The town of Cahors in southwestern France for many centuries was synonymous with wine made from the Malbec grape, or as known locally, Auxerrois, and Côt in many other parts of France. Cahors was originally known as Divona Cadurcorum in Celtic times, which was then renamed Cadurca by Roman invaders and eventually became modified to the name by which it is now known. The history of wine making in Cahors dates back to at least the time of Roman occupation in the first century AD. The wine made there was highly appreciated by the Italians although as described in the prior blog post the wine was not made from Malbec grapes. Cahors gained other notoriety in the Middle Ages as a major waypoint on a French branch of the pilgrimage route called the Camino de Santiago which if followed to its length ends in the town of Compostela in Spain.
After the fall of Roman Empire, the wines of Cahors as well as many of the wines of France went into a period of decline and dormancy where the wine that was produced was generally only consumed locally. The early Middle Ages after the Romans was a period marked by extreme political and social instability with rampaging bands of marauders who would plunder what they could use and carry with them and destroyed what little remained afterward. The reputation of Cahors for its fertile lands was a curse during this period as an incentive for attack by brigands ranging from various tribes of the Goths to Islamic raiders through the 8thcentury.
The situation began to become more stable and Cahors would once again have a rise in viticultural fortunes with the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry Plantagenet in the 12thcentury, future King of England. This union brought the lands around southern France, including Cahors, into the British commercial sphere, with particular emphasis on the export of wine to England. The Cahors wines became highly regarded for their taste and their distinctive deep, “inky” color that inspired the English King Henry III to declare it “the dark wine of Cahors”. The imports of vintages from Cahors expanded during the 13thand 14thcenturies reaching a zenith in the year 1308 with a total of 22 million gallons exported, or the equivalent of over 100 million modern day bottles of wine.
During the next several centuries the fortunes of Cahors ebbed and flowed with the machinations of political favor and economic forces. The lifeline for Cahors viticultural exports was the river Lot that flowed through the town and was a tributary of the Garonne River leading to the major port of Bordeaux. After the end of Roman centralized government, local communities had no funds to maintain the famous road system established by the empire and railroads were still centuries away. Therefore, waterways provided the only practical and cost effective means for transporting wine barrels over large distances. The difficulty was that Bordeaux was a wine-growing region with its own designs for controlling the English market. The popularity of Cahors wine was met with jealousy in Bordeaux leading at various times to the imposition of taxes and other restrictions with the intent of minimizing competition. In 1701, a law was enacted that only permitted Cahors wine to annually enter Bordeaux between December 21 and May 1. The wines of Bordeaux were generally ready for shipment in October and November, so the new legislation essentially gave a couple of month’s head start to Bordelaise wines in the English market. The Cahors wines would only reach the market after many consumers had already made their purchases of French wine for the year. Additionally, any wine Cahors wine not exported by May 1 would either have to be destroyed or sent back to the producer where it was essentially worthless.
Changes in attitudes and legislation led to resurgence in Cahors Malbec wine in the 19thcentury reaching a peak as the amount of vineyards planted in the region grew from 124,000 acres to 200,000 acres between 1850 and 1880. The result was revived production of wine to about twelve million gallons annually by 1880. Just as the situation was looking brighter in the late 1800s, the phylloxera louse entered the Cahors region with eventual devastation similar to other European wine centers caught in the disease’s relentless rampage. Approximately 80% of the vineyards in Cahors were lost with decreasing incentive to replant as the railroads finally arrived in France but allowed cheaper wines from areas such as Languedoc in southern France to flood the major markets. A final deathblow for the wines of Cahors was dealt in 1956 with an intense and freakishly destructive ice storm that killed 99% of the grape crop remaining. Luckily the late 20thcentury saw a renewed effort to bring back Cahors Malbec and plantings once again began to resurface such that by 2014 there were 10,000 acres of the grape planted but still less than 5 percent of its heyday.
Next: Malbec Hits the Road