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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cahors - Defining a Place (the home of Malbec)

Here is a very nice video promoting the wines of Cahors (produced by Jay Selman of grape radio incidentally). There is a good bit of malbec doing quite well here in Lake County, but the modern historic paradigm for malbec in France is quite specific to the Cahors region. Malbec in Lake County tends toward the petite sirah side of the spectrum with a decent amount of fruit but the Old World version has an undeniable rusticity and earthiness (but not muskiness) that helps to define it stylistically. This rusticity has caused a lot of fiddling - micro-oxygenation was developed while working with the massive tannins malbec produces in Cahors - and much New/Old World conflict exists there today. The AOC minimum is 70% malbec with the possible addition of merlot or tannat (yeah, great softener there). French Malbec is a unique experience, and a wonderfully affordable one with good examples to be had for around $20. 
The video does a nice job of focusing on the food/wine/terroir link which again leads to wondering about Lake County and what a cohesive food/wine/terroir advertising campaign might look like here. Is there somewhere we can go beyond pears and sauvignon blanc? Though the sauv blanc is tasty and supremely aromatic it does not have the depth or sustain of its Loire, Austrian or Northern Italian counterparts, nor is it a transplanted "unique" varietal in the way that carmeneré or malbec took hold in South America. If Lake County hung it all on sauv blanc it would end up the Muscadet of the North Coast with according prices and starving farmers. Zin is good here (when it is dry), better than Lodi (for me, sorry), and I believe better than Paso, but a unified profile has yet to solidify - unlike Rockpile which YOU KNOW the second all that raspberry comes tearing through, or Dry Creek with its telltale chalky tannin and black pepper. Though cabernet has largely failed to deliver the petit sirah is good and Rhone varietals are probably the future, but can't help us in the present. Viognier will probably be the new chardonnay soon while roussane will be for the thinkers. GSM blends will be climbing the ladder quickly here.
It is not just a branding issue. Well, it is a branding issue, but not in a vapid or arbitrary sense. We don't want to pigeonhole ourselves or omit some of the wonderful diversity, but at some point Lake County must define itself. It sucks, being unique snowflakes and all, but for the sake of identity we need a Napa Cab, a Dry Creek Zin or a Russian River Pinot. Maybe a Coro program like Mendocino. Amador has a relatively cohesive flavor/palate profile carved out for its wines, but we are still a work in progress. Food culture is pretty much non-existant here, so that French/Italian historico-cultural angle won't work. I shudder to think of what a signature Lake County dish might be. We push elevation - which is good and valuable, but let us be honest, 1,500 feet ain't all that high for the bulk of our vineyards (Red Hills and High Valley can be much higher). Most of Burgundy's cru vineyards are at around 800-900 feet, Barolo is a little higher but no one thinks of that as real elevation, hills not mountains, and it is not a stylistic indicator in a meaningful sense - the compressed growing season at elevation can also indicate lower quality, especially in young vines, so lets not hang it all on that message.

Maybe varietal diversity is our angle, maybe organic or Bio-d (the very low pest pressure here is well documented). Lake County is known to us as the most beautiful place that no one comes to. In 1965 there were under 100 acres of wine grapes, today it is over 9,000, so we are still very much a work in progress, but also very much at the mercy of market forces. We are also split somewhat because the majority of grapes are exported, and often the lack of defining character is in fact an asset to growers and wineries looking to mix lots out of the area. Lake County is actually an extremely good terroir match for merlot in almost every way, but the market is not in a place to recognize it while cabernet is overplanted. Ditto for syrah which can be wonderful in the right spot here, but in the market it is totally neglected at the moment (don't worry, it will be back, so please don't graft it over). These things take time for the quality to rise and and separate and define itself regionally, and it will not be easy since we do not have Alba or Perigord truffles, Thomas Keller or numerous fromageries to help the picture gel cohesively. No doubt we are getting closer though.

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