The current flavor of the month seems to be Malbec from Argentina, which, with over 66,000 acres, now has the most extensive plantings of the grape in the world. This planetary domination is recent, however. Malbec’s origins are in southwest France, in the former province of Quercy, most significantly in the vineyards of Cahors. Contractions of "Cahors" gave the grape its original name Cot or Côt.
Appreciated for the good quality and dark black color of the wines it made, the grape traveled throughout the French countryside during the 18th century, and in the process was redubbed numerous times. (Grapes tend to have as many aliases as career criminals.) The moniker "Malbec," a late arrival, honored the man who cultivated it in the region of Bordeaux, one Monsieur Malbeck.
While the Bordelais still grow Malbec, it was initially used there primarily as a blending grape. In the Cahors region, however, Malbec is the principal variety, covering some 15,000 acres.
"Cot is mostly purchased by sommeliers who like Malbec as a varietal but don't care for the high alcohol and richness that those from the New World give."
Yet, one French iteration of Malbec is woefully overlooked: the version made in Touraine, in the Loire Valley, where it is called Cot. And though the acreage is microscopic at 1,384, it could take the wine loving world by storm, particularly in the dog days of summer when what we crave is a delicious, easy-drinking yet characterful red best chill to between 59 and 62 degrees.
With many consumers fleeing high alcohol wines, Touraine’s Cots— which increasingly add the name Malbec to their labels—are just the ticket. These wines rarely contain over 13 percent alcohol and are always light on their feet. They are seldom, if ever, tannic. Instead, expect juice that's supple and succulent, characterized by flavors of black cherries, blueberries, hints of licorice, menthol, violets and white pepper. Not heroic trophy bottlings, Cots are comfort wines, with no jagged edges. They ask to be drunk right away and are generally priced between $12 and $15.
What’s more, these wines are food friendly and happily pair with a range of dishes from a good ham sandwich to a magret de canard. In light vintages like 2012 and 2013, they make super partners for quiche, fresh goat cheese, pasta salads, patés, terrines and grilled or poached salmon. Richer vintages, like 2005 and 2014, can be paired with game. Or with just about anything other than crustaceans and mollusks. According to Jon David Headrick, who imports the Cot wines of Jean-François Mérieau of Domaines des Bois Vaudons, "They’re catching on." Headrick adds, "Cot is mostly purchased by sommeliers who like Malbec as a varietal but don't care for the high alcohol and richness that those from the New World give. And many buyers consider Cot from the Loire an elegant option to Cahors, which can often be rustic and coarse. Of course, the younger growers in Cahors are producing more suave styles, but they still lack the acidity that the Loire can bring."
Cot/Malbec Producers to consider:
In 2000, after travelling the world and working harvests in South Africa, Mérieau took over his family’s 79 acres on well-exposed slopes overlooking the river Cher. Mérieau farms organically, keeps yields low, and ferments his wines using indigenous yeasts. His excellent Cot/Malbec is called "Cent Visages" ($25). I’d have sworn the 2005 was a Syrah!
Fourth generation vigneron Mikaël Bouges’ organic wines might well be branded "natural," but rest assured that they never display the flaws associated with wines from the less talented practitioners of the sect. Bouges, who could have taken over his father’s extensive acreage, chose instead to select tiny vineyards with the best soils and expositions. He makes three versions of Cot. The one you are most likely to find is "Les Côts Hauts" ($16), a beautifully scented, spicy, vivacious red. More complex are the barrel-aged "Les Couilles d’Ane," which means "donkey’s balls" and is local dialect for the type of stones found in the vineyard. And there’s "Aigues Vives," a Cot from a tiny, south-facing parcel—the Cots from here are so rich and structured they recall a full-bodied Cahors. Aigues-Vives calls for cellaring and all of Bouges’ wines benefit from at least an hour in carafe.
Jérôme Sauvète, another fourth generation vigneron, working with wife Dominique, has 40 hectares of vines on a stony plateau overlooking the river Cher which he has converted to organic farming. The Sauvètes produce three different versions of Cot, the most accessible, "Antea" ($13), is a user-friendly charmer made by fermenting whole clusters in tank with indigenous yeasts. "Osmose" is the name of a Cot made from a selection of the best grapes, fermented in open barrels and punched down daily during vinification. Darker, deeper, it has mild oak notes and an easy-going plushness that is never heavy. "Privilège," a blend of 80 percent Cot and 20 percent Cabernet Franc, is fermented like "Osmose" but in tank rather than barrel. A touch tannic, it benefits from carafing and would handily accompany anything from rotisserie chicken to a hearty stew.
Domaine Henry Marionnet
Henry Marionnet, an adventurer with a genius for innovation in the vineyards and in the cellar, put Touraine on the wine map. He and son Jean-Sebastien, with 148 acres of vines, have perhaps the largest family property in the region. Their near encyclopedic range of wines includes the Vinifera line, pure-fruited wines made from extremely low-yielding, ungrafted vines. And it is there you’ll find his silky, lip-smacking Cot which you won’t be able to stop drinking ($17).