No estate is more synonymous with high-end Malbec than Château Lagrézette in Cahors. Proprietor, Alain Dominique Perrin and consultant, Michel Rolland are known the world over for their efforts with Malbec (known as Côt locally) in this region, but behind the scenes, winemaker and technical director, Cédric Blanc is the man that makes it come to fruition.
Why Cahors? Why Lagrézette?
In 2007, after two years overseas in Australia, New Zealand, and California, I wanted to find a permanent position in France. I applied for different positions but when I visited Château Lagrézette, I found all the elements to make top quality wines— a special grape (Malbec), good vineyards, and of course, a wonderful cellar. For me, I don’t care about the location, I just want to make good wines. Cahors was a lesser-known region, so it was a good challenge to make iconic wines there.
Has the reputation (of Cahors) changed much since you began there?
Today a lot of new winemakers are making progress by harvesting later. Riper grapes improve the quality of the wine. This is very important for the appellation. Cahors can produce strong wines with high tannins and acidity that require waiting ten years or so to drink; but now, we see a softer side of Cahors.
Why is Malbec special to you?
I am from Bordeaux where Malbec is used as a blending grape. Malbec is very generous and offers a lot of color and tannin that, on its own, can sometimes make a full-bodied monster wine, but with ripeness and light gentle extraction, it can make fantastic wine. In Cahors, we have the acidity, the ripeness, and the alcohol to make fine, elegant wine that can age 15 to 20 years without blending additional varieties.
What sets Lagrézette apart?
Of course, the owner M. Alain Dominique Perrin. He started to plant vines in 1985 and gave the different viticulturists and winemakers the best vineyards to work with and the best equipment in the cellar to produce very good wines. He wanted to make the best Malbec in the world.
Tell me about working with Alain.
He constantly challenges me—he is always thinking at least two years ahead and it’s hard to keep up! It’s also fantastic because in his long career he has been dedicated to improving the quality of the wine and gives us all the best tools to make that happen. In the vineyard and winery, he is always trying to improve the wine and our work.
How did you get your start as a winemaker?
When I was studying science at the University in Bordeaux, during a job forum, I met an oenologist and his intervention was so passionate that I chose to become a winemaker. My first vintage was 1998 at Château Clarke (Listrac-Médoc) during my oenologist degree. Afterward, I worked a lot in the Médoc area in different châteaux like Phélan Ségur or Chasse-Spleen. Then, I went on to work for Moët Hennessy Estates & Wines as assistant winemaker for Cloudy Bay (New Zealand), Cape Mentelle (Australia), and Newton Vineyard (Napa Valley).
What was the biggest learning experience as a budding winemaker?
Working in New Zealand and then Napa, I learned very different lessons. At Cloudy Bay, I learned the nuances of working with many different grapes. In Napa, the high alcohol that is achieved is very unlike Bordeaux, so it was interesting to learn how to finish the sugar levels and fermentation. Both were helpful to me and I am still learning.
Are there other winemakers you specifically respect?
During my career, I traveled a lot and met a lot of different winemakers. I have a lot of respect for all winemakers. Of course, at Château Lagrézette, I worked with Michel Rolland. He is the father of new oenology and has improved the quality of the wines all around the world. He is a very professional gentleman but also a very funny guy. I also have a lot of respect for Jean Hoeflinger from Alpha Omega in the Napa Valley (former winemaker of Newton Vineyard), Rob Mann (former winemaker of Cape Mentelle), and Axel Heinz from Ornellaia, a friend from Bordeaux University. I have a lot of respect for winemakers like Bill Harlan, Pierre Seillan, Hervé Bizeul, and Aimé Guibert, because they created iconic wine starting with nothing but the idea to make the best wine in the world.
Finally, I will also talk about Michel Duclos. He isn’t a winemaker but a great viticulturist. Talking with him is important to me to understand vines, especially the pruning because good pruning is essential to produce wonderful wines. I think I have too many people for this question.
How have your winemaking practices changed over the years?
I’m more gentle with the grapes. When I arrived at Château Lagrézette, the wines were already good, but in my opinion, too strong. I wanted wines full-bodied but also elegant. In 2011, with M. Perrin’s help, we changed the way we filled our ferment tanks by using gravity and also plunging for extraction. This way, the wines are still powerful and full-bodied but finer. I also wait to get the right maturity of the grapes to obtain very ripe tannins, without getting overripe and still keeping good acidity. I worked a lot on the balance between alcohol, acidity, and tannic structure.
I also changed the cooper—I am very focused on my choice of barrels. We need to respect the Malbec expression. The aging in barrel is to get very round tannins, but not to give oak flavors.
What cooper do you use? What type of barrel age and char do you lean towards?
We actually use five different coopers to get the perfect blend. Saury brings sweetness to the wine, Taransaud respects the Malbec fruit expression and give the wine some structure, François Frères also gives structure and a brioche note on the nose, Ermitage for the respect of the Malbec expression, and finally, Vicard, because they have a new approach to oak selection. They determine the tannic potential of the oak and the result is very different, giving low, medium, or high tannic potential. We used high tannic potential. It’s another way to choose the barrel by not just using the origin of the oak and the toast.
Has climate change affected your approach to winemaking?
Not really. If you want ripe Malbec grapes, you need to have 14 or 15 points of alcohol. We pick the grapes now on the same date as we did in 2007—sometimes later. There’s not a huge impact on the winemaking, especially when working with gravity and plunging. But with grape growing, the climate change has had a huge impact due to very cool winters, some big spring frost, and thunder with hail.
How does the gravity-flow winery positively impact the wine?
Using gravity flow to fill the tank was a big change for us. Malbec is a very special grape, generous in color and tannin but we need to manage the extraction of the tannins. If at first after filling the tank, you start to smash the grapes with a pump, for example, you will release a lot of astringent and unripe tannins. Using gravity, you can take care of the grapes and fill the tank with about 90 percent of the whole berry.
What does each vineyard plot offer to a blend?
We’ve got three different vineyards. Rocamadour is for white wine production. Landiech is 100 percent Malbec that ripens earlier than the Malbec in the Caillac vineyard. In a normal vintage, Landiech will give ripe grapes and ripe tannins to the wines. Caillac has older vines and the wines are deeper with more acidity. Of course, in each vineyard, there’s a special plot.
In the Landiech vineyard, we have 20 plots each with different terroir—red clay, gravel, and gravel with clay—so the expression is different if you compare the wines from each plot. It’s the same thing in Caillac. As a result, we have a lot of combination options for the blends and the ability for plot selection for our Paragon, Cuvée Marguerite, Cuvée Dame Honneur, and Pigeonnier wines.
What makes a good wine?
To make good wine, we need good and ripe grapes. With this principle element, it’s quite easy. If you take care of the grapes with gravity and plunging, you can have the right equilibrium. Good barrels will bring complexity to the wine with as little as possible oak flavors so there is the right balance of varietal grape flavors. In 2015, I also became the Technical Director, so I work a lot in the vineyard to ensure quality grapes.
What’s the most interesting thing currently happening in the world of wine?
To me, it’s the revolution in the Bordeaux area. Bordeaux is not only Grand Cru Classé. There are a lot of small wineries that are at a crossroads, working towards quality. The verity is in the glass, not on the label.
What is your perfect day off?
A perfect day off is a sunny day to enjoy with my wife and my daughter. I also enjoy running on the hills or the mountain when I can. And, of course, to finish the day with a good glass of wine.
What is in the future for Lagrézette?
The future of Lagrézette is to try to improve again and again the quality of the wines, by restructuring the vines. For instance, I am currently tearing out some Merlot vines that did not give good results, and I’m replanting with Malbec. I will continue to work in the vineyard to improve the quality of the grapes year after year, vintage after vintage.