Monday, May 31, 2010

Cahors, the Malbec Superstar: Tasting The Wines

Tour, talk, eat, mingle, shop, go sightseeing, meet the growers, visit the chateaux---all valuable and all interesting, but when it comes down to it, it really is all about the wine.

In one of the true highlights of the Journees Internationales du Malbec, we sit through a well-orchestrated guided tasting, with wines pre-selected by the UIVC dignitaries to showcase the three styles of AOC Cahors.

Not only were the wines arranged by style, they were also selected to fit into general price groupings of Under 7 Euro, 7--14 Euro, and Above 14 Euro.

In this one tasting we saw the past, the present and the future of Cahors Malbec.

The first Category, Rond et Structure, consisted of

Chateau Pineraie Malbec 2007 (Website here) 7 Euro; 100% Malbec; Bright, fresh, grapey, berry nose, light bodied with a bit of prickle, little tannin and light finish. The key here is absolute freshness; a bright and lively entry-level Malbec---more impressive because it comes from a traditional estate operating since the 15th Century, but keyed toward forward, fresh flavor.

Chateau Quattre 2009 (background here) 6 Euro; bit of doughy bread at first, which blows off quickly; crisp, edgy aromas and flavors; blackberry fruit; rounded, supple but with a tannic hit on the long finish. All stainless steel wine with fruit as the focus.

Rigal Les Terrasses 2008 4 Euro; 80% Malbec/20% Merlot; sweet candied fruit; extra light, fruity, slighltly bitter tinge at the finish. This is supermarket wine---not a judgement, but a destination, for the producers make this at an astonishing low price for supermarket distribution, and given that, it's an impressive wine.

The second category is Puissant et Gourmand; to me this is closer to the traditions of Cahors and the Black Malbec (or one could say, what my predilections and preferences lead me to think is the tradition of Cahors).

Chateau Les Bouysses 2007 -- Cotes d'Olt (website here) 8--10 Euro; a co-op wine; rich, smoky fruit; bit hollow in the middle and a brief, slightly green finish of menthol-eucalyptus; 10% new barrel so oak is apparent but not intrusive.

Mas del Perie -- Les Escures 2008 7.50 Euro; 100% Malbec; the word "perie" is Gascon for "rock" and signifies the rocky soil of the terrasses in this estate; it's also a very suitable name for this rock-solid iteration of Cahors; powerful , intense, dense, structured tight as a drum; cool menthol and eucalyptus on an astonishing long finish; wine with power and density and built for the long haul. (What Vinography says.)

Chateau Trotteligotte -- Klys 2006 (website here) 12 Euro; 100% Malbec; powerful, intense, brooding fruit; half aged in barrels for 13 months; impressively balanced; big and compact, yet still balanced and supple at this early age. A wine worth cellaring, I think.

(Note: For an excellent in-depth portrait of this estate, the people and the wines, go to Reign of Terroir for Ken Payton's report of his visit there.)

The final flight of three, labeled Intense et Complexe, is more diverse, with each wine showing unique stylistic flair. Not at all what I think of as traditional Cahors, but creative nonetheless, and showing some interesting possibilities for the future (while, it must be said, showing the dangers of lavish ripe fruit and dominating vanilla oak).

Chateau Croisille -- Divin Croisille 2005 (website here) 20 Euro; excellent quality of fruit beginning to age well; dense black fruits, with acids beginning to soften and tannins beginning to resolve; barrel vinified and obvious new-barrel aging before bottling. Soft, supple, oak/vanilla style emerging. Too much for my taste, but others will like the density of the wine and the enrobing oak.

Clos d'un Jour--Un Jour sur Terre 2007 ( 15 Euro; 100% Malbec. You can tell by the pun these people are whimsical; you can tell by the wine these people are audacious and creative. This wine was a revelation! In an attempt---a highly successful attempt---to create the effect of a "barrel without wood", the winemaker aged this wine for 1 year in terracotta anphorae; the porous earthy anphorae aged and slowly oxidated the wine without adding any oaky vanilla character; the result has a purity of flavor, a focus on lean, tight, juicy but not over-ripe fruit, that is truly, truly impressive---and so tasty that it's difficult to put down and move on to the next wine. All this, and only 15 Euro. My best of show thus far.

Chateau La Roques de Cana -- Graal Sanctus 2007 (Reign of Terroir says...) 86 Euro; 100% Malbec; concentrated, intense fruit; menthol, soft velvet texture; obvious 24 months of oak gives a pronounced sweet vanilla/oak spice character; little tannic bit with a long finish. A highly stylistic wine; not to my taste, but for what it is, impressive. Until, that is, one looks at the price.

All in all a good range, reflecting the diversity of both the Malbec variety and the capability of Cahors to produce wines at different price points and with unique stylistic flair. There are the obligatory supermarket wines, easy-going introductory wines, traditional wines, and big bruisers---but with the nature of the region, the soil, the grape and the winemaker showing through at all levels.

A Cahors Of A Different Color...

2010 Journees Internationales "Malbec Days"
Cahors, France

What to do, what to do?

You're the ancestral standard bearer for Malbec, that singular variety of grape. You're the homeland, the originator, the area that combated the dictates of kings, the mercantile wiles of the Bordelaise and the devastation of phylloxera and oidium to persevere.

Then, suddenly, and to almost everyone's surprise, Argentina becomes the darling of the world with "your" grape in a New World soft, ripe, fruity, and oak-laden style.

If you're the Union Interprofessionnelle du Vin de Cahors you gather your grower and vintner members together, decide upon a strategy and aggressively go out into the market to tell your story and show your wine. And you bring your market to you.

For three days in May, at the Malbec Days in Cahors, I heard---and tasted---the story of AOC Cahors and the Black Malbec.

Tasked with the strategy of remaining true to the traditions of the region while attempting to be flexible enough in approach to attract new drinkers, the UIVC is attempting to do three things: 1. Maintain the traditional impenetrable long-aging style of Malbec that has endured for hundreds of years and established their reputation. 2. Establish a more distinct series of specific terroirs in AOC Cahors to emphasize the diversity of which the area is capable. 3. Allow and encourage growers and winemakers to develop new styles to provide more accessible and easy-to-drink wines.

The UIVC also realized that none of this would matter without getting the message out to the world about what was going on in Cahors, so they gathered hundreds of buyers, journalists, and bloggers from all over the world to listen to the message and taste the wines.

Any strategy, of course, can be fraught with peril, and the strategy here treads dangerous ground...perhaps by trying to do too much, or go in too many different directions---but the energy and enthusiasm and passion of the UIVC is readily apparent, with the results of their strategy on full display.

After a warm welcome and a stellar keynote address by Jacques Puisais, that eminent oracle of French taste, we engage in some hugely informative seminars on the local terroirs by Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, and a tasting led by the always provocative Michel Bettane.

And here is where the strategy begins to unfold itself in the wines. They are divided into three categories:

Round and Well Structured (or what I would dub fruity and fresh, structured, with softer tannins)

Full-Bodied and Flavorsome (or what I would define as the traditional massively structured style of Cahors Malbec)

Special Wines--Intense and Complex (the newer "international style" wines, usually marked by ripe grapes wrapped in new oak)

(Tasting Notes on wines to follow in the next post.)

Subsequent tastings largely reinforce this tripartite approach to winemaking that exists in Cahors. The tradition is there for those who want that and nothing else. But more 'consumer-friendly' approachable wines are there as well, to introduce people more gently into the nature of Malbec and Cahors. And for those who desire it, the current style of lavishly fruited and lavishly oaked wines will be available as well.

Beyond the tastings though, I left quite impressed with the dynamic nature of the people from Quercy and their determination to showcase themselves and their region through their wines. This land that straddles the winding Lot River with its terraces of soils, lush greenery, and fertile soils is charming, and provides the world a unique vinous proposition that is worth cherishing.

Next: The poetry of Puisais; the rumblings of Bettane, the enlightenment of Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, and a rundown of some tasty Cahors reds.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Toulouse, Cahors and the Malbec Conference

Toulouse is a pleasant town, prosperous and tidy and businesslike, with throngs of young people and bustling businessmen giving a placid sense of stability to it. Outside of the monumental names of the streets and boulevards honoring statesmen and financiers and epic battles and almost forgotten great victories, Toulouse has little feel of age. This is a city concentrated more on the now than the glories of then.

Worn down by a hopscotch trip of Portland to Seattle, Seattle to Amsterdam and Amsterdam to Toulouse I’m content to just wander and amble and soak up the feel of the city. The vaunted Dutch sense of sturdy efficiency failed at Amsterdam---well, sturdy is still there, but efficiency lacks, as KLM was unable to handle all the routing of the carrier code share and required hundreds of passengers to stand and wait for a handful of agents to figure out where, exactly, each of these people were in the network, and where they should go next. When that is done, of course the plane is leaving any minute, so we must run and twist through the crowds---with another trip through security?---dash through endless halls and channels and connectors, and arrive sweaty and disheveled and gasping at the gate where the plane is of course nowhere near boarding.

Once in Toulouse we become the wards of the French system, with its own internal logic. We stand and wait at the baggage carousel…and wait…and wait…and wait. Finally, small clots of bags fitfully emerge from the gaping ribboned maw. Then the belt stops…with half the passengers still standing empty handed, with faint looks of concern beginning to show on their slack faces. We mill around, standing next to the ‘sortie secours’ exit standing open to Toulouse as the locals file in and out. I finally wander around the terminal and find a poorly signed baggage claim office, where the pleasant young lady cheerfully checks the computer and informs me I do not have a problem for there is no notification in the system that I have a problem.

As I wearily stand and begin to walk back to the carousel, she stops me and says, “But wait, perhaps you are standing at the wrong carousel!”

“Number Five is where the monitor said the luggage would arrive. I was at Number Five.”

“Ah. Yes, but you see that is only for those who are French,” she said, “And all others must pick up their luggage from Carousel Seven, which is in a different area!”

“And how, if there is no sign and no person to tell us of this, how are we supposed to know?” I ask.

She shrugs. “It is the Custom, sir.”

“The custom?” I ask.

“Non, non, Monsieur, the Custom, les Douanes.”

“Ah.” I go to Carousel Seven, find my luggage, roll it to the three Custom agents, and get waved through without a glance to explore Toulouse.

A sparkling clean accordion bus conveys me quickly through the heart of Toulouse and deposits me at Gare Montabiau. I trundle over to the boulevard and immediately see the Hotel Icare, which I booked for the evening only because it promised to be within easy reach of the Gare and the Centreville. And so it is.

It is also surprising in its space and comfort and hospitality for such a well located and inexpensive place. The hotel is located, felicitously on the Avenue Bonrepos.

My customary approach when arriving in a town new to me is simply to walk, largely at random, and to observe and get the feel and rhythm and tone of the city, to watch the people as they go about, and to listen to the sound of the place. Toulouse has a steady, quiet hum about it, not raucous or jarring, not slow, but not too brisk either. The city moves at a measured pace, as do the people, and as the evening comes on, the city, and the people and the traffic slowly quiet and settle into…bonrepos.

I stroll along the Canal du Midi that runs along the boulevard through town and in front of my hotel. It is shaded with the leafy overhang of trees and eerily still and quiet in ironic counterpoint to the prodigious tumult it created in the wealth and productivity of this region. The wonder of its age, the commercial link from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, the artery that pulsed with all the goods flowing along it for so many years, the waterway that changed forever this corner of France, bringing evolution and revolution---now dead still and quiet with leaves floating undisturbed on its milky green surface. For the entire two days I am here not one single boat disturbs the waters; the liquid highway of the 18th Century is now nothing but a long, unused watery corridor of obsolescence.

I prove once again that despite the sighs and affirmations of tourists bedazzled by la belle France, it is all too easy to find a mediocre meal in this country of fine dining. A passable but far too dry salad of bresaola on peppery arugula (but with cheaper chopped lettuce underneath) is first; this is followed by a dull pasta alla matriciana with watery sauce, and accompanied by a forgettable half bottle of Montepulciano. I had actually ordered a bottle of Cerasuolo and, not trusting my barbarous so-called French (so called by Frenchmen), I had pointed out the Cerasuolo on the menu; yet I still received the Montepulciano, and too tired to make an issue of it, I drank it down.

I’d chosen my table carefully so I could both be outside and relatively smoke free---not an easy feat in this land of smokers---and for a while I was able to eat and watch the twinkling lights of the faux-antique merry-go-round on the Place Wilson and observe the throngs of people on this pleasant Spring evening. But the two talkative jeune filles at the table next finished their meal and then began to aggressively light up and spew a rather amazing amount of cigarette smoke as they gesticulated their cigarettes to aid their conversation. Now befogged by cigarettes and jet lag, I gave up and trudged back to my hotel in the cool night air.

Toulouse to Cahors

It is an uneventful trip from Toulouse to Cahors on this new artery of autoroute that has replaced the now slow moving Canal du Midi. The land becomes more rugged as we go higher in altitude, with jagged rock thrusting out from the greenery of trees. At first the town of Cahors shows its seedy side of car lots and repair shops and shabby industrial areas, but as we cross over the River Lot the town suddenly blossoms into bourgeois respectability of staid hotel de ville and fashionable sidewalk cafes and discreet offices of businessmen and professionals.

I am here for the Cahors Malbec Conference and apparently this modest city will be inundated by visitors for the event, with attendees lodged as far as 45 minutes away. Logistically this will be a monumental challenge and I count myself lucky that I am lodged close in.

Of course blessings are always balanced, so my hotel turns out to be a Euro version of Motel 6, La Campanile. Still, it’s serviceable, and more convenient than a rustic bed and brekky in the lush green countryside. And to add to its charm, it’s next to a McDonald’s!!! O joy.

But I’m here, and it’s time to drop the bags in the room and off to the Espace Valentre on the Lot and sample hundreds of Cahors Malbecs.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Paint It Black

I'm on a quick trip to Cahors to get my teeth blackened with Malbec.

It's working.

There'll be more details on this fascinating little part of the wine world where things are not as quiet as they might seem to the casual observer.

Suffice to say for now that some great and exciting things are happening here---along with some unfortunate things from my point of view. Internationalization and tradition staring each other in the face.

Much more later.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Intrepid Home Bartender: Bitters


It's impossible to have a good home bar without them. And one choice very much does not fit all with bitters, so you'll have to keep a judicious assortment on hand to make the classic and popular cocktails your guests will appreciate.

The essence of a cocktail, and often the defining element of a mixed drink, bitters adds a complexity of aroma and taste otherwise lacking. They 'perk up' the cocktail with an astringency, a piquancy, and a counterpoint to the sweetness to bring balance to the formula.

You'll need an absolute minimum of three types of bitters in your bar, but in this case, more is better. In the first place, there are flavor components in the different bitters that will enhance your creations; in the second place, bitters are usually in small bottles, and those small bottles last for a long while, since usually only a dash or two is called for in a cocktail.

The three 'must have' bitters are the classic Angostura Bitters, Peychaud's Bitters, and Regan's Orange Bitters. But beyond those absolutes are many, many more.

Angostura Bitters

This is the grandaddy of bitters, the one that graces all good bars. It is so necessary that last year when there was a brief shortage of Angostura on the market (not because of product, but because of bottle shortages) there was a spreading panic around the country, and hoarding of the precious bottles by worried bartenders. But the shortage is over and Angostura proliferates. Originating from South America, this is the bitters that most cocktails call for, and it is the necessary one for simple drinks like Pink Gin and the classic whiskey drinks such as the Manhattan.

There are two Angostura bitters now, the classic and their Orange Bitters. Both are excellent and totally dependable.

Peychaud's Bitters

Also called Creole Bitters, and created in New Orleans for the progenitor cocktail, the Sazerac, by Monsieur Peychaud, an apothecary and cocktail inventor. The secret ingredients are different from the Angostura, and provide a slightly more exotic pungency that was literally created for the Sazerac and its bold base, either Cognac or rye whiskey.

Regan's Orange Bitters

Created out of frustration, really, by Gary Regan and his wife, toprovide a good and consistent quality orange bitters for cocktails, this bitters has vaulted in to third place in the bitters panoply for its versatility and intense citrus-fruit-based focus. And it serves as a piquant alternative to the classic Angostura and Peychaud.

Fee Brothers Bitters

The Fee Brothers company is an august establishment in New York that has long supplied the drinks industry with a full range of bitters. And bitters is only part of what they do---albeit a major part---for they offer other bar condiments as well. But their bitters and syrups are the true appeal here. And they come in a dizzying array too: the classic Old Fashion (their equivalent to the Angostura), Orange, Peach, Mint, Lemon, Grapefruit, Rhubarb, Cherry, and the new but instant classic, Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters. You'll find many of these on professional bars, part of the 'secret' of great bartenders since they add some pretty amazing flavor components in modern cocktail creations. You may not have room for the full range, of course, but you should have some of the Fee Brothers on hand for diversity and experimentation.

The Bitter Truth/Bittermens Bitters

A relative newcomer to the bitters scene, but instantly applauded for their fierce devotion to aromatic intensity and purity of flavors, The Bitter Truth came out of Germany, the brainchild of two passionatemen, and was an instant success. Only recently available on a broad scale in the U.S. market, The Bitter Truth range is now accesable here in Portland. They include Celery, Creole, Lemon, Orange, Old Time Aromatic, and under the Bittermens designation, Xocolatl Mole (!) and Grapefruit.

Scrappy's Bitters

Another newcomer to the bitters scene, from the artisanal front, is this Seattle producer, with other exotic blends, including Chocolate, Grapefruit, Celery, Orange, Lavender, and Cardamom bitters. If your bent is towards more floral and fruity drinks, Scrappy's might be to your taste

As for finding these bitters, since they are not classified as alcoholic beverages (although they do contain alcohol, they are not considered such because they are "not for primary consumption" and therefore considered in the same league as vanilla extract and spices), they are readily available through premium grocery stores (such as Zupan's, for instance).

But hands down the single best place in Portland to find the full range of bitters is The Meadow, at 3731 N. Mississippi Avenue. The proprietors Mark and Jenny Bitterman (don't you love it!) are fanatics about bitters and they have everything they can possibly get. And they encourage you to sample the bitters in their shop before you buy! The Meadow is also a haven for a dizzying array of finishing salts and for chocoholics as well. Plus, there are some fun people there and it's a great place to visit. And they do web orders too.

For more info: There are tons of websites with information about bitters, and how they are used in cocktails. And there are cocktail recipes galore. A mere few of those abundant sites are Wikipedia,LeNell's, Michael Dietsch's weblog, A Dash of Bitters, DrinksMixer, The WebTender, and .AZ Drinks Recipes on their Bitters Recipe Page.

The Intrepid Home Bartender: Vermouth

In order to have a great home bar, you have to have some great spirits to work with. But it's equally important to have the proper accoutrements as well, for you can't make a superlative cocktail without the right ingredients and the right equipment.

Three things a home bar should have: 1) good vermouth, 2) a selection of choice bitters, and 3) some finishing salts. So let's talk about vermouth.

Photo/Martini & Rossi


What would you think if you walked into a bar and ordered a cocktail that included your favorite spirit for which you would gladly pay extra because you like the best---and then watched the bartender mix that spirit with the cheapest vermouth possible? A cocktail is only as good as its least ingredient, so why pinch pennies on the supporting players? They are important too.

So don't settle for an inexpensive vermouth. That's false economy. The good news is that even the choicest vermouths aren't really all that expensive Martini & Rossi (Italian), Noilly Prat (French) and the highly regarded Dolin (French) are readily available, and none are costly.

Another vermouth you might consider is a California version, made by Andrew Quady, a winemaker who was frustrated at the dearth of good quality vermouths around and decided to make his own. The result was Vya Vermouth, and it is good stuff indeed, rich and full of flavor.

For Martinis and other drinks that call for it, there is dry white vermouth. Be careful though: some white vermouths are sweeter. Make sure you have the proper one in your bar. Or both.

For other drinks, such as a Manhattan you'll need a sweet red vermouth. And finally, you'll need a complex, drier and fuller-flavored bitter vermouth or liqueur for flavoring your cocktails and mixed drinks.

The venerable firm of Carpano (Antonio Carpano is the man credited with inventing vermouth) has two excellent mixers, Punt e Mes and the even more highly regardedCarpano Antico Formulae, an amazing traditional bitter vermouth that has astounding complexities of flavor that will enhance a great many drinks---and most especially those that are whiskey-based, such as a Manhattan or an Old Fashion.

A wide range of liqueurs can also be used to enhance cocktails in interesting ways, but we'll go into those in a future article.

Most of these vermouths are widely available throughout Oregon, and should be easy to find. Now you can access the OLCC search engine from their website to locate the items you're looking for. The only one that might prove difficult to find is the Carpano Antico Formulae; on the other hand, it's worth seeking out.

Sample through the selections to find the ones you prefer; or you can talk to bartenders and mixologists for their suggestions as well---there's not a bartender I know of that won't talk your ear off about the tools of the trade if you ask.

The Oregon state liquor stores carry a basic selection of vermouths. But you'll find the wine-based vermouths (as opposed to the spirit based bitters, which are technically in the liqueur category) in grocery stores and specialty shops as well.

One very good place to shop for vermouth is The Meadow, at 3731 N. Mississippi Avenue. It's a delightful shop with an a good selection of vermouth and choice wines. It also has an impressive selection of finishing salts, chocolates, and bitters you should check out.