The temperature dropped a bit tonight, making my thoughts turn from rosés back to more familiar territory - big, bold reds. Tonight's bottle is the first we've opened from our "Meet the French Winemakers" winetasting event at FineWine.com in Gaithersburg, MD that I wrote up last month - yay! The bottle was purchased for $12 (although it usually goes for $15).
First off - a warning: this post is really long. If you're interested in my tidbits of wine trivia, read on! I am always fascinated to learn more about the grapes, regions, etc of the wines I drink, so I often feel like writing about them. However, if the wine geek thing isn't for you and you're mainly looking for my tasting notes from this bottle, just skim all the way down to the bottom.
This wine comes from the Cahors region of Southwestern France. Being a French wine ignoramus, I had never heard of Cahors before. It made me feel a little better to flip through some wine books and note that Cahors doesn't even show up in the index of most of them, and when it does show up in the text it's mainly as a footnote or minor reference. So Cahors appears to be an under-appreciated (or at least under-publicized) winemaking region.
Despite this, apparently Cahors has a long winemaking history, and centuries ago wines from Cahors surpassed the popularity of its more famous neighbor to the East, Bordeaux. Even the Romans partook of the "black wines" of Cahors, so named because wine from this region has historically been very deep and dark in color, characteristics of its major grape varietals Malbec (also known here as Auxerrois or Côt) and the more obscure Tannat. In fact, the parade of little-known grape varietals doesn't stop there - Negrette, Mauzac, and Fer Servadou have also been planted in Cahors for centuries. But Malbec is the true star of Cahors - in fact, all wines from Cahors must legally contain at least 70% Malbec. The balance is usually made up with Merlot, or sometimes Tannat, although some of the more unusual varieties may also make their way into the mix.
First tangent of this post - Hillsborough
What I find most interesting about this list of little-known varietals is that two of them, Tannat and Fer Servadou, are planted and used in blends from one of my favorite Virginia wineries, Hillsborough. I attended a barrel-blending seminar at Hillsborough once, and we were able to sample each of these varietals (as well as the more familiar Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot) straight from the barrel, before they had been blended together into the "gemstone" wines that Hillsborough produces. It was very interesting to see what specific qualities each of these grapes might bring to the final blend; we then measured out the various varietals in the approximate proportions they would be present in the final blends, and got a pre-taste of what the final product would be. Fun!
Second quasi-tangent of the post - Malbec
I have somewhat recently become very interested in the Malbec grape. This has coincided precisely with my somewhat recent interest in South American wines, as Malbec has found a near-perfect climatological fit with the Mendoza region of Argentina. In fact, I thought that Malbec was all but extinct in its native France - it is apparently something of a Bordeaux reject, having once been more popular but now grown only sparsely. However, to paraphrase Mark Twain: "the reports of Malbec's demise in France have been greatly exaggerated"; Malbec is still very much alive and doing quite well in the next region over, Cahors.
Wine temperature and decanting tangent
Since I have recently been experimenting with wine temperature for the recent rosé tastings, I decided to give it a go for a red. Traditional wisdom says that reds are supposed to be consumed at "room temperature". But whose room? Located where? Turns out that this idea of room temperature probably originated in drafty old chateaus, where "room temperature" was most likely 65°F, rather than the 70°F or so that most folks keep their homes at today. The end result is that most of us probably drink red wine slightly too warm (and whites and rosés slightly too cold due to refrigeration) . This isn't usually a big deal, but can come into play if the wine is particularly big and "hot" (high alcohol).
When I first popped open this bottle and took a whiff, I could feel the prickly sensation of alcohol interfering with my appreciation of the wine's aromas. Upon tasting, I thought the wine had a little extra burn as well. After probing the bottle with my wine thermometer, turns out the wine was at about 69°F. Although only 13% alcohol, I figured chilling it a couple of degrees in the fridge couldn't hurt - the lower temp should reduce some of the volatilization of alcohol, masking that "prickly effect" a bit. I took it out after about 5 minutes or so, and the wine had dropped down to 64°F. The "pricklies" had now disappeared from both the nose and taste - placebo effect? Maybe - we left my wife's glass of wine out for the five minutes we were chilling the bottle, and her glass seemed to have mellowed quite a bit as well. So did the temperature matter? Maybe not.
This lead us to thinking that perhaps we should decant it. First off, a confession - my wife and I are decanting junkies. Initially I thought decanting was only for presentation, or for removing sediment from really old, expensive wine - the kind Kris and I would rarely if ever be opening at our dinner table. So what was the point? I have since discovered that decanting is so much more than that, and I'd say we decant the majority of red wines we drink. Decanting can make a young wine better, and a good older wine great.
The main purpose of decanting is to allow oxygen to contact the wine, opening it up and softening it a bit. This is especially the case for wines with a lot of tannins (such as this Cahors). Sure, you could also simply open the bottle and let it "breathe" for a while, or swirl it around in your glass and wait a while - a decanter just makes this happen a whole lot faster as it increases the surface area dramatically.
So I strongly recommend you experiment with decanting. My wife and I would pour one glass straight from the bottle, and pour a second glass from the decanter and serve them "blind" to each other to see if we could tell the difference. In some cases, decanting did virtually nothing for the wine. In most cases, there was a slight noticeable improvement in the flavor and texture of the wine, but in a few cases the change was so dramatic it was like having two completely separate wines. After a while, we learned to identify which wines tasted like they could benefit from decanting, and have found that our gut feeling on this is now usually correct. (Just FYI - the decanter in the picture is our "mini-decanter" (375 mL) - gets the job done but doesn't take up as much space on the table as our regular-sized decanter (750mL))
Finally, the tasting!
Having exhausted my supply of tangents for the evening, I'm ready to get down to business. The 2005 Chateau du Cèdre Héritage Cahors had a nose of dark cherries and plums. Had I been blind tasting this wine, my first thoughts would have immediately been "Wow - Argentinian!" I now know that I thought this because this Cahors is made from a blend 90% Malbec and 10% Merlot, and Malbec is something of an Argentinian specialty.
The defining characteristic of this wine is its big, smooth tannins. I'm a big fan of tannins, and they were well balanced in this wine, so I very much enjoyed it. The tannins here were also somewhat chalky, and the overall effect of the dark fruit and tannins reminded me of bitter chocolate. Have you ever tasted dark chocolate with a large percentage of cacao, say 75% or more? That almost dusty feeling it leaves in your mouth is what I'm talking about here. This may not sound pleasant, but in this case it's a good thing!
I would definitely recommend you check this wine out. I really enjoy this style of wine, and it's kind of fun to taste wine from a lesser-known region of France. Plus, because of its relative obscurity, it seems that there are some good Cahors wine deals to be found. At $12, I thought this wine had an excellent quality-to-price ratio (at the regular $15 price, it would still have a pretty good QPR). I'm also happy to have discovered another region outside of Mendoza, Argentina producing quality Malbecs. Actually, that would be an interesting Wine Blogging Wednesday - the Malbecs of Cahors vs. the Malbecs of Mendoza!
Final Tangent - Valentré Bridge
I have to sneak in one more tangent. Another thing I liked about this wine was the bottle. The green glass contains the raised relief image of a very cool looking bridge all around the bottom of the bottle. I discovered that this bridge is the Valentré Bridge, symbol of the town of Cahors, that was begun in 1308 and finished in 1378.
I must admit, I'm a total sucker for this sort of thing, having always loved the raised Papal emblem on the necks of bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine. I wish this practice would become more popular!