Michel Rolland: Cahors was in the Middle Ages, now it makes beautiful wine

Influential wine consultant Michel Rolland tells db about the transformation in Cahors wine quality during a visit to London this week to celebrate 30 years of making Malbec at Château Lagrézette.

Michel Rolland (left) with Alain Dominique Perrin. To mark 30 years of working together in Cahors with Château Lagrézette, the pair hosted a dinner at Annabel’s in London. Picture credit: Mariede Chesse

Speaking exclusively to db on Tuesday 16 October, Rolland recorded a remarkable turnaround in the character of Malbec from Cahors over a period from 1988 to now, commenting that when he first arrived in the region, the approaches to viticulture and winemaking were Medieval.

“It was in the Middle Ages”, he said, when he took on his first consulting role in Cahors in 1988, following an invitation to visit Château Lagrézette from its owner, Alain Dominique Perrin, a powerful figure in the world of luxury goods as executive director of the Richemont Group, owner of brands such as Cartier and Dunhill.

Moving on to the current situation, Rolland then said, “But now we have beautiful wine… Malbec from Cahors can be great.”

Achieving such a result however has required a complete rethink regarding the way Malbec is grown and made, with the biggest change being a sharp reduction in yields, according to Rolland.

Motivating the producers in Cahors to improve the quality of their Malbec has been the global market for wine, he said.

“The wine from Cahors was mostly sold in the French market, but the day Cahors decided to export the wine, the critics were strong because they said it wasn’t good enough, so the producers improved it.”

Continuing, when asked about his role in such a transformation, Rolland said, “Alain Perrin was at the beginning, and I was there with him at the beginning of this revolution, so he says that I am responsible [for the turnaround in quality.”

More generally, Rolland commented that Cahors was now showing very well because “Malbec makes great wine”, adding that Cahors was the best source of Malbec in France, due to its continental climate.

Comparing the conditions in Cahors to Bordeaux, where Malbec was once widely planted, Rolland said that the grape performed less well in the latter more maritime region, because it was particularly susceptible to precipitation at the beginning and end of the growing season.

“Malbec in Bordeaux is always very complicated because of the rain, and Malbec is very fragile at flowering, so if there is rain during flowering, then you don’t have any fruit, and if you have rain during the maturation [of the berries], then it becomes very big and you have no taste, and if you have rain during the harvest period, then you have rot and awful wine,” he recorded.

In contrast, he described Cahors as a “much more continental climate”, and hence its suitability for Malbec, even though the region is only around 200km from Bordeaux.

By way of example, he said that wet and therefore average vintages in Bordeaux, such as 1997, 2007 and 2011 were “very good” in Cahors.

Outside Cahors, which is the original source of the Malbec grape, Rolland said that Argentina had emerged as the best home for Malbec, because, like the southwest French region, the climate of Argentina is “very continental”.

“Malbec is doing so well in Argentina because of its continental position,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said that due to the limestone soil found in Cahors, the French region produces a brighter style of Malbec than found in South America, as a result of a naturally higher level of acidity in the wines.

“If we work well in Cahors then we have a bit more freshness and liveliness in the tasting of Malbec than we find in Argentina, where the wines are always bigger, which I do like, but the elegance is more obvious in Cahors than Argentina,” he said.

Speaking specifically about Château Lagrézette, he said that he could see the potential due to the quality of the soils at the estate.

“With Lagrezette, the terroir was there, but even when it is there, you can make bad wines, and 30 years ago, very often they were bad,” he said.

Château Lagrézette was bought by Alain Dominique Perrin in 1979 as a property for himself and his family, and initially he had no intention to make wine from the estate.

However, having been told about the quality of the site for Malbec, he decided to restore the vineyards, enlisting Michel Rolland in 1988 to help him realize a project to produce great wines from the domaine, which culminated in the creation of a specialist cellar for Lagrézette in time for the 1992 vintage.

This year marks 30 years of their partnership, with Perrin admitting to db that the property is only just “breaking even” with a production of 500,000 bottles, although he hopes to be profitable from next year.

Château Lagrézette is currently producing four wines from the property: a Malbec-based rosé, Le Rosé de Julie; the Cuvée Dame Honneur (91% Malbec and 9% Merlot); Le Pigeonnier (100% Malec) and the Château Lagrazette (87% Malbec, 12% Merlot and a very small proportion of Tannat).

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