Cahors Malbec Days Festival: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Vinted on May 27, 2010 binned in on the road, wine industry events

The International Malbec Days Festival (May 20th-23rd, 2010 in Cahors, France) is now behind us.  Let’s take the Good, Bad and (in some cases, the very) Ugly of the festival, in reverse order:

The Ugly: Event Coordination and “Wines that Smell of Donkey Poop”

Organizing and executing a wine industry event the size of the International Malbec Days Festival, one that lasts several days and brings together well over 150 people from a dozen or so countries, is undoubtedly a Herculean undertaking, and one in which the organizers almost failed miserably.  The 2010 version, at turns, bordered on chaos.

This wasn’t great for the wines, either, as Tannic and high-alcohol Malbecs were served in a meeting space that was easily over 80F, depriving even the best from showing themselves gracefully.  The execution against our schedule was poor enough that it became a distraction, as essential personnel (e.g., those organizing the various groups of participants from hotels to the various events) by and large were given little (and in some cases, no) information needed to do their jobs.  At one point, our bus driver got lost in the 2km distance between the airport and our hotel for the final evening – and he was using a GPS system.

Score one for French logistics – that is, if the purpose is to distract you from being able to adequately work and instead is trying to break your will.  I felt bad for our handlers, who were trying to do an impossible job with almost no help from their superiors (I encouraged them to totally dookie sock their bosses, but they didn’t seem too keen on the idea) .

Speaking of dookie: as for the Ugly when it comes to the wines, a not-insubstantial portion of the Cahors Malbecs on display at the event were quite bretty – and not in a “smells kind of like bacon” charming way; they were bretty in a “did I just step in some donkey poop?” way.  Which leads us to…

The Bad: Wayward Marketing and Pontificating Experts

Cahors is making a push to market its “middle tier” Malbec in the U.S. as an alternative to Argentine wines, but they may be in for a rocky donkey cart sales ride.  The challenge is that too many of those middle tier wines, while certainly possessing nice black fruit flavors and a ton of structure, are also over-oaked (chasing, perhaps, the success of Lagrazette?).  Which is a shame, because the wines would be interesting and eminently enjoyable given a more balanced approach.  More rockiness in the future marketing road comes from the fact that the push also confusing involves emphasizing the various terroirs of Cahors, though only a portion of those produce the more structured wines that will be given the full marketing push in the U.S.

Where the cart might really stumble, though, is in the potential misinterpretation of the U.S. market.  In their target price range ($12-$20 USD), they’ll be pushing what feels like Argentine knock-offs to one of the main purchasing groups in the U.S. – women between the ages of 25 and 44 with disposable income. Now, I don’t know any woman between the ages of 25 and 44 with disposable income who would chose to buy a wine from a region that they aren’t familiar with, that is oaky, stains your teeth purple when drinking it while on a date, and costs 10-15% more than its rounder, fruitier Argentine counterpart on the neighboring wine store shelf.  Oh, yeah – and sometimes smells like donkey poop.

I love the French, but they seem to place an inordinate amount of faith into bold pontificators (take their current President, for example), so it came as no surprise to me that they may be listening too closely to French uber-critic Michel Bettane, who preached to us from a bully pulpit at the festival during a tasting of Cahors Malbec.  Broad, sweeping generalizations will seldom serve you well in the wine world, but that didn’t stop Bettane from proclaiming that natural wines (those made with minimal sulfites and usually little or no oak treatment) were an “idiotic dream” that lead to wines which “become vinegar.”

How then might Bettane explain what I experienced on Day One of the festival, when Remy Charest, Nick Gorevic and I escaped the conference briefly to taste…

The Good: Natural Wines and The Promise of Terroir

During our brief side-trip, Remy, Nick and I paid a visit to Cahors producer Clos Siguier, where natural wines have been made for a good long while.  There, we tasted releases from 2005, 2006, 2007, 1998, and a bottling from around 1980.  All of them had minimal sulfite treatment, and none of them were even close to being vinegar; in fact, the 30-year-old bottling from the `80s was expressive and alive, with notes of leather, game, earth, dried strawberries, and violets, with a nice long finish.  The lower-end of the Cahors Malbec price-range in general sees less oak and has more acidity and violet notes, showing a totally different side to the Malbec grape; why Cahors would not put a marketing push behind these wines, in similar price range but a viable alternative to heavier Argentine Malbec but offering a more lively taste profile, is beyond me.

During the festival, we were also treated to a fascinating deep dive into the terroirs of Cahors by soil specialists Claude and Lydia Bourguignon.  I’ll spare you the details on insect poop and dirt, but one of the most interesting conclusions that these knowledgeable and engaging folks reached is that Cahors possesses “extremely high” terroir potential to grow “tremendous white wines.” Currently, French law permits only red wines in the region to carry the highest-quality Cahors AOC designation.

Prediction: Cahors AOC will eventually permit white wine production to carry the AOC label.  It just won’t happen until most of today’s younger wine consumers are playing with their grandchildren.

Ok – great-grandchildren.

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • Richard Scholtz


    It's this type of stubbornness, that seems to prevail among French winemakers, that will cause France to become the World's leading producer of vinegar and brandy, instead of world-class wines. The winemakers that have decided to clean up their wineries, and make great wines at appropriate price points are the ones that will succeed. It seems the only region in France that has gotten the message is the winemakers in the Cotes du Rhone. I've had some excellent, well-structured, well-balanced wines that don't smell of dairy air. At least someone is listening…

    • 1WineDude


      Hey Richard – Another area that is doing exciting things is the South of France. They have a few less AOC style restrictions, and so are creating some really compelling wines that also have international marketing potential. Cheers!

      • Richard Scholtz


        I'm going to assume "international marketing potential" is codeword for good clean wines at decent price points? I've enjoyed a lot of roses from Provence lately. The couple I've had are clean, bright, fruity, and have decent body for a rose.

        • 1WineDude


          Richard – that's a great way of putting it, I think. One of the main points I was trying to make in the post is that wines that aren't "clean" (ie., have brett) probably won't do as well Internationally (particularly in the U.S.) because tastes have moved away from that style of wine over time. Cheers!

  • Nick Gorevic


    You wrote poop 4 times and dookie twice. Now that's a blog post!

    Also, woohoo, down with Michel Bettane! That guy needs a dookie sock.

    Now including my comment, that makes 5 poops and 4 dookies in this post.

    • 1WineDude


      Nick, we are clearly on target for a scat reference record here!

  • daveleb26


    You mean you didn't enjoy the 3 hour boat ride in full-on, blazing, 100º sunshine without any protection from the sun? Or the cheese-saffron macarons we had for dinner? At least you got to see a little of Toulouse (like 2km of it) before they dropped you off at your hotel..

    • 1WineDude


      Well, Dave, I guess a shorter boat ride and some variation of the dinner options over the course of several days would have helped… ;-)

  • Ken Payton


    I am not sure we attended the same event. In fact, I know we didn't. Arriving earlier in the week and enjoying a year's long drinking history of Cahors' wines, I did the sensible thing: I explored the countryside and met with nearly a dozen personally selected producers at their properties. Not only did I get a far different perspective of what it is they do and why, but I also was able to explore their wines beyond the confines of each night's Grand Tasting. (Did you taste on the bridge?) Further, I bought many wines for tasting in the hotel room.
    Being a small AOC, most producers do not have deep wine libraries. They routinely sell out of earlier vintages. Most wines that we tasted were very young. And as you must know, a Cahors needs time. This marketing concession, to taste wines before they've had time to properly integrate, was disappointing, to be sure. But imagine judging the most recent Bordeaux vintage according to an averages consumer's tasting experience!

    Yes, the room was uncomfortably hot. But unseasonably warm weather was hardly their fault. Not a rich AOC, they declined to spend (€10,000 +) for an air conditioning system that might not have even been required. The days before your arrival had seen temperatures in the low 60s, with rain.

    As for the brett issue, you are the only one I spoke with who ever brought this up. I did not detect it in any of the wines. Zero.
    The wines we routinely taste in America have little in common with those of the South West of France. Period. Chances are you would not be happy in Madiran, Irouleguy, or even Jurançon either. But that is hardly a reason for faulting the wines for being what they are! God forbid the American consumer should be encouraged to drink out of their habituated comfort zone.

    As for the vanity of American women, most have heard of a toothbrush. The 'stain' is easily removed with even a modest swipe of a paper napkin. Besides, most don't taste like we do. No gurgling or sloshing one wine after another for hours.

    I encourage you, should you go back, to give yourself more time. Your global pronouncements, infused with disappointment over organizational screw-ups, make of your commentary grossly unfair in the main. We have a responsibility to understand a wine region before we bury it under our own opinionated 'dookie'.

    Your friend, Ken

    • 1WineDude


      Hey Ken – You did the deep dive in Cahors, and based on our private discussions we know that you and I have differing thresholds for brett :-).

      I would challenge a bit that I'm being unfair, however – as writers, we were invited to Cahors to use this event an introduction to Cahors, its wine, and its terroirs. If the event didn't accurately reflect that, then that's unfortunate but it's also all we had to go on – and I do plan to take another trip there early next year to hopefully get a more balanced view.

      I stand by my criticism of the marketing strategy – after all, they cannot change the American tastes, they have to market *to* those tastes,

      Cheers – and keep up the awesome coverage of the trip on your site!

    • Jason W


      Ken –

      Please share with us your sensory defect expertise, ie, when and where did you attend a seminar that taught you to identify 4-ep, 4-eg, Isovaleric acid and 2-acetyl-tetrahydropyridine? Before I take your 'expertise' on the subject, I would like to know your qualifications.

      I went through the Vinquiry training, I hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits, and have an Enodefecto kit in my refrigerator for an upcoming class on sensory defects. I taught Joey-Opus (joe roberts) much of what he knows about Brett-taint aromas, and I'd love for you to step into the conversation, after you qualify yourself.

      • Ken Payton


        Jason, I have been an assistant winemaker in Cali for 4 years. I know full well the demerits of brett on customers. In fact, my expertise is often called upon from multiple producers with respect to faults in finished wine. With respect to Joe, a good teacher would have explained to him the necessity of appreciating a wine's integration over time. AOC Cahors especially. Joe's 'faults' with the wines were a function of the unfair rush of young wines for an international tasting, Malbec Days. I talked with many producers who were perplexed by why they must show wines that were not ready.

        What is certain is that your arrogance, amply demonstrated here, has made Joe a poorer taster. His ability to sum up an entire region in less than three days strongly suggests that you have not served him well.

        • 1WineDude


          Something tells me you guys are both right about this in a way.

          A good portion of those wines had brett – of that I am sure. Some also had reductive qualities (it's important to differentiate those, I think, because one will go away with some time and the other won't).

          Almost *all* of the wines were not wines for now – they need time, especially with those tannins. I also tasted some aged Cahors on that trip, and I got a sense of what time and a balanced winemaking approach can give in terms of helping those wines integrate over time.

          • Jason W


            But Ken said NONE of them had brett taint. And even more ominously, he states that some just need time.

            Really Ken, I'm not trying to be arrogant. Which winery do you work for? And which wineries ask for your opinions on sensory defects? I'm merely asking for references, since you claim an expertise on sensory defects… I didn't see many specifics on your blog in regards to your expertise. Yet you do seem defensive in an inadequate sort of way…

            • Ken Payton


              Jason, references? I googled your name, Jason W, and search results came back with a long list of 'B' movies actors, miscellaneous porn stars, and mug shots. Be that as it may, and as this will be the last of my messages to you, consider the following possibility: There were nearly 100 wines on each of the three nights of tasting. Now, I know the preferred method of tasting by 'experts', stupid, in my view, is to plow through as many bottlings as possible. But that is not Joe's style. He might have tasted two dozen, including whites and rosés. Now, remember the uncomfortable setting. The heat of the room was truly awful, so much so that Joe himself has implied that proper tasting was probably impossible. The wines themselves were warm! So, applying Joe's breakdown into thirds of his tasting experience, we might come to the conclusion that maybe eight were either bretty or reductive. Therefore, by virtue of the luck of the draw, I could have easily tasted an entirely different series of wines, and, being a reasonable man, have also understood the difficulty of our tasting environment right away. I would have reserved judgement for more favorable conditions. In fact, that is what I did. I bought many wines for tasting in my hotel room, and I visited a number of wineries to taste through their product lines. (Recall that I had arrived four days earlier than Joe.)This extra effort yielded vastly different results.

              Was oak an issue? Yes. Were many of the wines too young? Yes. But brett hardly topped the list of complaints. It didn't even make the list.

              Now, no one tries to be arrogant, just as no one tries to have a small penis. It is just the way it is. And as for my references, well, I don't need no stinkin' badges. Further, were I to provide you additional detail I sense you might move from the category of the merely annoying to the full blown stalker. Realistically, I do not think you will satisfied until your qualifications are recognized. So, in the interests of maintaining a convivial atmosphere, something for which Joe's site is justly praised, I will say that you are probably the finest instructor who has ever lived, or will likely ever live. As Joe might say, "Jason W rocks!"

              • 1WineDude


                For the record, I think that you BOTH rock!

      • Wine-Know


        Jason,

        It's great that you have this expertise, and thank you for sharing the info. about the Endodefecto kit. For several years now I have made it my mission (a solitary one, it seems) to help educate consumers about what they don't know that they don't know about wine. I've developed a wine education product for consumers that includes a game that helps them learn how to detect a faulty bottle of wine. If you would like to learn more about it, you can contact me at [email protected].

  • wee ree san


    Great post Joe…shows your independence…knowledge…and general willingness to be feisty and honest. Amazing how this part of your life has developed. Good for you.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, wee ree!

  • Daniel & Co


    Interesting debate

    – The vineyard of Cahors represent 20 million bottles marketed each year, including 300,000 in the United States (+29% in 2009 compared to 2008). Their average costs are approximately 15 $.

    (Link of the malbec days pictures … "Magnifique" ! :http://boillaud.com/galerie)

    Best regards
    Daniel & Co (from Provence in France)

  • Jen Miller


    This is completely the opposite of my impression of the region and its wines. Having attended a press event in early September of last year followed by a visit to the area a few weeks later I must say was so impressed that I ended up importing some of (what I think is) the best juice to the US. Contrary to your impression, the Cahors marketing plan seems to be promoting how they are *different* from Argentinean Malbec; the focus is on terroir (perhaps confusing for some), improved winemaking techniques and, for many, using 100% Malbec grapes rather than adding a % of Tannat or Merlot. I personally find the wines over all to be more elegant, structured and complex. As for getting around the area, I flew in to Bordeaux and drove to the Cahors area with no GPS and no issues whatsoever.
    Perhaps the heat or logistical issues you experienced clouded your view of the wines?

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Jen. I disagree about the heat and logistics issues affecting my impressions – fully believe though that personal preference did affect them, however – and I need to be clear that I viewed the wines in three distinct categories:

      – 1/3 too bretty/faulty for my tastes or what I think are the tastes generally in the U.S.
      – 1/3 over-oaked, hiding the real beauty of the wines
      – 1/3 elegant, fruity, and distinctly different from Argentina.

      Regarding the marketing spiel, I took that directly from the marketing materials I was given by the event coordinators, which is essentially an overview of their marketing plan. The trouble with it, in my view, is that they want to have their cake and eat it too – they want to craft wines to appeal to the U.S. market, similar to what Argentina has done, and make wines in that style, and also want to emphasize the differences and teroirs of Cahors even as they mask them with oak…

  • Hoke Harden


    Oh my, where to begin???

    Logistics/organization: incredibly poor. Too ambitious, perhaps? Too many people invited to too small a space, I'd say. Organizers were obviously overwhelmed logistically. Hopefully, they'll learn from it.

    Heat? Undeniable and uncomfortable, but Ken's right, about the weather being what it is. Some things you just gotta deal with.

    Brett? Didn't notice near as much as you did. Maybe you're just an ultrasensitive kinda guy? :^)

    Threefold wines I would definitely agree with, but a different threefold: 1/3 fresh, fruity, simple styled; 1/3 traditional 'black malbec' impenetrable, long lived, and massively tannic and acid; 1/3 'international/rollandized/parkerized' style, i.e., way too much influence on oak at the expense of terroir, but will garner those elusive "points" that many people depend on these days.

    And, yeah, the area desperately needs a good white, which you're right, they won't have for a hell of a long time. But they do have rose' and they damned well ought to be pushing it more than they are now.

    Summary: Could've been better; could've been worse. I met some cool people and had some good wines. HH

    • 1WineDude


      Hey Hoke – thanks for stopping by! Was great meeting you.

      Fantastic point about the rose – thinking more about that, given Malbec's popularity in the States, introducing a rose could be a real hit.

      Cheers!

  • Jonathan


    Can't we all just get Pithy??
    :-)

    • 1WineDude


      Well said, Jonathan!

  • Daniel & Co


    Hi,

    Videos are currently diffused on the Web in connection with the International Days of Malbe 2010 :

    – the beauty of the event ! : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUE-XDmqNU8
    – the speach of Anthony Rose, journalist in UK : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdUjNFQ5fEA ; he loves Cahors Wines : http://www.anthonyrosewine.com/journal/2010/6/my-

    In France, Cahors Vineyard has just announced that the event will be repeated in 2012, the days following the London Wijavascript:%20postComment(0);ne Fair, and the event will still take a form much more professional.

    The Rhône Valley will imitate Cahors but concerning Grenache…

    I think that Cahors will raise the challenge : to reconquer the front of the scene like a major wine

    Everyone looks at Cahors in France in this moment, and they are so small (4500 ha!) : http://www.blackisphere.fr/?p=7866

    I will hold you informed on what I see and hear on Cahors…

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