Montcuq (Cahors -- South-West)
Imagine a dream country made of small, winding roads going through an untouched landscape of medieval villages atop of hills, castles and fortified farms, this is the area of Cahors. Actually when driving from the Bordeaux region, you begin to enter this unspoiled territory from the Montbazillac area (maybe a little before) and going through the Cahors area this magic backcountry will last all the way to the Gaillac region after which the country looks less enjoyable. It seems to me that the side roads between these two areas (and north of them) are the most picturesque you can imagine. If you look for a great travel experience in almost-empty roads, lovely villages and well-preserved architecture, that's the place to go. Famous wine regions are not always the most beautiful or authentic ones, just think to the bland villages of the Champagne region where you see that in spite of the festive wine they make, the local villages don't reflect (through the architecture for example) the expected refinement and civilization you find so obvious in the Loire valley and in this corner of the south west (particularly the sub-regions of Périgord, Quercy and Rouergue). Montcuq itself is a very nice village, and very quiet (at least in april), and during the couple of hours we stayed at the terrace of the Café de France (pic on left) the previous evening, we saw only maybe 3 or 3 cars passing by. It is also a stopover on the pilgrimage road to Saint Jacques de Compostela. It seems from the people sitting at the terrace that evening that some Brits with good taste setlled in the area permanently.
The Cahors area is Malbec country, this grape variety yields a dark tannic wine sometimes difficult to drink when young (we'll see it's not the case here). Gilles Bley's Clos Siguier sits in the middle of the wine appellation, south of the beautifully-winding Lot river, and his wines really stand out, not only for its civilized tannins but for its low alcohol. You understand better why when visiting the vineyard and the family domaine, the wine is the result of a simple, very traditional cellar philosophy and of a gifted terroir.
The wine farm is pretty isolated and has been the family base for several generations, Gilles parents still live in the main farm building which was built in 1779.
Asked since when his ancestors lived here, Gilles Bley says that he doesn't know, it has always been so. The family house and the other buildings in this remote hamlet outside Montcuq looked untouched since more than 2 centuries, on the outside at least; things were built to last then, and needed little maintainance, an example our modern achitects would be wise to follow. The farm which is surrounded by its vineyards has
(pic on right & left) 2 or 3 beautiful pigeon
lofts (pigeonniers or colombiers) like rich farms or aristocratic chateaus (it was a priviledge) used to have, usually to eat the birds.
When Gilles's grandfather was heading the farm, it was a farm complete with sheep and truffle trees, the south-west being known for its truffles. The village of Lalbenque (25 km east as the crow flies) is an important truffle market where specialized buyers compete in a time-proven ritual to determine the price of truffles.
What is interesting with the wines and work philosophy of Gilles Bley is that there is a continuity with his ancestors, the productivist era of the 2nd half of the 20th century with its technological shortcuts (for agriculture ans wineries) seems to have been merely a bump on the road.
Is it because his domaine is at a comfortable distance from the mainstream Cahors vineyards (planted more on the flatland from what I understand) or because he has a soft spot for tradition, I don't know but this estate seems to stand apart in many ways.
Greeted by Gilles parents we soon saw him arriving and he walked us along with his friendly 15-year-old dog Galba to the parcel of young vines where his partner Pauline and his son Baptiste were busy working under a cheerful sun. Just the idea that only a minute walk is needed to go to work make city people dream... This parcel of Malbec is young and they were busy tying the canes to the wires as well as the mid-height of the vine trunk so that it grows vertically. the domaine has a vineyard surface of 15 hectares and most of it is Malbec, known also under the name of Cöt and Auxerrois. He also has 5 % of Tannat. The buds are popping up with the last days' warm weather and there is a risk of frost but Gilles Bley says that it has been quite a few years since they had some in their vineyards.
The soil which has been plowed recently shows an aerated structure with limestone surfacing.
The 15 hectares of the domaine are really located around the old farm, they're split in 4 or 5 places, the furthest being at only 500 meters from the farm. This is really a short distance for the grapes to come home...
Baptiste, Gilles' son is still in an agricultural school in Toulouse right now but he will finish next year and come here. the curriculum there is broadly on agriculture techniques, not particularly vine growing but it includes organic farming options. He is impatient
to start to work on the farm.
Baptiste is helping his father but for trainings related to the agriculture school he travelled abroad to work in farms like for example in New Zealand or the Czech republic. He will probably follow suit to his father like Gilles Bley did himself several decades ago : he is now 50 and he took the reins at the age of 20, when the domaine had only 7 hectares of vineyards (now it's 15). To increase the surface he used the plantation rights they had to pland on farm land. The area is very hilly, on place at the end of a vineyards you can overlook a small combe bordered with woods after a steep slope but he says they plant only on top of the hills because of the increased risk of frost down there, and the rocky nature of the upper land is better for the vines.
But as we walked with Gilles at the limit of the vineyards on the edge of a steep slope we had a glimpse of another talent of the young future winegrower : he has buit from scratch a traditional building just for the fun of it, it's a very simple and small single room building with a fireplace and he goes there with friends to party. There is even a stone sink sculpted with a gutter going outside, like the 200-year-old farms have in their kitchens. He also built (and also from scratch a gariotte, these shacks built with stones (even the roof is made of stones) where the workers would hide from the rain or rest when working in the vineyard. Every wine region has this type of micro-building in the vineyards with different local architectural features depending of the region. I wanted to walk there to take a picture but forgot.
En route to another parcel on the other side of the farm, Gilles Bley stopped at a small outbuilding with two ancient bread oven as old as the house (1779, 10 years before the French revolution...) and still in use. He saw our interest for this beautiful
architecture and understood we'd like see that. The place is as is, not arranged or badly renovated like it alas
often happens with people that think that a bit of polishing on
2-century old buildings will bring a plus and impress visitors.
The building was intended for cooking solely, bread or other dishes, there's a smaller oven on the left depending of what you wanted to bake, and the oven chamber is closed which means there's no duct or chimney, the smoke goes out through the opening and then through the tiles of the roof, and this way the vaulted interior keeps all the heat. He and his parents keep using the ovens regularly, the last time being a month ago. Gilles Bley explains how it works : you light a wood fire the day before your intended use and the next morning you rekindle the fire a few more hours, after which you take out all the embers : the oven having accumulated heat in the stones and with a long temperature inertia, you can cook your bread or terrines, 2 hours being the time for bread. He says that in case you wanted to crawl inside to fix something or see the inside from close, you would have to wait 8 days for the temperature to go back to normal, bearable levels...
Near the door there was one of these iconics mopeds of the 1960s'(a blue Mobylette), these were very common across France at a time when there was very little imports,
On the other side of the farm we walked to what looked like a much older parcel of Malbec, it's only 40 years or more, Gilles says. We could see also that the ground had gotten some plowing recently. The soil is similar to the other parcel, with limestone surfacing more or less here and there. these are massal selections. As you can see,
the vines are planted two by two, it was a trend a
few years ago but they stopped doing it. The lieu-dit (cadastral name) is Gamassade.
When they plow they go 10 cm deep, when possible he says, because on some parts (at the end particularly) the rock table surfaces.
I found a piece of black plastic surfacing in the ground, Gilles Bley says that when the vines were planted this plastic under the vines allowed not to use herbicides.
In some places the stones are so thick, I imagine the summer heat on top of that, the vines must have it tough, that's not akin to growing in fertile plains like it's probably the case for much of the Cahors AOC.
Asked by the way if the soil here is typical of the region of Cahors, Gilles Bley says that in Cahors you have several areas, first the Lot [river] valley with the villages of Prayssac and Puy-L'évêque and here at Moncuq they're on slopes, the altitude here being 400 meters. That's why they never have high alcohol here compared to the Cahors/Lot valley wines because the nights are much colder. And in the valley the soil is more sandy compared to here where there's only this red earth and with dense limestone.
We now walk into the facility, this is actually only old outbuildings next to the houses, the first room we walked into has both relatively-old steel vats and traditional cement tanks. The tiled roof can be guessed high above the vats, tyhere is a natural ventilation through the tiles and there's no insulation but the walls are thich and I think it can remain cool even in summer. In the 2nd vat room (picture on left) the tanks seem more recent, they're from 1999, Gilles says.
They have 3 different cuvées in the domaine. We first taste wine from 2014, we begin with "la Gamassade", 100 % Côt (Malbec), from a stainless-steel tank with floating lid.
Gilles Bley explains that in 2014 the weather was bad in july-august and then perfect until the harvest (which took place at the end of october here). This ideal late season made up for the tricky early summer. Late october seems late for picking in southern France but Gilles says that on this plateau the grapes are never precocious, this has to do with the cold nights. This explains also certainly the fact that the Cahors wines of this domaine don't reach heavy alcohol levels.
For some reason I have no tasting notes or impressions about the vat wine we tasted there.
Asked about the vinification mode here, Gilles Bley
says that first all here is hand picked, all the grapes are destemmed and the grapes are put into these large fermenters using a conveyor belt in order to keep the grapes as whole as possible and the fermentations are usually very long, like a month. No sulfur is sprayed on the grapes, and what we taste in these vats has not seen any SO2 yet. The fermentation starts by itself without lab yeast and it will produced some CO2 at the surface that will protect the long-fermenting mass of grapes from oxidation. Then they do some pigeage (punching of the cap) with this tool above. Gilles says that in the past they'd do it with the feet, they do the pigeage twice a day for the month-long fermentation, the goal being to prevent the upper layer of grapes to dry which could be harmful for the rest of the juice.
They also do a pumping over but just at the beginning to homogenize the juice.
After 2 weeks they fill the fermenting vats with wine from one they keep for that purpose, this, in order to keep tanks full with minimum contact with air, Gilles and his son show us the way to the top of the fermenters so that we can see the bulging chimney with as a result a much reduced contact surface between the wine and the air. After they put more wine into the fermenter to fill the chimney (the grapes cap being kept lower by the tank's neck), they just put a floating lid on the surface.
From what I understand, I guess that they only really fill to the top of the chimney after two weeks of fermentation because before that the fermenting, bubbling juice may be unruly, with foam and shaky levels due to the fermentation process, the fermentation has to be in a more serene cruising pace when filling to the top otherwise it could overflow. During the early fermentation they still manage to have these tanks almost filled to the top with grapes but they make sure to leave a buffer air cushion at the top to prevent spillovers, and anyway at this stage the strong pace of fermentation generates lots of CO2.
Gilles Bley explains that in the past when they'd use only cement, they'd fill the cement vats to the very limit and then seal the lid with plaster so that the CO2 really gets trapped and protects the wine. I understand that this way they could work without SO2 and still secure the fermentation. Gilles says with a laugh that after the cement tanks were safely sealed this way, the vignerons would go out hunting the wood pigeons
Speaking of the malolactic, they let it unfolf by itself, it happens in the spring when the temperature rises again in the vat rooms. They noticed that it begins usually when the temperature reaches and gets over 15 ° C (59 ° F) inside the facility. Right now when this visit took place (this was mid april) the temperature of the wine in the vats was still about 10 ° C (50 ° F). Gilles Bley says that they don't want to resort to heating the wine or adding lab yeast like it's often done to jumpstart the process, they wait that it happens by itself. The elders used to say in the past that the wine would work again (retravailler) in spring and this is obviously the malolactic. At this stage Gilles Bley isn't worried that the wine is that cold (10 °C) because as unsulfured wine it's better this way, it also protects it from oxidation.
When they empty the vats they do it first from the outside, forking out the grapes through the lower opening and later one of them has to get inside and push the remaing grapes out with his fork or shovel. They of course make sure that ventilation inside the vat was fluid enough to clear the CO2 because once inside the tank you could pass out and die instantly. they use the old way of lighting a candle and holding it at arm's length inside the tank, if the candle fades out just wait more.
After the month-long first fermentation, they empty the fermenters to press the grapes and they then keep the free run juice and the press juice apart, they always do that, Gilles says and they put back the juices in separate tanks. Because the free run juice from a given tank can't fill a tank by itself they group these juices together (press juice still apart). The press juice is very turbid and it goes somwhere to settle its lees, it's more color, darker of course, it'll stay all winter apart so that the decantation is complete. then later this press juice will be blended with the other juice, Gilles says that it brings tannins and color.
We taste wine from another vat, here made from a parcel named la Plaine (cadastral name), that's were they were busy tying the vines to the wires. Here instead of 100 % Malbec there is also 5 % of Tannat. The Tannat part will bring another touch of tannin in the wine. Tannat is a grape variety that is predominant in the Madiran and Irouléguy, appellations also part of the Sud Ouest area. What we taste here is surprisingly less tannic than what you'd expect when thinking to a young Cahors/Malbec wine. But I took care of warming up my glass in my hands, swirling the wine while holding the glass tightly like a cup, because cold temperature makes tannin stand badly prominent. I'm sure that many people tasting wine in a cellar in winter/early spring get a wrong impression of the wine they taste because (especially for the reds) they don't warm their glass enough before sipping the wine. I know it's difficult when your own hands tend to be called themselves but you always managed to raise the temperature a few degrees.
Tannat needs lots of sun to ripe. This parcel (with both malbec & tannat) is mostly 40 years old even though the corner we saw was a recent planting (which yielded only 50 buckets last year).
The wine is fress with a peppery edge, already very enjoyable. Gilles Bley says that in 2014 they had this southern wind (called vent d'autan here) that made the grapes wither and concentrate with thicker skins than usual, that's what brought more color this year and also nice fruit notes.
Still in the vat room we are offered to tasted the press juice which is still by itself. Very nice nose of dry laurel leaves or other aromatic leaves, we also notice this wine is low in alcohol, not something you expect nowadays in the south of France and in the matter, Cahors. Gilles Bley says it's 12,5 %, they brought samples recently to the lab to know if the malolactic had begun and this way they get other data on the wine. The wine is not excessively tannic for a press juice of Malbec.
We taste now a 2012, still in stainless steel, here this is the final blend. This wine was stored in cement vats before (for a year) and then blended here to homogenize the 2012 wine. The whole élevage for the wines at Clos Siguier are always 2 years (for this 2012 for example it will be more than 2,5 years probably), the main reason being that they don't want to filter the wines, the long élevage in necessary to fully settle the lees. Much of the lees stayed first at the bottom of the cement vats and in the steel vats just a few lees remain to sediment.
This not-yet-bottled 2012 tastes good, a bit sweeter maybe than the previous wines we tasted, that's certainly because here the malolactic is done. Nice tannic tough and lots of fruit. Gilles says he feels flintstone in here too, it's traditional on their wines, not that there is silex in the soil but it's a stony. terroir.
We taste the 2013 which is still in its cement-tank stage (more than a year in there, almost one and a half already). Gilles says that 2013 was a less qualitative vintage because it rained before the harvest, making the grapes take in more water, he says the wine was somehow diluted because of this. The color is indeed lighter here. Beautiful, expressive nose. That's nice though, very easy drinking wine, good to release already, round and enjoyable, no spit, such a light Cahors, not really the one you're used to. In 2013 they had problems at the flowering because of bad weather in june and the harvest volume was down compared to a normal year (they made 15 hectoliters/hectare instead of 25-30 ho/ha). Another proof that nice wines can be made in bad vintages (even with rain before the harvest).
We toured the cellars, they're running all around underneath the family house, great architecture, this region is really outstanding in that regard, all these vaulted rooms are so beautiful
and you can just look, nothing needed to be done to have them go unscathed through more than 2 centuries. Many of these barrels are empty because they don't use much wood in this domaine, and when they do it's only old barrels and for a small part of the blend. Today the last time they used casks was 2 years ago.
Baptiste, Gilles son, want to bring 400-liter barrels in here, they're looking for used ones.
We first taste a Clos Siguier 2011, vieilles vignes "les Camille" (from his daughter's name). This wine looks dark, darker than the rest, he says it's only Côt (Malbec) here, no Tannat part. Lovely nose with fruit, prune, meat notes, very appealing and promising even before you raise the glass to your lips. So lovely to swallow too. This is a 20 000-bottle cuvée usually (total production in the domaine is 70 000 bottles a year).
As we taste this I wonder how much this wine may cost, I mean public price at the winery. There is a small blackboard on a standing barrel and I have a hard time believing what I read : the old vines cuvée costs a mere 7 € tax included. I sometimes have second thoughts about the pertinence to telling the prices knowing that it could result in bigger demand for certain wines that are such good value, with alas for us here in France the prospect of finding higher price tags for our daily treats. I take the risk, this domaine desserves it.
For more indepth tasting notes, read what Alice Feiring wrote on a previous vintage.
Before we left we were offered a glimpse on a rarity, a wine that doesn't even officially exist, this is a Mauzac pétillant naturel (pet'nat) made from a few vines of Mauzac (the iconic grape variety of the Gaillac region) that Gilles Bley and his family have in their vineyard. He says that in the village here in Montcuq there has
always been some Mauzac, Mauzac Vert to be precise.
Look at this great, rare type of pink, never seen anything like that. We ask if it is always like that, he says yes. Beautiful refreshing drink, a liquid candy. Too bad the authorized varieties are frozen by the administration rules set decades ago, some parts of Cahors might be known also for this little gem.
Over a few terrines and magret de canard (rinsed down with wine of course) we chatted with Gilles Bley and his family in his parents' kitchen. We happen to speak again about the wine bars where Gilles Bley sells his wines and incindently he says that he began selling his wines at several of the early natural-wine bars in Paris [I tag them as such, but he just told us about the name of these venues] : First to Jean Pierre Robinot's L'Ange Vin (late 1990s' to 2002), as you may know that before being a winegrower himself, Robinot runned a pioneer wine bar in Paris. And Gilles sold his wines also to the bistrot des Envierges in the 20th arrondissement, the venue having at one point its sister restaurant next door, la Courtille (see what Patricia Wells wrote on it in 1994). These places were manages by early actors of the natural wine scene in Paris : Bernard Pontonnier (story on lower page here) and François Morel (initiator of Le Rouge & le Blanc, an independant wine magazine now 30 years old). I am really amazed because he was then selling wine in those places along Marcel Lapierre, Foillard, Gramenon and others, and at a time no one would have expected this type of wine would really make a killing one or two decades later...
It seems this domaine always worked its soils without aknowledging this as an organic approach, and Gilles Bley explains that on these higher plateaus the soils are very dry and plowing was a way to prevent the rain water to just run down along the slope. With plowing at the right time they could fix rain water and have it go through the ground.
Asked about the SO2, Gilles Bley says they add some just after the malolactic and that's all, there will be no adding for the botting. This post-malolactic adding is small, only 1 gr/hectoliter.
The wines of Clos Siguier can be found in several good wine bars in Paris, like les Pipos, la Cave de l'Os à Moelle, the Caves Augé, l'Ami Jean, Chez Casimir, Chez Michel (Thierry Breton), La Pointe du Groin, Le Comptoir (Yves Camdeborde), Le Barbezingue (in Chatillon), la Ferrandaise (rue de Vaugirard) among others.
In the United States they sell through Jenny & François, in Japan through oeno-connexion (there's a pallet which is due to leave for Japan, it's for Diony).
A non-related tip for Google-Maps users who are fed up with the new version (Google now sunsets the old version), you can still access to the initial version through this url (save it somewhere) : https://www.google.com/maps/mm.
I sometimes wonder if these techies ever bother to ask the public what they like best.