Cahors, a town and a wine appellation in the South-West of France, is not too famous worldwide but extremely renowned in the ex-Soviet countries under the name of Kagor. Numerous bottles of fortified sweet wine are produced every year in Crimea where Massandra is the historical producer, Moldavia, and Azerbaijan. An Azerbaijani friend confirmed they even have sort of appellations named Kurmadir Kagor and Shamakhi Kagor. The important thing is that these wines made with local or international varieties and fortified with neutral spirit have nothing to do with original Cahors.
AOC Cahors is a dry red wine from Malbec which can be supported by 30% of merlot and/or Tannat. It usually is intensely coloured (hence, “black wine”) and somewhat earthy, tannic and austere when it is young. The total area of the appellation is 4000ha nowadays, and the surface of the vineyards is decreasing as the previous glory of the local wines has faded away.
Like in most parts of Western Europe the vines were brought to Cahors and Quercy area by the Romans though in 92AD the emperor Domitian ordered to uproot all the vines as the local wine started to compete with the wine produced in the Apennine peninsula. So, the Gauls had to wait almost 200 years to be allowed to grow vines again by the emperor Probus in 272. No wonder the prestige cuvee from Clos Triguedina, one of the prominent producer of Cahors, is proudly holding the name of the emperor.
The famous marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy, in 1152, allowed Cahors wines to reach international markets. As Bordeaux became a significant port trading with England, the wines from the inland were also using this opportunity. They were transported through Lot and Garonne on the flat-bottom boats, called gabares. At the beginning of the 13th century, half of the wines leaving Bordeaux port were from Cahors area.
Another reason for the popularity of the local wines was a small town of Rocamadour, one of the sacred stops on the Way of St. James. Pilgrims were restoring their strength with Cahors wines and spread a good word about it all over Europe.
The legend says that the Pope John XXII who was born in Cahors, recruited winegrowers from his homeland to plant vines in the newly established papal residence near Avignon. Unfortunately, nowadays, we cannot find any Malbec in Châteauneuf-du-Pape to prove the story.
The neighbours from Bordeaux soon understood that the competition with dark-coloured and intense Cahors wine is not in favour of their pale clarets and started to create obstacles for the commerce of Cahors. The boats with Cahors wine could not enter Gironde before the Christmas time when already all the Bordelais barrels were sold. Nevertheless, the wine merchants of Bordeaux did not strain at adding some Malbec to their wines to improve colour and strengthen the structure.
Despite all the barriers, Cahors wine was reaching its international clientele. Russian tsar Peter the Great was a famous fan; the legend tells it that he drank Cahors wine as a remedy for the stomach ulcer (I am not sure it helped though). It was the official mass wine of the Orthodox Church and here again, its dark colour allowed altar boys dilute it a little and leave some excess for the personal needs.
In the XIX century, the area of vineyards reached 40.000ha! But the period of prosperity ended up quite swiftly. In 1863 France was hit with phylloxera, a pest brought from America. Within several decades it destroyed most of the European vineyards. Cahors vines shared the same destiny.
The solution was found by grafting the European vines on the American rootstock, which was resistant to the pest. Though Malbec was not adapting quite well to this new technique, so when winegrowers started to replant vineyards, they used less whimsical varieties: jurançon noir, merille, and valdiguié. Only in 1948, the University of Montpellier managed to find a solution for Malbec grafting. People started to replant the vineyards with this noble variety until they were hit again by another disaster. The deadly frost of 1956 destroyed 90% of the young vineyards!
Finally, due to the efforts of the cooperative founded in 1947 and brotherhood “Confrerie” of Cahors established in 1964, the appellation of origin Cahors was registered in 1971 by INAO. The appellation counted at that point only 400ha!
The prolonged crisis period took its toll. All the regular customers found new suppliers or like the Russian Empire started to produce a replica product, slightly “enhanced,” to please the taste of the local consumers. The Bordeaux châteaux reached incredible popularity and significantly improved quality. Malbec brought to Argentina by a French agronomist Michel Pouget in 1868, became a signature variety and locomotive power on the international markets.
Cahors needs to restore its reputation. Besides a few acknowledged producers, the AOC wines are sold for 2-5 euro per bottle. The French, in general, have an impression that Cahors is a harsh and heavy, difficult to drink wine. The fame of the Argentinian Malbec in the United States helped to increase sales of the French cousin, but here as well there is a limit.
Cahors producers were trying to introduce Premier Cru system similar to Burgundy, but INAO in 2002 declined the project. A lot of work is being done to understand the difference between the terroirs. Nine terraces have been distinguished to show these variations. The significant difference is undoubtedly between the valley of Lot with predominantly alluvial soils and the plateau, the land of limestone and clay.
Due to the reasonable vineyards prices, many young people start winemaking in Cahors; this gives a chance to the once-renowned region to re-establish itself on the world wine arena.