It’s always a happy occurrence to come across a book that covers overlapping topics of interest to me- in this case, wine and France, and more specifically, malbec (a favorite grape of mine) and southwestern France (where I lived for a year). I’m not quite sure why Families of the Vine sat on my shelf unread for as long as it did- it came out in 2006- but I’m very glad I finally got to it. Reading it was a little bittersweet, as I regretted not having visited any of these vineyards when I last was in France, but I now have an itinerary for my next visit!
Over the course of two years, Michael Sanders (author of From Here, You Can’t See Paris, about a French village restaurant and also on my reading list) spent time with three winemaking families in the Lot valley near Cahors, the city which lends its name to the wine’s appellation. In Families of the Vine, we are introduced to Yves & Martine Jouffreau-Hermann of Clos de Gamot, a vineyard dating from 1610 and whose signature wine is considered the quintessential expression of red Cahors; Jean-Luc Baldès of Clos Triguedina, the prodigal son who returned to the family vineyard after studying in Bordeaux; and Philippe Bernède of Clos la Coutale, who favors fast cars and producing a more international (read: softer, fruitier) style of red wine.
Le vin de Cahors has, in recent centuries at least, always played second fiddle to its cousins from Bordeaux and Burgundy. Sanders gives a bit of history explaining that due to geography and political power, Bordeaux gained the upper hand that it still enjoys to this day, in spite of the fact that the “black wine of Cahors” was once preferred by the English over the lighter claret (the Brits’ name for Bordeaux). Cahors wine, by law a minimum of 70% malbec with merlot and tannat making up the remainder, received appellation status in 1971 thanks to native son Georges Pompidou.
The book takes place in 2002 and 2003, with Sanders writing about the 2003 growing season and the 2002 vinification process, in that order. The 2003 growing season was unusually hot and dry, causing much stress on the part of the winemakers. In some cases, hot dry weather can be a boon to the grapes, but in this case it wreaked havoc on them, causing the winemakers to have yields that were 50% or less of their normal harvest. Coincidentally, I was visiting France at the exact time of the harvest Sanders writes about, and I well remember la canicule– the devastating heat wave in which hundreds of elderly people across France died.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me was reading about vinification, and the struggle between old and new ideas among France’s winemakers. This is a subject that has been on my mind lately, as some of my more wine–savvy friends have been talking about natural wine and what it means. The crux of the problem is that, although in an ideal world many French winemakers would love to make a more traditional product, the market demands wines that can be consumed just a few years after being bottled. Many winemakers simply don’t have the resources to cellar the wine for the requisite time, which requires not only the space to do so, but the capital to be able to tie up their money for years on end. Some, like Bernède, are embracing the more fruit-forward, “Parkerized” styles of wine, which are easier to sell internationally and don’t require as much investment. Others, like the Jouffreau family and Jean-Luc Baldès, are trying to hang on to the more traditional style of Cahors wine, which typically requires at least 10 years in the bottle to reach its full potential. Yves Jouffreau-Hermann has even gone to the extreme of planting a difficult hillside vineyard, Clos St-Jean, whose grapes he hopes will yield a truly outstanding wine in years to come.
The main thing I am taking away from this book (apart from a burning desire to return to southwestern France to sample some of the wines of the region) is the importance of supporting producers who are dedicated to making quality wine in the traditional manner, even if it means sacrificing easier profits. Like any artisanal tradition, when these winemakers are forced to cut corners to survive, we will all suffer for the lack of variety and quality. I admit that until now, I have never cellared any wines, instead just buying them as I needed them. But after reading the personal stories of these families and how much work they do for relatively little profit, I think it’s time to start endorsing that by choosing more “challenging” wines; wines that require a bit of commitment.
The only thing this book sorely lacks is a map showing the region and locations of the vineyards and châteaux, but other than that, it’s a wonderful introduction to anyone unfamiliar with winemaking, and a great resource for anyone interested in Cahors wine or the lives and struggles of the people behind the grapes.
Note: The photographs from this post were borrowed from the internet. Clicking on the photos will take you to the websites where they were found.