The Changing Viticulture of Gaillac and Cahors

Organic and biodynamic viticulture are growing movements throughout the world. It might be tempting to dismiss them as trendy, and ask “Why has it suddenly become so important to grow vines this way?” For the first 25 years that I was interested in wine, it was barely mentioned. What’s changed?

I recently visited winemakers in two of France’s less-famous regions: Cahors and Gaillac. There, as everywhere in France and elsewhere in Europe, people are changing the way they grow grapes. All of the properties I visited have recently converted, are ‘in conversion’ or intending to convert. So even in France’s most ancient regions, it’s suddenly all change. Why?

Pascal Verhaeghe and his family produce one of the most celebrated Cahors wines, Chateau du Cedre (tastings – which is available in Australia). Pascal’s father died recently from a type of Parkinson’s Disease he says is five times more likely to be contracted by farmers than the general population. He puts it down to vineyard chemicals his father sprayed all his life – without the protective suits and masks which are mandatory today. Chateau du Cedre has 27 hectares of vines in the best parts of the appellation, and these days, it’s all farmed organically. They spray only copper and sulfur, and between the rows it’s all green: Pascal claims more than 130 species of native plants have been identified in the Cahors vineyards. He points to a neighbouring vineyard across a road, which has a strip of dead vegetation beneath the vines. It’s easy to identify which vineyards are still spraying herbicides. Says Pascal: “If you take a spade and dig down 10 centimetres in that vineyard and smell the soil, it’s foul – because there is nothing alive in it.” Compare it with his soil and you will smell a sweet fragrance, he says: the soil is alive with microbes and earth-worms.

Pascal and others like him are now aware, they say, that their fathers’ generation is being killed off prematurely by agri-chemicals. It is a relatively new discovery because the phenomenon is relatively recent: it’s only since World War 2 that agri-chemicals have been widespread. And the effects took many years to surface. His father’s generation were brain-washed, told by chemical companies that they could increase their production and cut their work-load by using chemicals. The folly of this has not been long understood. Indeed, the message is still reaching many people.

Bernard Plageoles at Domaine des Tres Cantous (tastings) in Gaillac began converting his vineyard to organic 10 years ago, and will finally put a certification logo on his labels from the 2010 vintage.

Also in Gaillac, Michel Issaly at Domaine de la Ramaye intends to begin converting to organic in two years, when his term in the demanding job of president of France’s association of 7,000 independent vignerons ends. It may seem hypocritical for Issaly to preach organic before doing it himself, but his vineyard is well on the way, with extraordinary care and thought going into his farming, to say nothing of the amazing biodiversity of flora and fauna he encourages on his land.

Issaly admits he has to tread carefully with his message of ‘bio’, or biologique, the French name for organic farming. There is still resistance, sometimes hostile, in the independent vignerons association, although his message is ultimately about keeping his members and their families alive and healthy. And improving the health of their land and the sustainability of their livelihoods. What could be more important? And yet, many winegrowers are suspicious of ‘bio’, even moreso of biodynamics, which is viewed by many as a kind of witchcraft, with its buried cow horns stuffed with pooh, and its adherence to lunar phases. Some worry that to forsake chemicals will leave their crops unprotected and vulnerable to spoilage, which could spell economic ruin.

Whether or not you subscribe to the full biodynamic deal of stag’s bladders and only-harvesting-on-fruit-days, there seems little doubt that the less poison we put into the ground (and the waterways that are fed by its run-off) the better. Organics or Bio is simply a return to the way farming used to be BC – before chemicals.

However, we must be careful not to assume that wine made this way is inherently superior. It’s not. Some perfectly awful wines are made from Bio and BD-grown grapes.

I found all the Chateau du Cedre wines very good, although the entry-level Cahors ’09 (all malbec) was merely good, and good value at 6.50 Euros (about A$10) ex-winery but rather steep by the time it’s in a shop in Australia. The top-end wines are expensive but impressive: Le Cedre ’07 ($75; tastings) is wonderful and ’08 Cuvee GC is simply great. The mid-range wine, Chateau du Cedre Cahors ’07 is the best quality-price rapport, as the French say: a marvellously elegant, soft-tannin red of very high quality and minimum 15-year potential. It’s about 15 Euros in France but sadly not presently available in Australia.

At Domaine des Tres Cantous, all the wines are good and well-priced. As with Ramaye, the speciality is local grape varieties, including mauzac (several permutations, white, pink and red); ondenc and muscadelle. At Ramaye, Issaly makes reds from prunelart, duras and braucol. While his best red is the 45-Euro Le Braucol (the ’09 is very powerful and brooding), and the 25-Euro Le Grand Tertre (prunelart with 10% braucol) is good but rather gassy and a touch jammy, I didn’t like his entry-level red at all. This is a 15-Euro blend of 50/50 duras and braucol branded La Combe d’Aves, and both the ’06 and ’07 were just too feral and sulfidic, and not improved by extended decanting.

As always, you need to taste before you buy. But on the whole, my perception of the wines of Cahors was outstanding and Gaillac, which deserves to be better known, patchy but the top wines are very good indeed – and distinctive.

Chateau du Cedre ‘Le Cedre’
Cahors, France 2007 $75

Made from 25 to 50 year-old malbec vines, aged in 80 per cent new oak, this is a rich, full-bodied, slightly oaky young red which smacks of violets, cedar, nuts and other flowers. Tremendous intensity and power. A serious red, with full but supple tannins. Best 2013 to 2025. 14 per cent alcohol. 95/100 (Tastings)

Food: rare steak

First published Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 17 May 2011.

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