Renting a villa in Italy, France or Spain isn’t just for millionaires. Perhaps surprisingly, villa rental can be more reasonable than staying in a hotel, especially if you’re a family a larger group (though being a millionaire does help if you want to rent an entire Tuscan village from the Ferragamo family).
There are just five simple steps:
1) Decide if a villa vacation is for you. The pros are that you’ll have a base for a week or two that you can come back to each night. You can stay in all day, lounge by the pool or in the garden, take in the culture somewhere else, eat in or out… all up to you. The cons are that there’s no daily maid service or other hotel amenities, you are in the same place (so visiting places far from base means a longer round trip), and you have to keep the place reasonably clean and tidy. You’ll likely be doing cooking yourself if you stay in, though you can also hire a cook — and in some places you can also hire a maid if you want more frequent cleaning. Personally, I am happy to trade hotel amenities for a more relaxed and flexible vacation.
2) Pick a country and general geography — South of France, Tuscany etc — based on the kind of things you want to do and see. Get a few guidebooks to places you think you might like to go. My personal favorites are the Dorling Kindersley “Eyewitness” travel guides (DK guides), and the Rough Guides. I like the DK guides because they’re chock full of photographs so you can get a better idea of what a place is really like, and they’re also a good starting point for planning photography trips. The Rough Guides are impeccably researched with good writing on places, history, art and contemporary life, with great vignettes on the famous locals. However, although brimming with great maps to get you around, they are sparsely illustrated when it comes to photos.
3) Decide whereabouts you want to be in relation to the places and things you want to see and do. For example, if you really want to spend your days soaking up the world’s greatest collection of renaissance art in Florence, don’t base yourself in a cute-but-remote villa in the rolling hills of Chianti 20 minutes drive from the nearest major road. Mightily obvious, perhaps, but consider this: we were enjoying a dinner of incredibly fresh pasta with a great Brunello di Montalcino wine in a small enoteca (wine bar) walking distance from our Tuscan villa. The owner was friendly and keen to share his knowledge of the local wines and the chef smiled shyly from her kitchen. Two women walked in and headed straight to the bar and asked for Martinis, which the owner couldn’t make because he only has a license to sell wine. They were fed up having found no decent shopping all day. Their base was in the middle of rural, hilly Chianti, at least an hour from the nearest Prada store. They had yet to find a bar that could make a Martini and would have been far happier in at hotel or apartment in central Florence or Rome.
4) Put together a group that can get on well with each other. Villas work better financially when you can spread the cost out across more people, and farm and country house conversions abound in Tuscany and France. This means there are plenty of villas for rent that can sleep 8, 10, 12 or more. However, you should consider carefully who will vacation with you: do you really want to spend a week or two with them in the same house? It’s tempting to add friends-of-friends to make up the numbers and keep costs down, but consider how well you know these people and whether you’ll get on. A tense atmosphere is the last thing you need on your vacation.
5) You know where you want to be and what is important to you and your fellow guests, and what size of place you need. So how to find a suitable villa? Our first villa rental was though ItalianVillas.com, subsequently purchased by the AAA and now part of AAA Travel. They were a great choice primarily because they really knew their stuff: they had been to all the properties shown on their site, and you could call them and talk to someone who can tell you if a property is right for you.
A good agency will share advice on the vagaries of Italian homes that are sometimes surprising. For example, you can’t turn on the heating in September just because it is cold — you must wait until after a certain date in October when the Italian government has decided it’s OK to turn on your heating (!) So put on a sweater and see if you can find wood for a fire instead. The point is to find an agency that knows its product. Avoid agencies that do not or are just “aggregating” traffic. They are not interested in whether you have a good experience — they’re after the commission (as much as 50%) and on to the next deal.
The only remaining thing to check is the villa location, as sites are often vague when it comes to the specific location (“10 minutes from Siena” doesn’t cut it). You need to know this so you won’t be stuck miles from all the things you want to see and do. In the age of GPS and Google Maps there’s no excuse anymore for vague locations. Plug the name into Google Maps and see where it is relative to roads, railways etc. Through the magic of satellite imagery, you can also avoid unpleasant surprises, such as renting a pretty villa right next to a large-scale “industrial” farm (this happened to us once, though we didn’t let it ruin our trip).
Renting directly is a substantial cost saving to going through an agency — 40-50% less — but you need to know what to look for and what to expect. This is the value that a good agency can bring and why they’re a great idea if you’re new to villa rental or a particular area. After we had rented twice with ItalianVillas.com in Tuscany, we knew enough about what to expect to rent directly from villa owners. We found new places to stay a stone’s throw from a villa — like Vignamaggio, the place in the photo below.
You might also consider hiring a cook. For some, this conjures images of impossibly expensive executive chefs, but in fact it can cost the same or less as an evening at a good restaurant.
A few years ago we rented with friends in Tuscany and wanted a cook to come 2-3 times a week to make dinner for all 12 of us. We have rented several times from the owners, a retired Italian executive couple, and they knew a cook who grew up in a family that owned a restaurant. She was phenomenally good, turning out four course meals of traditional, simple Tuscan cuisine with whatever was freshest and best, all for about 30 Euros a head.
She cooked on the first night when everyone was tired and cranky from a day spent crammed on planes and in security lines, which helped everyone to relax and start to enjoy the vacation. We either cooked for ourselves or ate out on the other nights, and having her come by every few days was a great way to bring everyone together throughout the trip.
So when you’re planning this year’s vacation and have re-started your heart after peeking at the Dollar/Euro exchange rate, consider villa rental. With a little planning, it can give you relaxing, fulfilling vacations that you’ll remember for a lifetime.
Figuring out how to power cameras and other gadgets in Europe can seem tricky, but it’s easy enough once you know how.
The trick is to look for a sticker on the power adapter or plug that tells you the input voltage. The magic words to look for are something like this: “100-240V AC 50/60Hz”. 100-240 tells you the voltage range: Europe standardized on 220 volts for its standard household power supply. So the voltage range on your device needs to cover 220 volts or more for your electronics to work in Italy, France and most of Europe. If your gadget can cope with a higher range, that’s OK too (e.g. “90-240”). In all of these cases, you just need a simple (and cheap) plug adapter and the device itself will automatically adapt to the higher voltage.
Here’s a video that shows you the various plug adapters and how they work:
Almost all of today’s small electronics like cameras, mobile phones, laptops and chargers automatically adapt and you just need a plug adapter.
Devices that use more power, like hairdryers or portable kettles, almost always only work on US 110 volts. Check the label: if it says something like “120VAC” or a smaller range such as “100-130V” then you cannot use it in Europe without a voltage transformer. This is extremely important: if you plug a standard 120V hair dryer into 220V using a plug adapter, it will immediately burn out the dryer and may cause a fire.
The good news is that there are travel hairdryers etc. available that are designed to adapt to the voltage. But in general it is much harder to design a high power device that is adaptable to 110V and 220V, because to do so you need a very heavy and large voltage transformer.
External voltage transformers are available: they are rated by the amount of power they can supply, in Watts. So it might say on your electric kettle “1000W” — that means you need a transformer rated for 1000W or greater. Again, it can be dangerous to exceed the maximum rating of a transformer: it will eventually melt and may catch fire. The more transformer a converter can supply, the larger and heavier it will be, so beware of smaller adapters if you need a lot of power.
The simple approach? Take devices that don’t need voltage conversion. The good news is that these days, most of them don’t. Take a travel hair dryer rather than lugging around a high current transformer: it’s much lighter. Simply don’t take portable kettles and other high power devices.
An extremely common question, especially for those heading to Europe for the first time, is what kind of plug adapter to use for their cameras, laptops, phones, iPads etc. In this video, I take a look at three common adapter types and show you how they work. I also show you what to look for to make sure your particular device will work on European voltages, and what kind of devices won’t work.
This really is one of those topics where literally taking a look at the converters is so much better than reading about them. Enjoy!
On American Tax Day, 15 April, it seems fitting to remember a time 800 years ago when tax strategies began to shift towards sales and property taxes. Enjoy!
North-by-North-west of Toulouse, the Lot and Dordogne departments are a joy to behold: well-preserved medieval towns called Bastides with their neat churches, gridiron layouts and square covered markets cling to the limestone banks of the rivers for which the regions are named. One of life’s pleasures in this region is to sit comfortably in a café in the shade of a Bastide’s covered market on a summer’s day, enjoying a glass of the local Cahors wine. What the tour guides fail to mention is that these picture-perfect villages are the result of 13th and 14th century global economic forces, shifting tax strategies, technological innovation and plain old real-estate speculation.
The first clue to the commercial purpose of the Bastide is its layout – specifically, the location of the church. Elsewhere in France and other European countries, the church usually occupies a strong, central position. Often it has its own square, vying for attention with the market square. But in Bastides, the market occupies the center of the village, with the church pushed off to one side. In this photo of Belves in the Dordogne, you can see the church is on a side-street of the main market square.
The second clue is that this central market square contains a large covered section – a fairly complicated structure, as you can see from all the exposed woodwork in the photograph of Monpazier to the left. Why go to all the trouble and expense of a covered marketplace?
And then there is the grid-iron layout of a Bastide. To Americans, this may not seem remarkable since most American towns and cities are structured as a grid. In Western Europe, this is very unusual compared to the complicated twisting, turning streets typical of towns, villages and cities. All of this points to the fact that the marketplace – and by implication, trade – was important, but why? Also, why the division of the village into regular blocks?
To find the answers to these questions, consider that the first Bastides were built in the 13th century, some time after 1229. This was a time of crusades, knights in armor and pitched battles fought by men in plate and chain mail, with swords and shields. We tend to think of medieval times as backward and simple. In fact, the 13thcentury was also a time of major economic change, as the importance of trade grew, and power exerted through the feudal system began to slip away.
In feudalism, the general population swore fealty to a lord. These vassals (literally, property) of the lord paid tithes – taxes – out of whatever they could produce. A lord kept law and order: police, judge and jury all in one, enforced by his private army. The army was led by knights – local gentry with allegiance to the lord. However, war technology had weakened the power of knights, to the point where they were becoming less decisive in battle. The development of the pike – essentially a long pointy stick – meant that foot soldiers could unseat charging knights very efficiently. A knight in plate armor knocked from his horse was lucky to be able to get up, never mind fight. Compounding the problem, the development of the bow – and in particular the English longbow – meant that archers could decimate a group of charging knights before they even reached the pikemen.
This was bad news for the French lords, because without effective military protection, vassals resented tithes even more than they had before. At the same time, money was becoming a problem: French lords enjoyed a lavish lifestyle (for the time) and there had already been several expensive crusades to the holy land before 1229. Some years later, the 100 years war with England would begin, putting a further strain on finances. Farmers didn’t make a lot of money, and mostly grew grain and raised enough cattle to live, with only a little left over. Lords needed another way to finance their lavish lifestyles, the crusades, plus whatever demands the church made. The lords needed a way to generate more money than the tithe system could produce.
The Bastide was devised to solve this problem. The idea was to clear some land, build a fortified village and attract the local population to live there and work the land around it. If critical population density could be achieved (the speculative part), this would attract merchants to the markets, which could be taxed. The incentive for people to live in a Bastide was release from fealty to the lord, and exemption from tithes.
Men who moved to a Bastide became free, yet still enjoyed the protection of the lord’s army – the beginning of the end of feudalism. The lord could now make money through property taxes on those living in the Bastide, and also sales taxes on the town market. The market was the center of the town instead of the church because it generated sales taxes. The Bastide was laid out on a grid because that made assessing property taxes easier and more equitable.
The laws of the Bastide said that trade could only take place in the market square, and the purpose of the covered area was to protect the weighing and measuring devices of the lord’s representative and tax collector. Despite the ravages of the Hundred Years War, Bastides survived well, though many came close to demolition or “improvement” in the earth 20th century. They were saved by the recognition of the contribution that tourism made to the local economy. The glass of Cahors you drink in the cafe is not just a good bold, dark wine – it’s also a way to preserve Bastides for future generations.
Want to learn more about Bastides? Check out these resources:
Place des Arcades
Tél : +33 220.127.116.11.19
Fax : +33 18.104.22.168.91
Email : [email protected]
Centre d’Etude des Bastides
5 place de la Fontaine
12200 Villefranche de Rouergue
Tél : +33 22.214.171.124.37
Fax : +33 126.96.36.199.61
[Updated May 2013 with new AT&T screen shots and prices]
Travelling with your AT&T iPhone to Europe? Here’s how you can make sure it works when you get there and avoid a giant bill when you get back. Who doesn’t like to save money?
If you haven’t done so already, register with AT&T’s web site so that you can make changes to your phone plan options online. Log in with your wireless number and password, so that you get to the home screen for your wireless service. Look in the top-left quadrant of the page for a menu called “I want to…”, which will look like this:
Click on “Add or change services”, and you’ll get a long screen showing all your current wireless settings that don’t have to do with domestic US voice minute bundles. You can ignore most of these (i.e., leave them unchanged) and scroll down to the section titled “International Services”. It should look like this (depending on your current settings, you might have different items selected):
Now, let’s walk through the settings that will ensure you hit the ground running the moment your arrive in Europe. Straight away, we’re going to ignore the first two sections called “International Long Distance” because that’s about calling and texting overseas when you’re still in the US. So skip this section.
The next section is important: “International Roaming – Voice“. Select “Standard International Roaming” – this turns on your ability to “roam” (connect) to other carriers’ networks when overseas. It’s free, but turned off by default for fraud protection reasons. Next, move on to…
This section allows you to pre-purchase text message packages of 50, 200 or 600 texts. You pay for each text sent when roaming, and receiving texts is always free. The larger packages give you more discount per text. Note that the packages are pro-rated over the billing cycle. So if you turn on the 50 pack for 15 days in the billing cycle, you’ll only get 25 texts. Compared to a one minute call, texting is one fifth the price: you can send 5 text messages. If you are a text maniac, I’d suggest toning it down for the vacation and letting your BFFs know you’re paying for every text you send.
There are a whole host of options here at different price points. Let’s face it, international data roaming isn’t cheap — but prices have come down more than 80% in AT&T’s latest revision to its pricing. To save you doing the math, here are the per-megabyte costs for each of the options listed in most European countries:
There is no “overage rate” — if you exhaust the data plan, you simply cannot use data any more. This prevents a nasty surprise in your next bill if you download a lot of data.
If you forgot to buy one of these options before you left, AT&T gives you one very limited shot at retroactively buying data options during your trip. You can back date the feature to your last billing cycle start date. You have to know when that is to see if it might save you from excessive charges. If your billing cycle start date happens to be the day before you got back from Europe and you only log in when you get back, for example, you’re out of luck.
If you mess up, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Reset”. If you’re done, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and click on “Next”.
The screens that follow are pretty confusing, because the system splits out each feature you’re ordering, and in some cases lets you backdate or set a future date for your changes for each feature. Read the page carefully to see which feature you are setting up.
Backdating (if available) is really handy if you want to retroactively add global text messaging, for example. But at the moment, we haven’t even left the US yet, so you probably want to select “Make effective/expire today” or “Future date to the next bill”.
“Future date” sounds good but is actually very limited. It only allows you to turn on your settings on the date of the next bill — which may not be near the time of your trip. “Make effective/expire today” means your changes will be complete and active on the AT&T network within the next 12-24 hours. I’d recommend you make all your changes a day or two before you leave for Europe and just make it effective that day.
One “gotcha”: some features like Global 50 text messages and Global data are pro-rated during a month if you don’t turn them on at the beginning of the billing cycle. For example, if you turn 50 international text messages on half way through the billing cycle you’ll only get 25 text messages during that monthly billing period. Gotta love that, eh? 🙁 That’s another reason to use the “backdate” feature, because you can set a feature to start at the last billing cycle, then set it to expire at the start of the next billing cycle. That way you are sure to get 100% of the text or data bundles.)
When you’ve set the effective date for each feature, click on “Next”. When all dates for all features have been set, you get one final chance to review all your changes and read the small print of the services. If all is OK, click “Submit”. If not, you can cancel or go back to previous pages. If you messed up a date, click “Back” and correct it. Once submitted, AT&T will send you an email confirming your changes and you’ll be ready to stay connected as soon as you hit the ground.
To control data usage, use the iPhone Settings app to turn data roaming on or off (Settings->General->Cellular). Apps can still run in the background and access the network without your knowledge, so the only effective way to control network usage is Settings. Do this before you take your iPhone out of “Airplane mode” to avoid inadvertent data charges.
Turn your iPhone on after arrival and, after a few minutes of searching, it will automatically connect with one of AT&T’s roaming partner networks in the country you’re visiting. You typically get a free text message from AT&T advising you of data charges and maybe a text from the local network operator telling you about any features or charges.
Unanswered calls to your iPhone go to US voicemail will incur per-minute charges. The call actually makes it all the way to your phone in the foreign country and then is forwarded back to your voice mail number the US — hence the charges. You can avoid this by turning on “forward all calls to voicemail”, so that the call never reaches your phone in the first place (this means no-one can call you directly, but you can still listen to the voicemails they leave). The other option is simply to turn off your phone when you do not want to be reached — then the call never reaches your phone either and goes straight to voicemail.
To send all calls to voicemail, dial *#67# to see which number is used for your voicemail. Then dial *21*[number]# to forward all calls unconditionally. Then, when you want to turn this off, dial ##002# to restore default call forwarding.
Important: log back into the AT&T site and reverse the changes you made. Do not use the backdating capability for the “turn off” date, otherwise you risk erasing the benefits you got from choosing discounts ahead of time. You can use backdating for the “turn on” date if you forgot to order something before you left.
Enjoy your trip!
Making a phone call home from Italy, France, the UK or indeed anywhere else in Europe is easy since all countries in the European Union agreed on one standard way of making international calls. You dial two zeros (00), the country code, and then the number. The country code for the US is 1, so a call to the San Francisco number 415-555-1212 is dialed 00-1-415-555-1212.
Dialing works the same way on mobile phones, or you can use the shorthand of “+” instead of the two zeros. The benefit of this approach is that this works anywhere on any mobile phone network world-wide, not just in Europe — which is handy for numbers you put into the phone’s memory or contact list. In my example, you’d dial +1-415-555-1212, and this same number would work when dialed in the US as well as in Europe.
On regular land-line phones, you can speed up the connection by dialing a # at the end of the number (more precisely, this cuts short the “post dial delay”). This tells the phone network that you are done dialing your international number, and it starts connecting the call immediately. Otherwise, the phone network will sit and wait in case you want to dial any more digits — several seconds — because unlike domestic calls, the network doesn’t know the exact length of phone numbers for every area of every country. This isn’t required with mobile phones because you hit the “send” or “call” button at the end of the number.
One more thing about the ‘# at the end trick’: it works in the US too when dialing internationally. Try it and see!
Chateau de Biron is in the Dordogne region of France, south of Bordeaux in the South-Western corner of the country. Started in the 12th century, the chateau was in the hands of one family for 800 years, the Gontaut-Biron, and enhanced and expanded until the 18th century.
Chateau de Biron, Dordogne, France
The castle itself with its renaissance galleries and chapel with carved effigies are well worth the visit — it’s not far from Monpazier and can easily be done in the same day. Lord Byron, the romantic writer, was a distant relation of the family. Unfortunately, it only took one man to end 800 years of ownership. At the end of the 18th century, the final member of the family to own the castle spent his entire fortune in the casinos of Paris, and the castle was sold along with everything else to pay debts. Today it belongs to the Department of the Dordogne.
The picture is taken with a polarizing filter — the deep blue of the sky is a give-away — from the end of the car park below the castle. The filter also helps to reduce the harshness contrast of the afternoon sun, and brings out the colors of the walls and greenery. With plenty of good light, the picture was taken hand-held.
The chateau of Clos de Vougeot is nestled in the vineyards of Burgundy, the area of Eastern France close to Dijon that brings us delightful red wine. Lighter than the more famous Bordeaux, I like Burgundies because of their delicacy and the way they complement and flatter food. The photograph you see here is of the original 12th century monastery building, built by Cistercian monks from nearby Citeaux (Da Vinci Code fans note: the abbot of Citeaux is supposedly the person who convinced the Pope to create the Templar order to protect the Priory of Scion, thus beginning a huge conspiracy to bring down the Catholic church).
It’s an attractive building in its proportion, and also maintains its beautiful Medieval wooden ceiling. As wine critic Jancis Robinson put it in an article recounting an evening spent eating and drinking there, “I feel as though I am on a Hogwarts school trip to France.”
But let’s not forget why the place exists: wine! The monks were the first to grow grapes, and split the harvest into three given the different quality of grapes from the upper, middle and lower portions of the land — the best being the well-drained upper corner near the Chateau. Today, this same land is worth hundreds of thousands of Euros an acre (hectare?) and there are more than 80 owners. There is no cheap wine made here, but its saving grace is that none of it is bad in any way, shape or form. Yes indeed, this is fine Burgundian wine and well worth splurging on a bottle with a nice dinner at a nearby restaurant.
Only a little drinking had taken place when this photograph was taken at dusk in November. But we remedied that later. I had no tripod or monopod with me that day, and so the camera was balanced on top of the iron gate at the entry to the courtyard, using the timer function to avoid camera shake: I could push the shutter release to start the timer and then step back to let the camera be still for the exposure. A short 18mm focal length framed the building nicely, and also helps to minimise the effect of any vibration or movement in the camera. I dialed up the ISO to 400 to keep the exposure time reasonably short (0.4 seconds) given the balancing act. I used the camera’s center-weighted metering off the stone of the building in Program mode, and it was absolutely spot on for the sky and the courtyard.
My sister-in-law lives in The Jura, an area of Eastern France near the Swiss border. It’s not a particularly well-known part of the country and you’ll have to work hard to find it in many guide books (honorable exception: The Rough Guide To France). It’s a pretty part of the country, and plonked in the middle of a forest is a remarkable set of pre-revolutionary buildings: the Royal Salt Works (Saline Royale, for those of you who speak the lingo).
Royal Salt Works, France.
It’s a remarkable sight for many reasons. The architect was Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), an architect in the neo-classical style (as you can see from the photographs). To me, his style can best be described as idealised form of classic architectural styles. Indeed, his grand plan for the salt works was an ideal city. It was one of his more ambitious projects and about half of the first phase was built before economic reality intervened (the site was constructed between 1774-79). Chaux was chosen because it was close to both the salt mines themselves, and also the forest — the energy source used to boil brine pumped up from the mines to extract the salt itself. Piping brine from miles away via wooden pipes was very inefficient, and huge quantities of wood were required to fuel the evaporation of what was left. In 1790 the salt works closed for good.
From a photographic composition perspective, the buildings offer regularity of form in their elements (like the alternating discs and squares of the columns, above) as well as massive scale. The photos were taken on a sunny afternoon in November, which really helps with the lighting: the sun doesn’t get too high in the sky at that time of year, so the light is softer, more golden colored, and leads to fewer harsh shadows.
Driving in Europe continues to be something that generates a lot of email, so on to another popular driving topic: traffic circles — or, roundabouts as they’re known in the UK. Incredibly popular in Europe, you don’t see these too often in the US. When you do, they appear to generate a lot of confusion amongst drivers.
Early traffic circle — Stonehenge, England
The “golden rule” of traffic circles is pretty simple: traffic entering must yield to anything already in the circle. As you approach, take a look to see if there’s anything coming — if there is, slow down or stop. You don’t need to stop if there’s no traffic in the circle. You do need to stop if entering would cause traffic in the circle to slow down or stop to avoid you!
What to do if you miss your exit: keep going! You can go around the circle again until you find the exit you want, though going around more than twice is going to make other drivers think you don’t know what you’re doing.
Traffic circles in countries where cars drive on the right (like the US) go counter-clockwise. In the UK and other countries where cars drive on the left, they go clockwise. This is really confusing at first. If it’s any consolation, think how equally confusing it is to British drivers the first time they drive on the right and come to a traffic circle.
In and around major cities, you can find traffic circles with 2 or more lanes. The general rule here is that you want to end up in the outside lane when your exit comes around. Thus if you are taking an exit to the left of the circle, you’d take the left-hand lane (the lane closest to the center) upon entering the traffic circle, and gradually move to the outside so you can take the exit when it comes around.
There are no rules — just get on when you can, don’t stop and don’t miss your exit. In all seriousness — and speaking who has taken their own car around this particular circle more than once and lived to tell the tale — the same rules apply. It just doesn’t look like it. There is an old French traffic rule which was called “prioritare a droite”, which means “priority to the right” — i.e. you had to stop for anything coming from the right. This rule was abandoned years ago because it would mean traffic on a major road had to stop abruptly for any old car, bike or tractor that pulls out from a side road — leading to major wrecks. However, you can still see the vestiges of it in action in the Arc de Triomphe as the traffic in the circle comes to a screeching halt to allow other traffic into the circle from the right. Very strange.
Ask for a glass of wine in any bar in South-Western France, and the chances are you’ll get Vin de Cahors (pronounced “Ca-hoares”), which will be at least 70% Malbec. Ironically, Malbec is now better known in the US thanks to Chilean and Argentinian imports; there are now at least 25,000 acres of the vine planted in Argentina alone. However, Malbec has a long and distinguished history in France — the “Black Wine of Cahors” was well known 600 years ago in the courts of medieval France.
A glass of Cahors is dark red or “inky”, but also smooth, tannic and blackcurranty. For many years it was used as a blending wine for Bordeaux claret, until a severe frost in 1956 killed 75% of the Malbec vines in that area. Now, in France you find it almost exclusively in Cahors wine and nowhere else.
The grape was first taken to Argentina in the mid-19th century when a regional governor asked Michel Pouget, a French agronomist, to bring cuttings. Interestingly, Argentinian Malbec has smaller grapes (berries) in tighter clusters than that found in France — clearly a different variety. Maybe the original French Malbec has evolved, or the original variety doesn’t exist any more after France’s great 19th-century rescue from Philloxera blight by grafting onto American root stock.
Today, the limestone soil of Cahors, found in the flood plain of the river Lot as it winds its way through soft limestone cliffs seems to suit the grape as well today as it has for hundreds of years. Try some next time you fancy ordering outside the usual Bordeaux, Burgundy or Loire favorites.