Sunday, March 08, 2009
Duck, duck, moose
I attended a tasting maybe five years ago of wines from the southwest of France. After an hour or so of tasting the reds, my gums started to ache, my teeth were purple and my mouth was as dry as the Gobi dessert. I hesitantly offered up my tasting glass at the next table and asked the winemaker- what do you guys drink when it’s hot out? He laughed and filled my glass with yet another beasty, purple wine and he stared at me intently as I swirled the wine around my glass. I stuck my nose in, gulped down a sip and did my best to find something more to say than, “wow, nice and dry.”
I think I might have been scarred from that experience because I honestly cannot remember the last time I actually drank a whole bottle of one of these wines. Granted, these are not the easiest wines to drink without food. These are big wines, often with lots of drying tannin. Rather than showing lots of bright fruit, they tend to be meaty, earthy and with hints of black olives and liquorice - not the the type of wines my fragile, white loving palate tends to gravitate towards. But in contrast, I love the white wines of the southwest - Jurancon, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh from the Madiran area, Gaillac, Irouleguy. Bring em on.
But what about these reds, and specifically two of the best known appellations - Cahors and Madiran. When I ran my own restaurant, I couldn't keep them on the wine list as they sold out so fast. When I help people navigate a wine list, they are often cited as examples of wines that they like. And a simple scan of the SAQ inventory here in Quebec reveals 50 different Cahors and 35 Madirans. I must say that I feel out of step.
So as I was organizing the samples that are sent to me to taste, I found that I had over 25 Cahors and Madiran sitting down there. I wasn’t surprised, there is not a lot of Chianti or pinot noir gathering dust down there. These are gibier wines, wines that are made to accompany rich and flavourful dishes, so with some duck cassoulet on the stove and a piece of venison on my plate, it was time to face the beast and see how these wines work at the table. But first, a little background on these two historic regions of France.
It’s a sign of how international wine has become that many wine lovers associate malbec, the grape of Cahors, more with Argentina than they do with France. But malbec, known also by the name cot or auxerrois in the south of France, is indeed very much French. And while the majority of the vines today are planted in the southwest, it has historic importance which touches the Loire Valley, and more importantly Bordeaux.
It only received the status of its own appellation in 1971, but Cahors is one of the oldest wine making regions in France, dating back to 50BC. It garnered it’s reputation as “the black wine of France” as early as the 13th Century where it was served at the tables of many of the kings of Europe.
Because of its dark colour and tannin, as well as its relative proximity to Bordeaux, during the 19th century it was sometimes blended into the wines of Bordeaux during poor vintages to add colour and structure to weaker wines. Malbec can still be found in very small quantities in certain regions of Bordeaux, though it is very much on the decline as the grape seems to appreciate the hotter summers of the southwest. As it is sensitive to rot and other humidity born diseases, the higher rainfall and humidity of Bordeaux also made it a difficult grape to grow.
Appellation rules state that malbec must make up over 70% of the final wine- with the other 30% allowing for either merlot or the grape of Madiran, tannat. In general, the less expensive Cahors that I tasted were those that had higher percentages of merlot in the blend, which added fruit and seemed to soften up the wine. But the biggest change that I noticed from the last time I did an extensive tasting of Cahor’s wines, was in the aromatics and texture in the more expensive wines that were either entirely, or close to 100% malbec. They were softer, even pretty. Go figure.
Malbec, despite its blackness and earthy nature, can show very pretty, floral aromatics. Mostly violets, I also found many of the wines much easier to drink than I remember. But the pure joy of Cahors is at the table where it matched up perfectly with both my duck cassoulet and deer steak. The liquorice notes seemed to blend in perfectly with the stronger flavour of these two flavourful meats. And like any self-respecting cassoulet, it’s loaded with fat which helped smooth out the tannins.
Located further south than Cahors, right next to Armagnac, is Madiran. If Cahor’s wines can be at times astringent and strong flavoured, Madiran’s wines can be downright burly and incredibly tannic. The grape here is tannat, and that wine that I was swirling at that tasting when I had my oral breakdown was in fact a Madiran.
Madiran’s wine making history rivals that of Cahors, though it is a much smaller appellation. But if Cahor’s initial fame and importance was tied to it’s relationship with Bordeaux, Madiran’s addition to the world of wine making goes beyond it’s wines, rather it is a wine making technique that is rather controversial - micro oxygenation.
Developed in the early 1990’s by Patrick Ducourneau of Domaine Mouréou, the technique involves injecting small amounts of oxygen into the wine as it ferments or while it ages. By doing so early in a wine’s development, micro-ox can speed up the polymerization of tannins - which means that those little tannin molecules bind together into longer chains and makes the wine feel less astringent. It effectively gives the wine a tannic structure of a wine that has bottle age.
Not everyone has jumped on board, as many wine makers feel that the technique alters the texture of the wine and trade off wine of long term ageability for short term ease of drinking. While this debate is worthy of an entire article, there is no doubt that it has made certain wines of Madiran easier drinking at an earlier age.
However, it s not the only way to make Madiran. The undisputed leader of the appellation is Alain Brumont, whose Chateau Montus and Bouscassé are the best wines I have tasted from the region (see tasting note for the 2002 Bouscassé below). Brumont believes that a long maturation in new oak barrels is the best way to treat the tannat grape, followed by a certain amount of patience. While his wines do require some cellar time, they have an elegance and depth that can rival some of the world’s best wines.
My tasting showed exactly that. While the Cahors tended to be juicier, richer and have a wider range of flavours, Madiran’s wines were much more elegant and finessed. They all required at least an hour in carafe, but especially with the deer steak, covered in a blueberry sauce, they really were an exceptional match.
So I have a new found respect for these historic wines, they just need the right food. While I tested the wines with wild meats and duck, any very flavourful meat or recipe will do the job. I guess the next time I go to one of these tastings, I will have to set up a picnic somewhere in the corner of the room. Cassoulet anyone?