Cahors, a region located just 150km southeast of Saint-Émilion, is worlds apart from its Bordelais neighbours. It is one of few viticultural areas where polyculture still reigns; forests, fields of grains, cereals and herds of cattle all border pockets of vineyards.
It is also here that the Malbec grape variety, capable of producing intense and long-lived cuvées that became known as black wine, built a global reputation. However, the region is also home to lesser known but equally enticing varieties, such as Valdiguié and Jurançon Noir, which somewhat unfairly have been forced to take a backseat in recent years…
... But not if Jérémie Illouz has anything to say about it.
Jérémie is on a mission to celebrate Cahors in all its guises; from celebrating Malbec’s greatness, to working to preserve and unleash the potential of Valdiguié and Jurançon Noir, to also planting varieties for the future, such as Cinsault.
With a dedicated, hands-on approach to viticulture, and a light and respectful touch in the cellar, he is achieving extraordinary results. Capturing the raw beauty of Cahors in a bottle, Jérémie is creating new benchmark cuvées for the region.
As we stand with Jérémie amongst 75-year-old Valdiguié and Jurançon Noir vines in the middle of June, the only sound we can hear is that of the cicadas and the leaves of neighbouring trees moving in tandem with the wind.
“See?” Jérémie breaks the silence after a few moments. We nod.
"When people ask me, why here: why Cahors? Well, here you feel like you’re on an island. There are trees all around, and that is wonderful. People speak so much about organics, biodynamics and all the various types of treatments. But when you’re here and look around and see this landscape of polyculture, that is what it’s about, and it is rare in the world of wine."
Having fallen in love with wine, he decided to pursue an oenology degree in Bordeaux (it was there that he met his business partner, Paul Parlange). He also travelled extensively through French wine regions to learn more, and also travelled abroad to California and Azerbaijan to do harvests.
He soon realised that it was the wines which had been made naturally which resonated the most with him. He was greatly inspired by the wines of Domaine L’Anglore, Les Foulards Rouge, as well as the natural wine movement in Beaujolais, via winemakers such as Jean Foillard.
Having travelled to South West France frequently on holiday as a kid, this area of France already had a special place in his heart. When he met Fabien Jouves of Mas del Périé, he saw a different side to the kinds of wine that can be produced in the region. He began experimenting and making some wines here from purchased fruit in 2008, with his first whole cluster Malbec produced in 2009, and by 2012 he had taken on his first plots of vines.
Fast forward a decade, and he is now tending six hectares of vines, both old and young, as well as a flock of 11 sheep, with his sheepdog by his side.
The soils of Cahors are composed of clay-limestone, with the particularity of being iron-rich (siderolithic). Jérémie explains that the terroir here is exceptional, but he remains pragmatic about it. He says,
“Terroir is important, but a winemaker who has cultivated amazingly on a terroir that isn’t necessarily considered extraordinary can still make a great wine. If you have great terroir and cultivate it well, then it’s fabulous!”
He tells us that on the other hand, you can’t make great wine from great terroirs if the soils are poorly managed, or if the vines aren’t looked after well:
“It’s not easy to find good vineyards here anymore. By ‘good,’ I mean vineyards that have been pruned and trained well. Often, they’re very badly pruned. If you take on a parcel that has been pruned well but the grower has used herbicide, at least you can work to recover the soil. On the other hand, if vines have been shaped poorly, it’s so tough. There are not many good viticulturists in this world. And to find someone who is both a good viticulturist and a good winemaker — there really aren’t many of those!”
Jérémie was fortunate to arrive in the region early enough to find and take on some exceptional old parcels of vines that had been well tended. Amongst these are 50-year-old vines of Malbec, as well as the aforementioned 75-year-old vines of Valdiguié and Jurançon Noir. He took the plot over from a 90-year-old man who had grafted the vineyard by hand himself. He passed away just two years later.
Unfortunately, however, many of these old vines — despite having been tended meticulously — are affected by the fanleaf virus. This virus, spread by nematodes, is wreaking havoc in several French regions, not just Cahors, but also Chablis, Champagne and parts of the Loire in particular. It causes chlorosis in the leaves, hence slowing photosynthesis and causing vine growth to be stunted, resulting in drastically reduced yields.
It is so severe that his old vineyard of Valdiguié and Jurançon Noir usually yields only 10hl/ha, which is verging on being entirely financially unsustainable. He says,
“It’s so tough, and it’s demoralising. It hurts your heart to pull out a vineyard like this one, but at one stage you have to say this no longer makes sense. However, I think the vineyard was sensing that I was thinking that, as this year it’s suddenly given me a great yield – I think I’ll see 25 or even 30hl/ha.”
So for now, the vines are staying in the ground, and we’ll see what the future holds. Jérémie is also going to do laboratory tests on some of the vines that seem to be unaffected:
“If it turns out that some of the vines are actually disease-free, then that might mean they’re resistant. Time will tell!”
At around 17 euros per sample, doing tests like these are expensive, but to save diverse plant material for the future, it is worth it.
As well as working with old plots, Jérémie is also focused on planting for the future. By planting himself, he can ensure that he sets up a vineyard for a healthy and prosperous future, instead of taking on some of the problematically pruned plots in the area that may never recover fully. He has been lab testing plant material from various massal selections he has done in the Loire, in order to plant diverse selections of Malbec (known as Côt in the Loire, where it is also celebrated), to ensure that he plants the young vineyards virus-free. Additionally, he has planted Cinsault, as well as some Ugni Blanc and Chardonnay, and is contemplating planting Fer Servadou, as well as southern white varieties such as Clairette, Picpoul and Bourboulenc.
He is particularly enthusiastic about his young Cinsault parcel, which he tells us resists heat very well and also seems to resist fungal diseases. He has planted it with 2m x 2m spacing, to ensure that the vines have enough access to water (as in so many regions in France, Cahors is also affected more frequently by climate change and the ensuing droughts). He says,
“I love Pineau d’Aunis. I was speaking to Eric Pfifferling (of L’Anglore) about how much I love the variety, and he said to me, if you like Pineau d’Aunis, plant Cinsault! You’ll see. So, I followed his advice.”
Before planting the young plots, Jérémie prepares the soil and also lays down compost, which he sources from a local biodynamic farmer friend. He also gives any other vines that are struggling some extra compost to help them.
“We work as if we’re in a garden. We mechanise as little as possible and do all of the vine work by hand. We treat as little as we can. It’s not just about producing grapes. Of course, that’s the goal, but it’s not everything.”
All his work in the vineyards is meticulous, done to the highest organic standards. Mechanisation is kept to an utmost minimum, with only gentle discing being done to control grasses. He also lets plants grow in the centre of the rows. He says,
“Some people want the vineyards to be totally manicured and think that it’s some kind of beauty contest. But no, I think this is more beautiful. I try not to pass through the vineyards too much.”
“I came here because the region is beautiful, and it has great terroir. It wasn’t just for the Malbec! Of course, I like Malbec, but I also like all the other varieties. When I saw this landscape, I said – this is it. This will give a unique taste.”
It is this dedication to the region’s diversity that you also find in the cellar. In comparison to so many neighbours who focus solely on Malbec, here it is a melting pot.
Inspired by those first winemakers that made him fall in love with natural wine, Jérémie decided to focus on whole cluster fermentation for his reds. Unfortunately, the lighter colour of his wines and their fresher expressions led the AOC to reject them, but this didn’t faze him; they are simply now bottled as Vin de France.
While Jérémie always works with quality in mind, harvesting his grapes for his whole bunch vinifications by hand, other neighbouring growers pass through the vineyards with machine harvesters. It feels ironic and at odds with the future of the region that his wines cannot be considered part of the official AOC.
Furthermore, the AOC Cahors states that Malbec must compose 70% of the blend, with only Tannat and Merlot being permitted for the rest — not the other indigenous varieties — despite the fact that both Tannat and Merlot are struggling with global warming.
Jérémie explains that this is a fairly recent phenomenon — many of the elderly farmers in the area remember when there was far more varietal diversity. He says,
“The appellation wanted people to make extracted wines, so that’s why they didn’t permit Valdiguié and Jurançon Noir. That’s the problem that occurs when the people making these decisions don’t come from a culture of wine. They aren’t open-spirited.”
Once he has planted an additional plot, he will be content with the size of his domaine. He wants to be able to be as hands-on with the farming as possible, and that means not expanding too much.
“I want the vineyards to be like gardens and I want to be able to do everything by hand. That is good enough for me; that’s all I need. You need to know how your vines grow. By respecting your vines, you can grow the best grapes. Then, you make wine according to how the vines have grown that year. It’s about respecting your wines, right up until bottling.”
In the cellar, he keeps a very minimal approach. After the period of whole bunch maceration, the wines are pressed age in old barrels and stainless steel. He works as cleanly as possible, and keeps sulfites to a minimum, often bottling without them. He says,
“80% of the time I don’t add sulfites. Sometimes I will right before bottling if the wine needs it; I’m not an extremist. A bit is ok, but not too much!”
So what’s next for this unique little domaine? Jérémie is looking forward to when his white vineyard will begin producing sufficient quantities of fruit (for the time being, he is supplementing with purchased grapes). He would also like to expand his flock of sheep, hoping to grow his herd from 11 to 20. During the winter and spring, they graze the vineyards and fertilise naturally, and during the summer they are moved into the woods.
He also muses,
“At the moment I am focusing mainly on cultivation and vinification, not ageing, but I know that god ageing can magnify a wine…”
Whatever the sequel will hold for this domaine, we’re certain it will be a thrilling one that will offer a more diverse insight into this historic region. Cahors is lucky to have this bright talent lay his roots here.