Proponents of terroir, the notion that a location’s unique combination of climate, soil and topography is intrinsic to the character of wines from that place, rarely mention malbec. A few people may know about differences between Argentina’s Luján de Cuyo and Valle de Uco, but in general, malbec’s market success is disproportionate to its esteem.

This isn’t a column about Argentina, but it is about malbec. Cahors is the one French region where unblended malbec is the norm. Cahors is malbec’s ancestral home. The popular nickname for Cahors’ malbec wines has since the Middle Ages been “the black wine,” but that’s needlessly intimidating.

The wines from here are far drier than from Argentina, yes, full and robust, colored dark purple or blackish. But they don’t taste overly dark, they don’t blot or engulf or serve any other of their nickname’s connotations that I can tell. Some Cahors wines are blended with the dark-fleshed tannat grape, which darkens the wine further and often lends an unwieldy rusticity; perhaps it was the tannat that originally led to the nickname.

Anyway, the differences between the wines of Cahors (say “kah-ore”) and Argentina are so dramatic that you’re probably better off calling the French version of malbec by its regional name, côt (say “koh”).

Genetically the grapes are the same, but the flavor and body expressions render two barely relatable wines. A lover of concentrated, luscious, jam-packed malbec from Argentina will only like côt when he’s looking for a much rowdier, less soothing wine experience.

Côt wines lead with an iron minerality, spicy and smoky – qualities that play at most a bit part in Argentine malbec’s far fruitier, opulent, velvet-lined drama. And they seem much more content to keep their inherently serrated, charred quality intact, while Argentine winemakers rely liberally on oak, much of it new and therefore influential in the extreme, to smooth out their wines. The better ones are indeed far more ambitious than their Old World counterparts, aiming for levels of elegance and depth that humble Southwest côt has little interest in.

That’s why côt is fun to drink, full of character but mostly undemanding. I’d call Argentine malbec that costs less than $15 undemanding as well, but the character of those wines often eludes me. I get the form – polished, jammy, initially yummy – but not so much content.

If you’re a regular malbec drinker, I’m sure you know the content of malbec better than I do. All the more reason for you to try a côt from Cahors, if for nothing else than to try to find the missing link. And to prove for yourself, personally, that terroir is real, it exists.

If malbec from Mendoza is malbec, and malbec from Cahors is malbec – and ampelographic research indicates they both are – then there must be something to this notion that place determines character.

The other population that ought to become familiar with Cahors is lovers of good inexpensive Bordeaux. Good inexpensive Bordeaux barely exists anymore, but that firm, dry, cedar-y character of a decent Cru Bourgeois is plentiful in Cahors wines, for significantly lower prices. Cahors probably has the edge, in fact, in the accessibility of its fruit (always the stumbling block with cheap Bordeaux).

Cahors lies just south of Bordeaux, in fact, enjoying somewhat warmer, more consistent weather. Although it shares with Bordeaux an Atlantic climate, and its gravelly soils along the Lot River are similar to those in Bordeaux’s southwestern sites, the Mediterranean affects Cahors as well. That climate endows the wines with more amplitude, if less finesse.

That’s in part why these wines are for this time of year. Climate data indicate that even in deadest winter, Cahors’ temperature rarely dips below freezing. Yet the wines taste as if they’re made for crummy, wet-cold weather and the simple but deeply flavored home cooking necessary to keep the damp chill at bay. The classic food pairing is cassoulet, that meaty bean stew. Duck confit, lamb sausage, stock-soaked beans, fat.

A good Cahors sidles up to something emerging from an extended stay in the oven. Less traditional dishes, such as baked stuffed pastas, casseroles and tians, braised root vegetables and crockpot poultry all are delicious companions. As long as you keep it homey, with a lot of ingredients given time to meld, and bound by abundant fat, you’re doing it right.

Good Cahors doesn’t cost a lot, so you have several useful choices easily at hand. Before you buy, consider whether you prefer the straight-up 100 percent côt wines, or one blended with a minority of merlot or tannat. The all-malbec wines are, as you’d expect, drier, more austere, more chiseled.

If you like your data pure, start there, then drink a blended wine to compare. In the blends, merlot is usually 15 or 20 percent, and helps round out the wine’s profile and smooth its texture.

First stop is the ultra-pure Château La Reyne ‘Le Prestige’ Cahors 2012 ($15), a 100 percent malbec wine from a small, family-run winery. This wine is on the bracing side, firmly structured, mineral, no-nonsense. The hand-picked grapes ferment in concrete vats after more than a month macerating on the skins, and then age in used oak barrels for almost two years. It has some of that Bordeaux character, if Bordeaux took a vacation in northern Italy and came back with lots of photographs of rocky cliffs. An excellent dry, savory table wine.

The Clos Siguier 2012 ($14) contains 5 percent tannat, though surely only as a coloring agent since the wine’s balance, refreshing acidity and overall ease with itself are not masked by that helper grape. All the grapes are hand-harvested and ferment only with indigenous yeasts; the wine is neither fined nor filtered and receives only minimal sulfur at bottling. You taste this laissez-faire approach in the wine, which transmits a surprising charm and suppleness often lacking in Cahors. There’s also a persistent plumminess in the flavor, a distant echo of Argentina perhaps, buoyed by a dusty grip on the tongue, echoing Bordeaux.

The Cahors from Clos La Coutale 2013 ($20) is well known, though its cépage has changed over the years and is always worth returning to, to check in on the current incarnation. This vintage blends in 20 percent merlot, and when I first opened it recently, I was a touch disappointed by a certain overall blandness, as if the côt were hiding. Patience! After a half-hour open, tremendous complexity bursts from the glass, cinnamon-dusted ripe bing cherry, inky succulence.

It’s one of those wines that show how humility is not synonymous with weakness. The combination of limpidity, direct honest character and a sort of well-worn-in elegance are like comfort food for the soul. Fermented in stainless steel and aged several years in large foudres and used barrels, the wine is transparent, transmissive and true, set up to age but ready for us now. All of that from malbec; who knew?

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

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