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08 December 2021

Cahors Malbec: Château de Gaudou lieu-dit range

Or lieux-dits in the plural, a common term in France for old place names found on a map or land registry, something like a historical townland or local name for say a particular site, hamlet, hill, field, valley or parish. Five Cahors wine estates, based in the Lot département in southwest France, are involved in an initiative called 'Generation Cahors Lieux Dits': Château Famaey, Château de Gaudou, Domaine d'Homs, Château Nozières and Château de Rouffiac. (This long feature carries a wine-geek warning!)
Château de Gaudou's impressive selection of reds, strikingly packaged in simple metallic black labels with white print, features five single site or vineyard wines sourced from particular parcels on their property found a couple of kilometres southeast of the village of Vire-sur-Lot, lying more-or-less between the mighty River Lot on two sides (it does a huge u-bend at this point). These are called Chemin du Rey, Caillou Blanc, Caillau Fauve, Chemin de Gaudou and Chemin d'Orgueil. More details on them and each wine with tasting notes are below this introduction.
There's perhaps been an increasing fashion for creating chi-chi micro-wines made in minute quantities from pin-pointed vine-plots selling at steep prices as the ultimate cuvée de terroir offering the perfect taste of place, as we sometimes say in English (or winey people at least). Traditionally most producers would make one or two top wines from say their oldest vines and/or best performing sites, and the rest of the grapes would form the base of one or several different blends. This makes sense as a way of trying to reflect the varieties you grow in a given microclimate on a given soil ('origin' if you like) into a made product, wine, as well as commercial and stylistic sense of trying to even out variations from one vintage to the next to produce consistent wines and income too.
The downside of proliferating super-special individual cuvées is that you'll end up short-changing those more established, thought-through and dependable blends that any winery relies on, by depriving them of a key ingredient or backbone of say a more concentrated or flavoursome element, or the contribution made by a deeper-coloured or more structured variety or vat, or one with higher acidity or more balanced alcohol content. Eventually the loyal customer will probably notice too while definitely noticing the unaffordable price tag of such top-end bottlings.
Fabrice Durou, owner and winemaker at Château Gaudou, has successfully pulled off a tentative experimental approach to this idea while proving the point well. All five wines are very good quality and each one quite different, while all being from the 2018 vintage, 100% Malbec producing similar yields (apart from one wine) and subjected to the same winemaking techniques. Admittedly, with the size of the five sites sourced varying from 2.29 to 7.94 hectares, we're not talking about tiny parcels although some sort of selection will have been done. And sensibly, Fabrice decided to make 500 bottles of each lieu-dit this vintage priced at a reasonable €18 (less than his three 'top' reds in fact), presumably so as not to deplete or overshadow the rest of his on-going Cahors range.
Fabrice describes his rationale as: "Continuing the work done for centuries of gradually and precisely marking out certain well-known plots in the village, and luckily owning some of the best of these lieux-dits, in order to rediscover them via our local grape variety Malbec and offer you its finest expression. Just a snapshot of each site and vintage that I'm trying to make as true and unique as possible, on an experimental journey to chart the diversity of the west Cahors wine-lands."
A few comparative figures across the five sites and wines might accentuate or minimise any variables in the 'experiment'; a little more detail on this data per wine is included in the tasting note and impression of each. Planting density in these vineyards is between 4500 and 5500 vines per hectare, and yields in 2018 for the wines were a healthy 45 hectolitres per hectare except for Chemin du Rey at a much lower 20 hl/ha (a traditional although arguably questionable way of measuring juice yield). The most obvious difference on paper between the wines is alcohol levels, running from 12% to 14.5% abv, which, assuming the grapes for each were picked at optimum ripeness (rather than at the same time necessarily), says a lot about ripening in each spot even though they are for the most part not far apart.
Other constant factors in these vineyards include: HVE level 3 certification (the highest non-organic) while converting over to organics; old vines (age range 1957 to 2006), mostly cordon de Royat (spur) training/pruning and with natural grass cover. And in the cellar: hand-sorting of berries, gentle plunging of musts fermenting with indigenous yeasts (without addition of sulphites) followed by natural bacteria induced malolactic fermentation, a few months' ageing in Italian egg-shaped ceramic vats (400 litres) and light vegan fining before bottling. Otherwise topography and soil types vary from one place to another, as outlined below relating to each cuvée.
Chemin du Rey ('King's Way') is located on the southern side of the amphitheatre formed by the village of Vire-sur-Lot, of which Gaudou owns 2.29 hectares. The soil is 'rendzina' type (crumbly limestone rock often shallow and rich in humus) with a topsoil like coarse sand and small stones (from decomposed chalk), and a lower strata of silica (gravel river deposits). Lying on slopes of a hillock where the valley meets the Causse (vast limestone plateau), the Cahors valley's western side is wetter and warmer with early ripening of grapes.
The Malbec in Chemin du Rey 2018 comes from vines planted between 1974 and 1999, and the alcohol level (abv) is close to 13.5%. Dense black - purple in colour, more closed up and less aromatic than some of the others, showing perhaps darker fruit with cherry Bakewell and damson notes and a more reductive character (?); has similar tight chalky tannins although grippier than the others but with layers of blue and black fruits, fairly powerful but not overly, and taut long finish. Less obvious at first with firmer tannins and maybe fresher acidity, dense and concentrated. There's an odd lactic character too with hints of black pudding! Two days later: that lactic tone had gone, showing spicier plum fruit and again shades of black pudding, dense and quite firm mouth-feel but the tannins were well-textured; still not hugely revealing but promising for sure.
Le Caillou Blanc is named after the soil composed of small white (chalky) stones mixed in with clay, from the Causse de Cahors on the appellation's western fringes, with fairly deep topsoil on pure rock. It's on a two-sided hillside part southwest facing and part southeast, which culminates at 260 metres altitude. Well exposed to cold wind in the winter and warm in the summer, the elevation helps escape any late frost making it a very reliable vineyard. They farm 6.76 ha of this lieu-dit in partnership with the Villard family, who has owned the land 'for several generations.'
All these elements could partly account for the lower 12% abv in the 2018 Caillou Blanc, which is fuelled from Malbec vines planted between 1972 and 1996. It had similar black - purple colour although less dense with a browner rim, herbier and mint-ier on the nose with floral blackcurrant - berry and ripe red fruits, slightly more evolved too with smoky savoury notes as well as that aromatic herby fruit; relatively light with softer more developed palate vs some underlying chalky tannin and freshness, attractive dried fruit and liquorice flavours with black olive and mint undertones. It seems more mature and less structured than the other reds although still with fine long finish, and overall rather different.
Caillau Fauve ('fawn pebble' from Occitan) is populated with Malbec aged from 1971 to 1997 and measures 7.35 ha laid out in larger blocks. The name of this lieu-dit dates back to at least 1837, when it was officially recorded on the land registry, and lies in the valley on the AOP's west side although gently sloping terrain. The land is a mix of gravel and clay dotted with limestone underneath, and this particular spot is considered a little cooler.
This 2018 weighs in at just over 13.5% abv and presents an opaque black - purple colour with powerful floral nose hinting at black and Morello cherries, wild blackberry and liquorice with almost violet-like aromatic tones; grippier more structured and fairly powerful palate with complex lingering flavours, concentrated and peppery too with again lovely chalky tannins, and long commanding yet finely balanced finish; superb wine even if a little closed up still, but plenty to enjoy now at the same time. Two days later: getting more of that Bakewell tart character (!) yet peppery with a dark chocolate twist, still aromatic offering tasty purple fruits (elderberry, damson) and more savoury black olive edges as well; dense and concentrated with those firm but enticing chalky tannins, delicious red.
Chemin de Gaudou (7.34 ha) derives from a vineyard at the heart of the property, the name of which 'Gaudou' also dates back to 1837 before the Château was completed and which was already owned by the Durou-Buges family. The soil is gravel and clay with silex (ground flint and sand) and with patches of limestone higher up. This hillside site faces southeast where the grapes ripen very early thanks to a warmer microclimate, as it's surrounded by lower-lying woods to the north protecting the vines (planted 1957 to 2006 so some of the oldest) from cold winds.
The latter conditions translate into the 2018 vintage notching up more than 14.5% abv, in addition to the trademark dense black - purple colour, probably more so than some of the others. Aromatic while still closed up and a tad reductive, nevertheless it had a compelling nose of damson, black fruits and berries with a savoury black pudding - olive tone, kirsch and marzipan too; fairly grippy and extracted but very concentrated, firm and punchy mouth-feel but well-poised with tight dry finish layered with all that delicious fruit giving a sweet - savoury dimension; very promising and much less forward at this point with a lively long weighty finish. Second day: more savoury tasting with still dense and grippy palate, very serious wine.
Chemin d'Orgueil or 'Pride Way' refers to local aristocrats who used this route to travel from one château to another (as you did). The nearly eight hectares of vineyard are mostly made up of gravel and clay, and the microclimate there is warmer and windier. The vines, dating from 1961 to 2002, are located on the upper slopes at 125 metres altitude facing south, with a wood forming a boundary lower down. The 2018 has a little less than 13.5% abv.
Perfumed violet, cassis and elderberry vs dark savoury tones, peppery and complex, lovely concentrated fruit with rich vs crunchy and aromatic profile, taut tannins but not gripping in a dry way; it demonstrated a certain finesse and balance, still quite youthful but underpinned with complex maturing savoury sides, long concentrated and stylish: beautiful wine, deliciously drinkable on the one hand yet structured and meaty as well, great tannins. Two days later: seemed pretty similar, a tad more savoury naturally but not particularly aged. Good with steak in a black pepper sauce.

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Header image: Château de Flandry, Limoux, Languedoc. Background: Vineyard near Terrats in Les Aspres, Roussillon.