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Our Best Malbec Ever: Focused, Pure, Elegant

When I talked to Paul Hobbs, the celebrated Malbec Whisperer, about this wine back in 2012, he didn't have a name for it yet. He was making it with his joint-venture partner, Bertrand-Gabriel Vigouroux, whose family has been in the wine industry in Cahors, France, since 1861. Released a few weeks ago, this 2011 Malbec de Cahors from Paul Bertrand — their first names — is now called Crocus, after the flowers that bloom in the area in spring and from which saffron comes.

It is the best Malbec we’ve ever had — and we go way back with this grape. Just earlier this month, when we met winemaker Laura Catena, whose father Nicolás Catena hired Hobbs to consult in Argentina on Malbec in 1989, she said that our Tastings column in The Wall Street Journal in 1999 had given that country's Malbec a rocket boost as the first major article in a big mainstream U.S. publication.  We still remember that bottle! It was at Calle Ocho in New York and — well, that's another story.

I’m certainly not comparing the two countries’ versions. In Argentina, Malbec is considered the national red grape.  Malbec, which hails from France, is a specialty of Cahors in the southwest along the Lot River, where it thrives after other regions of France also hit by phylloxera and bad weather gave up on it. It is sometimes called the Black Wine of Cahors.  It says something about the new popularity that Argentina has brought to the grape that this wine is, in effect, varietally designted, as Malbec de Cahors. The world does turn.

One is not better than the other. They are merely different. In general, we tend to think of Malbec from Argentina as a casual wine, huge, earthy, sometimes redolent of herbs like tarragon. If I had to use a few words to describe the French versions, I’d probably say “casual, minerally and lean.” Both can be bad in the same way: sweet, too-oaked, alcohol bombs.

The press materials online call the Crocus a “redefining” of Malbec de Cahors and while I’d be nervous saying that about a wine that’s been made in an area since 50 B.C., I also think it’s generally an apt description.  In our notes, we described it as “having finesse,” and as being “pure, elegant, minerally and focused. Serious Bordeaux-like structure. A wine to serve to wine lovers.” Pure is not the first thing I’d usually think of if asked to describe Malbec.

Malbec or Auxerrois or Côt Noir or Pressac as it is known in different parts of France is one of the six grape types that are allowed in Bordeaux blends. In 1971,  Bertrand-Gabriel Vigouroux’s father, Georges whose company bears his name, helped Cahors get Appellation d’Origine Controlleé (AOC), status, and the family’s vinous footprint in the region is huge. In 2000, Georges handed control of SAS Georges Vigouroux to Bertrand-Gabriel, who has led an effort to modernize. He represents the fourth generation at the helm.

Hobbs, whose Paul Hobbs Winery is in Sebastopol, California, also owns Paul Hobbs Imports, a pioneer in importing Malbec into the U.S. It imports wines from his own companies in Argentina as well as wines from other Argentine producers and winemakers in Chile like Viña Pérez Cruz, which makes an awesome Petit Verdot. Hobbs also consults in numerous other countries and is in Cahors at least twice a year.  Bertrand-Gabriel and the winemaking team in Cahors also regularly come to California.

In 2008, Bertrand-Gabriel traveled to Mendoza to see what the fuss was all about with Malbec. While there, he asked a friend to introduce him to Hobbs and persuaded Hobbs to visit Cahors and to work with him, which Hobbs began doing in 2009. The Crocus is made from a blend of a single Malbec clone from three vineyards that the Vigouroux’s own: Haut-Serre, the highest elevation one with rocky, red clay and iron concentrations, Leret-Monpezat on a middle terrace along a slope, and Mercuès, which grows around a château that is now a Relais et Château hotel. Most of the blend, from hand-picked grapes, comes from Haut-Serre. There’s a higher-end Crocus that’s 100% Haut Serre and new oak.

Since two years had lapsed since I last spoke to Hobbs, who next month will guide the first Grand Tasting at the Wine Spectator’s New York Experience, I was eager to ask if this wine that didn’t have a name then had surprised him in any way. “It surprised me quite significantly,” he told me yesterday. “The style is so different from anything I’ve ever done.

“It automatically registers as something distinctive, European. The soils are wonderfully diverse. From a geological point of view, there’s quite a bit of variability. The freshness of the fruit, the precision of it. It’s so refined.”

When I told him that what struck us most was its purity, he said, “It was important to me, the need to change from the earthy funkiness that people think of as Malbec to a pure style Malbec. We’ve been working since 2009 on this. I really didn’t feel that I wanted to release anything that couldn’t be said to be pure.

“That meant a lot of changes had to be made both in the vineyard and in the winery, a tightening up of the management of the process and more attention to things like sanitation.”

The Crocus is an intellectual wine that kept us talking for a long time as we enthused about every sip. It felt a little like an embarrassment of riches. Have you ever had such a good time that you wondered: Is this because I’m drinking this with my loved one or is the wine really that good? 

So we ordered a half case and darn, it’s because the wine is that good and we were enjoying it with each other.   

Dorothy J. Gaiter conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. She has been tasting and studying wine since 1973. She has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist, and editorial writer at The Miami Herald and The New York Times, as well as at The Journal. 

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