not granted its own full appellation status until 1971. Two soil types predominate, the “causses” on an arid limestone plateau that features heavier soils, and the “coteaux”, or sand and gravel terraces between the plateau and the river Lot. Debates about which terrain is superior can get feisty, although the general consensus is that the causses yield more traditional age worthy examples, whereas the coteaux wines are more immediately fruity and accessible.

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Although Cahors benefited from some investment in the 1980s and 90s, with a few notable attempts to emulate the velvety, plush Argentine example that has taken the world by storm, most Cahors remains a decidedly lighter provincial wine, exuding what Jancis Robinson calls an “animal” character. This is perhaps a boon to the wine geek craving everything old that is new again, but is not exactly a profile for international superstardom. And who cares? This is the sort of diversity the wine world needs to honour and conserve. Meet Gilles Bley of Cloys Siguier, a personification of this ethos if ever there was one.

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2016 Clos Siguier Cahors ($29)

Gilles Bley traces his wine-growing roots in Cahors back many generations. He is apparently very approachable and more than happy to show visitors around his farm, which is laden with old equipment and meticulously cared-for vines. His estate has dabbled with various technological tweaks but few to none have really stuck, with estate-grown grapes being hand picked and de-stemmed before being transferred into large open fermenters using a conveyor belt to minimize damage. Fermentations are typically rather long, often a month to six weeks duration, and no cultured yeast is used. The wine does rest in barrel for a time before bottling. Gilles’ winemaking target? Delicacy. His wines hail from well-drained red earth and limestone soils that accentuate bright fruit, and cooler temperatures help keep the alcohol levels down. A lighter-bodied “coteaux” style wine in classic form. Gilles typically includes around 5% Tannat in his entry-level Cahors being profiled here, for a little extra tannic ballast, with another “prestige” cuvee being 100% Malbec. These wines ostensibly can age, at least for a short while, but with this structural profile what can be gained by waiting? This is not a “black wine” per se. But nor is it Argentina.

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This pours a dark plummy hue, still within the realm of ruby to my eye, albeit with decidedly purple tints. The nose is redolent with an earthy haze of freshly turned pasture, charcoal briquette, black jelly beans (without the sugar), offal, linseed oil, chainsaw lubricant, chewing tobacco, juniper twigs, and burnt sage leaves. And some people argue that you can’t really smell “the country” in a wine. I certainly can here. It is bringing me way back. I have to stop dipping into the codex of childhood memories that this nose has manifested long enough to appraise the fruity core of red and black plums, blueberries, pomegranate molasses, and cherry menthol lozenges that lurks underneath the dark cloud. Eventually the stable aromas tone down and recede enough to provide character rather than a dominant influence, in favour of English breakfast tea laced with bramble jam and bona fide grape jelly. The fruits stop just short of fruit leather territory, which aids the complexity without detracting from the overarching freshness of the palate. But there it is again, that country smoke. It won’t go away completely… nor do I want it to.

89- points

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Cork Rating: 3/10 (Double nooooo…. Another “Mis En Bouteille”! Hey, this one is at least a real cork. Consider this a signature of small producers of “wines of place”… or something.)


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2 responses

29 12 2019
Doug Arychuk

Hi, I really enjoy your writing—I learn something new with every post! You’re over my head today with this comment: This is not a “black wine” per se. What is a black wine?

While I’ve got your attention, can I ask what your wine scale is about. You rate out of 100 but is it really out of 15? Would your rating of 85/100 be not drinkable? Does 89 say today’s featured wine is really bad?

Thanks for your weekly effort!

Doug

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29 12 2019
Peter Vetsch

Hi Doug,

Thanks for the comment, and for reading! You can see more info about the scoring system here:

https://popandpour.ca/scoring-system/

You’re right that, when it comes to quality wines, it’s generally only the top 20 points of the 100-point scale that get used. A rating under 85 would indicate an unimpressive or unbalanced wine. A rating of 89 would generally suggest a very good and well-made bottle. Obviously you can’t sum up everything about a wine in a score, but it’s a rough overall guide for evaluation.

The Malbec-based wines of the Cahors region used to be known as “the black wines of Cahors” because they tended to be dense, deep, dark and rustic. Nowadays modern grape-growing and winemaking techniques have softened the edges and allowed for brighter fruit flavours to emerge, so Cahors’ Malbecs are not as black as they used to be. Cheers!

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