A Tale of Two Trade Wars: A Wine History in Cahors, France

The story of Cahors in the Southwest of France is a humdinger! If you’re interested in a bit of wine history – and how old stories can resonate with very current events – read on!

ch la caminade grapes

The Romans loved the dark black-fruited reds from Cahors.Enter a caption

Trade War – Roman Style
The Romans launched winemaking in Cahors in late Republic times, and by 70BCE or so, these dark, powerful black-fruited reds became fashionable in Rome itself. This upset growers on the Italian peninsula to no end, leading to complaints of unfair competition to the Emperor. In 92AD, Emperor Domitian responded in typical Roman fashion. No half-measures here: He simply ordered that all the vines of Cahors be uprooted and burned!

It wasn’t until year 276 that Emperor Probus – famed for his interest in agriculture and winegrowing – revoked the ban and encouraged replanting in Cahors. The Cahors wine business remained rocky during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but began improving in 630 when Saint Didier, Bishop of Cahors, took the lead in revitalizing winegrowing.

Cahors’ big break came in 1152 with the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henri Plantagenet, the future king of England. The wine known as “the black wine of Lot” was served at their wedding, and soon Cahors’ dark, strong wines became fashionable and highly desired in England. In the peak year of 1310, Cahors send 850,000 hectoliters of wine (about 9.5 million modern cases) to England through the port of Bordeaux, about half of all wine shipped there.

Cahors_Bridge

The Valentré Bridge of Cahors was completed in 1378, even as a trade war with Bordeaux continued.

And a Trade War with the Bordelaise
Which, of course, upset the merchants and growers of Bordeaux to no end! Because Cahors is warmer, sunnier, and less rainy than Bordeaux, the Bordelaise cried, “Unfair Competition!” and started looking for ways to disadvantage Cahors. Since all Cahors had to pass through Bordeaux’s port to reach England, they tried imposing a tax on “imported” wine – causing English King Henry III to issue a proclamation in 1225 ordering, “the authorities of Bordeaux not to stop nor to impose a tax whatsoever on the wines that the merchants from Cahors, under his protection, were bringing to Gironde.”

After Aquitaine reverted to France at the end of the Hundred Years War, the Bordelaise were freed to act, and in 1373 they imposed high taxes and other restrictions on all wines coming down-river from Cahors and the rest of the Southwest of France. Bordeaux’s lighter-colored “Claret” began taking market share from Cahors, and increasingly Cahors main export market was Bordeaux itself, where the “Black Wine of Lot” was used to give the lighter wines of the Medoc color and richness.

Climactic Tragedy, Pestilence and Persistence
Ch la caminade vineyard

From the 1400s to the late 1800s, a much diminished Cahors wine region soldiered on, selling blending wine to Bordeaux (although they soon planted their own Malbec), serving the Russian and Dutch markets (where dark, hearty wine was preferred), and – of course – drinking their wine at home.

In 1866, about 58,000 hectares of vines were still tended in Cahors. By the 1940s, there were fewer than 5,000 ha of vines remaining. Phyloxera’s arrival in the 1870s wiped out much of the Cahors vineyard, and the construction of railway links from Languedoc to Paris brought an ocean of equally dark (and less expensive) wine to Cahors’ traditional markets. An attempt to revitalize the region begun in the 1930s was stalled by WWII and then halted in its tracks by the brutal frost of 1956, which killed much of the remaining vineyard.

In hindsight, the 1956 frost – which wiped out many growers – was the salvation of Cahors. After phylloxera, much of Cahors had been replanted to higher-yielding, lower-quality varietals including French/American hybrids. Following the frosts, the hearty growers who remained dedicated themselves to replanting their vineyards entirely to Tannat, Merlot, and – overwhelmingly – the region’s own Malbec.

In recognition of Cahors’ long, distinguished history and rapidly improving wine quality, the region was awarded AOC status in 1973 and was poised to once again establish itself as a world-class wine region and the leading source of dark reds based on Malbec… Only to have the rich, plush Malbec wines of Argentina’s Mendoza Valley soar to fame! Leaving the wine growers of Cahors to once again hitch up their pants, put down their heads, and quietly get back to work.

The Wines of Ch La Caminade
Ch La Caminade winemakersThe vines and site of Ch La Caminade have been part of pretty much all of Cahors’ history. Until the early 19th Century, the property was part of a monastery of winegrowing monks. The name “La Caminade” means The Presbytery or curate’s house in local dialect and was given to the Domaine during these years. After the French Revolution, it passed into private hands until it was inherited by Antonin Ressès in 1895.

The Ressès family helped re-plant Cahors after phylloxera and following the 1956 frosts but sold their grapes to the co-op until 1973. When Cahors AOC was granted then, they decided to make and bottle their own wine for the first time. And 4th generation winegrowing brothers Dominique and Richard Ressès continue to run this 35ha estate today.

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