Wednesday 18 January 2012

Back to Basics – Clos La Coutale Cahors

My brother-in-law Nick knows his wine, and enjoys Cru Classé clarets and vintage ports when he can. But he has a particular thing about simpler, more fundamental French wines. What he likes about them is that you somehow feel closer to the soil and the vines. There’s an authenticity about certain French wines, which is almost literally ‘down to earth’. Nick once baffled CJ by talking about how you could ‘taste the stems’. I baffled CJ myself (it’s really not hard…) trying to explain this, by making gestures which were meant to evoke the horny hands of a son of toil, but which unfortunately looked more like an arthritic groper.

Let’s just say that great wines may be like symphonies – but there is a different merit in folk music.

At Christmas, Nick kindly left gifts for Mrs K and I; unlabelled, but I ventured a guess that mine was the one shaped like a bottle. Indeed it was; a bottle of Clos La Coutale 2009 – a Cahors, one of his favourite wines from the South-West of France.

Now, Cahors has a noble heritage. Among the first vineyards planted by the conquering Romans 2000 years ago, their wine was loved by the Russian Tsars, served at Henry II’s wedding to Eleanor of Aquitaine and known as “black wine”, because… well, guess. It’s very dark.

To me, Cahors is a proper peasant’s wine. I have an image of a gnarled old chap in a blue cotton jacket, his face lined and etched by the sun. The sort of chap you look at and think, “If that’s his face, imagine what his scrotum must look like.”

Cahors is, effectively, Malbec – although they call the grape by a different local name (Auxerrois) – and in many cases, it’s softened by blending it, in this case with Merlot. There’s a fierce punchiness about this wine; it’s sharp and light, with an aggressive bouquet and a taut, green flavour. It’s austere, tannic but warm. 

This is a bottle to stand upon a red gingham-checked tablecloth, to pour into Duralex  tumblers, to recork and carry to a corner of a field for a lunch of bread and cheese. The label even has an aged, brownish hue, as if it’s been cured with tobacco smoke, like the ceiling in one of those French rural bars. (Just a step down and a door in a stone wall, and where, once the silence that would greet your entrance had dissolved, you imagine having to defend yourself like a scene out of Straw Dogs…)

So, on a white linen tablecloth, for educated dinner guests? 

The danger here lies in a kind of inverse snobbery, like paying a fortune for peasant cooking in posh restaurants. Are we in the social guilt-making territory of slumming, by enjoying a degree of crude, a bit of rough? I’m reminded of a cartoon of American tourists abroad, buying handmade indigenous artefacts to take back home, with a local craftsman pointing out that “This one, senor, has even more flaws…!”

Then, thanks to Liberty Wines, who kindly invited Sediment to their 15th anniversary portfolio tasting, I was able to compare two “better” versions of this wine. 

Chateau de Chambert Cahors Grand Vin 2007 at £16.97, is almost double the price of my traditional Cahors. It’s clearly aiming for greater status, greater finesse and elegance – look at its modern label – look at its price! – and despite being 100% Malbec it’s a more relaxed wine altogether, with the additional smoky richness of a couple of years’ aging. But that also means more sleepy, less alert somehow; that tight, green simple taste has softened into something lazier, more comfortable, more…decadent. Perhaps a Cahors Grand Vin is something of an oxymoron – like a gourmet Cornish pasty.

And then there’s Argentina, who have made the Malbec grape their own. Vista Flores, a single vineyard Malbec from one of the top five Argentinian producers, has a price of £42.50, a significant sum for any peasant, and which would send CJ into cardiac arrest. But oh, this is a glorious wine, rich, heavy and more substantial – 100% Malbec again, and in a way, more palatable, easier and certainly more impressive drinking than its blended peasant alternative. (The Valle de Uco Malbec,  from the same producer, is slightly sweeter but less grand, and great value at £10.63). 

But these cleverly created wines are also less…discursive. They have less to say. A wine like Cahors has character, a simple authenticity, which is enormously enjoyable. It is Fourme d’Ambert to their Lymeswold.

And here’s a final irony. In London, Clos La Coutale is sold for £8.95 by Berry Bros & Rudd,  one of our most aristocratic wine merchants, by Royal appointment to both HM The Queen and HRH The Prince of Wales. 

But then, our aristocracy always were better than the French at dealing with the peasantry. As that great English historian GM Trevelyan pointed out, “If the French noblesse had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt.”


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