In the last few weeks, Tom and I have become regular sommeliers and it all kicked off with a trip to Château de Chambert in Cahors, Southern France. The ‘Black Wines’ of Cahors are known due to their incredibly deep red colour – if you hold the bottle of 2010 Malbec red (that we managed to bring home in one piece in a suitcase!) you can just about see the inky black liquid sloshing about.
It’s known that the Romans planted the first vineyards more than 2000 years ago. The Russian Tsars loved it – French Entrée says that ‘Peter the Great insisted that the tannic content cured his ulcer and helped his delicate stomach.’ The first vines at Château de Chambert, part of the domain of the lords of Floressas, were planted in the golden age that preceded, covering some 300 hectares with a fortified farm built in the current location of the Château.
Like the rest of the vines across the Cahors valley, Châmbert did not escape the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800s. At the time the Château belonged to General Marie Désiré Pierre Amédée Bataille – the youngest general in the French army. At his death at the battle of Voges in the Great War, Châmbert passed to his sister, a nun, who allowed the vines to go wild. By 1973, this would turn out to be a fortunate accident as the land surrounding the Château escaped the harsh chemical, intense, agricultural methods that followed after the WWI and WWII – making it ideally suited for organic vinification.
Lauren, our Austrailian guide and winemaker, fell in love with Cahors and especially Châmbert not only for its epic surroundings but its leading credentials in the field of biodynamics. Biodynamics is a step up from organic production, not only are chemicals avoided at all costs, but great care is taken to ensure the well-being of the entire ecosystem that surrounds the vineyards. In fact, Châmbert is among the ten largest French vineyards managed biodynamically.
The Châmbert team use ancient viniculture techniques used by winemakers in days of old which might otherwise have been lost from living memory. For example administering orange oil helps to boost the vines’ vitamin C supplies whilst lavender essence can be used as a natural pesticide. Camomile tea, brewed on a vast scale, is sprayed copiously during hotter months to help ‘de-stress’ the vines.
The current vines at Châmbert are relative babies, planted just 40 years ago across 65 hectares, after the severe frost wiped out the region in 1956. By 1971 the area was awarded AOC status and today, only 4,000 hectares are included in the designation. Châmbert’s wines, like the rest of the Cahors region, are made up of just three grape varieties – Malbec (over 80 per cent of vines planted at Châmbert), Tannat and Merlot and the Château can produce up to 160k bottles a year.
It takes the Châmbert team three and a half weeks to hand pick the grapes working eight or nine hour days. The red wine actually gets its colour from the skin and the grapes are steeped in a giant vat with the natural sugars slowly increasing the alcohol content. The fermentation takes three weeks and must be regularly ‘plunged’, making sure the skins don’t just float on the top but are actually in contact with the grape flesh – helping to create that inky colour. The wine is the pressed, where skins and juice are separated, and stored in old oak barrels for one year.
Our tour with Lauren was by far one of the best highlights of our trip to Quercy region. We came back loaded with our own bottles including their dessert wine, Rogomme, which translates to ‘a mixture’. It is a dessert wine derived from a three century-year-old Quercy recipe. The Malbec wine is further fortified with wine brandy, also from vineyards of Châmbert. It goes down quite a treat with fresh strawberries or a bit of Roquefort.
At the centre of the Cahor’s wine region, lies the Puy L’Evêque, a picturesque village that guards the neck of a long loop in the River Lot. It’s here we met are second Australasian of the day, a New Zealand couple had bought a cafe with a postcard view of the medieval town. Apparently, lots of New Zealanders and Australians have slowly been buying up holiday homes in the area – nearly on one-fifth of the village’s residences are second homes.
Puy L’Evêque, or ‘Bishop’s Hill’, was named after the castle built by the Count-Bishop of Cahors which crowns the top of the steep slope. The village was central to the gabarres or river barges that transported the region’s wine to Bordeaux for export. Sat at Cafe Pukeko, sipping a cold beer, watching the river below, reminded us of a completely different pace of life – one that centred on a laid-back attitude and an excellent vintage.
Things to know…
- You can get in touch with the Chateau here: http://www.chateaudechambert.com/en/
- They run guided tours in English and French, but do get in touch via email before hand.
We stayed at Le Farguiel in Montaigu de Quercy, just a few minutes drive from Château de Chambert and Cahors wine region. You can read about our adventures here!