A Castle Made of Wine
Bertrand Vigouroux is producing stunning Malbecs at the historic and elegant Château de Mercuès
Article and Photography by Andy Barnham
Set on top of the hills of the Lot valley in south west France, Château de Mercuès is a dominating and historical presence. Named after Mercury, the Roman God of Travel, the site of the Château has been inhabited since the 13th century and has a long, and often bloody, history. Captured and recaptured by the English and the Bishops of Cahors during the Hundred Years’ War (1337- 1453), the Chateau subsequently witnessed additional, religious, conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants in the 16th century before being turned into a summer residence for the Bishops of Cahors in the 17th century. During the 19th century, the splendour of the Château waxed and waned (both Charles de Gaulle and Edith Piaf stayed at the Château during the 1950s in a previous incarnation as a hotel before it went bust in the 1970s) until it was purchased by winemaker George Vigouroux in 1983.
With a family history of wine making in the Lot region since 1887, after purchasing the Château George replanted 35 hectares of vineyards at Mercuès which had disappeared since the phylloxera crises of 1876 which saw, according to some estimates, nine tenths of all European vineyards destroyed. In addition to the horticultural changes, George also dug through the Château’s foundations and created a wine cellar and facility under the gardens with the aim of establishing wine tourism at the Château (the Château offers a wine package for those keen on tasting workshops).
The renovated Château is set over five floors, containing 24 individual rooms, five suites, tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool. One of the most remarkable suites is located in the tower inside the highest part of the Château with views out over the valley and includes a retractable ceiling allowing the spectacle of the internal turret structure itself. Those staying at the bottom end of the chateau, fear not, while the view isn’t as grand as that from the turret, close your eyes and imagine listening to the dulcet tones of Piaf echoing down the corridors; prior to George’s renovations, the basement used to be a discotheque in which Piaf played during her stay in the 1950s. Since the 1980s, the Château has been subjected to regular modernisation to keep it up to date, the most recent of which saw Wi-Fi installed throughout the whole hotel; no mean feat given the size of the Château and the amount of thick stone walls that need to be negotiated.
The Château also includes two restaurants; one casual and one fine dining, the latter doubles up as the breakfast room for guests. It was abundantly clear during a walk through the Saturday food market in the heart of Cahors with the Château manager Yann, that the Château maintains excellent relationships with all the local farmers and food producers. The result of this is being the ingredients at both restaurants is the truly the best on offer in the region. The Bistrot offers seating both inside the Château and outside along the terrace which overlooks the Lot river with a short and a simple set menu offer; starter, main and dessert with or without a glass of wine and cheese. The standard of cuisine at both restaurants is high with the Château aiming for culinary recognition for their fine dining though experienced diners may find the dishes lacking a certain elegance required for top level awards.
George’s son Bertrand, took over control of the Château and the vineyard in 1990. According to Bertrand, in 1989 he asked his father if he could be responsible for a small production of wine himself. Upon tasting the result George handed control of the estate’s wines in 1990 and Bertrand never looked back. Indeed, not only did Bertrand take control, but he won a gold medal at the Concours Général de Paris for his Mercuès Malbec in his first year. Incidentally, 1990 is also the year Bertrand married his wife, Christine whom he met at college in Toulouse, so it is understandable if the 1990 vintage is special at the Château for a number of reasons! It is Christine who is now responsible for the look and feel of the interior at the Château as well as much of the daily administration leaving Bertrand to concentrate on the wine production. As part of the look of the Château each year Christine invites a local artist to decorate the stone interior with their works, bringing splashes of colour and a touch of the modern world into the historic building. Given the commission involves over 80 paintings, it is no surprise the amount of competition and the standard of work that is selected with a waiting list of several years for chosen artists.
If you did a double take when you read ‘Mercuès Malbec’, yes, you read correctly, twice. Despite the common association of Malbec with Argentina, the grape was only introduced to Argentina in the mid-19th century (by the French, naturally) with the grape historically popular in south west France. Today Cahors, the capital of the Lot department, is the primary location of French Malbec, the grape having also been popular in Bordeaux until 1956 when frost killed off 75 per cent of the crop. However Bertrand is surprisingly pragmatic when it comes to his Argentina competition, believing that the current popularity of Malbec is down to the work the Argentines have put into raising the profile of the grape which could not have been achieved by the Cahors region alone.
Bertrand currently produces six wines at the Château (and several more at the family estate at Haut- Serre where he and his family live), four red (all Malbec) and two white. The hallmark of the reds is their deep colour, silky tannins and elegance. The top of Bertrand’s range is the Icône W.O.W., selected from not only the best of the grape crop but then also the best of the fermentation tanks. As the name suggests, Bertrand wanted to make a wine which made people sit up and say ‘WOW’, though unfortunately as there is no UK distributor, you’ll either have to visit Château de Mercuès yourself or purchase the wine online to taste a bottle.
Visitors to the region should, if possible, take time to explore. In addition to the local city of Cahors, the region is also home to Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, a member of the Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (“The most beautiful villages of France”) association. Located on the edge of a steep 100 metres cliff, the village has served as inspiration to generations of artists in summer, while closing down in winter and being home to only a dozen or so people in the colder months. The Lot Department is also home to the Pech Merle, a prehistoric cave painting site open to the general public. Discovered by locals in 1922 the walls of the Pech Merle’s seven chambers contain paintings of animals including mammoths, horses and reindeer which date back as far as the Gravettian culture (some 25,000 years BC).