We know it as Malbec; however, this grape has been called countless other names throughout the years! It’s surprising that it hasn’t developed some sort of grape identity crisis! Name calling aside, what makes this variety so intriguing is the fact that it is so expressive of its terroir. The beautiful deep bluish-purple clusters, filled with complexities, are almost pre-destined to make incredible wines!
When you mention Malbec wine, most people will instantly think of Argentina. However, Malbec is believed to have originated in and around Cahors, France and wasn’t originally called Malbec, but rather Cot, as is described in great detail in Jancis Robinson’s highly regarded book, Wine Grapes. In the mid to late 1700’s, it was planted in Pomerol and known as Noir de Pressac, while further north it was called Cor. It was also called Lutkens in Bordeaux to honour a physician who had planted it in Camblanes. However, the name Malbec seems to have originated with someone from the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux region who cultivated and propagated it throughout the Médoc during the late 1700’s. For some reason, the name Malbec became quite mainstream and this is what we call it today.
The Malbec grape was first introduced to Argentina in 1868 by Michel Pouget, who was a highly regarded French ampelographer (grape expert) working to develop Chile’s wine industry. After seeing what he was accomplishing there, the Argentinians were so impressed that they invited him to do the same for them. As a result, he introduced Malbec and other favourite French varietals to Argentina.
Let’s Talk Terroir
The Malbec grape fully exudes the characteristics of its terroir and a clever winemaker will capture and showcase these complexities from grape to bottle. When grown at higher elevations, Malbec grapes develop more complexities such as polyphenols which include anthocyanins (colour pigment in grapes) and tannins. Additionally, they will also develop higher acidity levels due to greater daily temperature extremes (diurnal range). Together, all of these characteristics are highly favourable because they enhance a Malbec wine’s ability to age, as well as, enhancing the flavours and aromas.
Malbec has certainly found its home in Argentina, especially within higher elevations near the Andes Mountains, which produce the most elegant styles of wine. The province of Mendoza is considered to be one of the best growing regions in Argentina for Malbec, and is famed for the Uco Valley, Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo sub-regions. Further north from Mendoza are the provinces of San Juan, La Rioja, and Salta which are also known for producing excellent Malbec wines. Salta’s Cafayate region boasts one of the highest vineyards in the world as well as having the oldest continuous winery in Argentina, Bodega Colomé.
The Cahors region in France can be divided into two predominant areas. Vineyards planted on the Causses, which are several limestone plateaus within the Massive Central, produce the most structured, tannic and age worthy wines. While those vineyards grown on the gravely slopes located between the limestone plateaus and the riverbeds, produce wines that are a bit more easy drinking, filled with fresh fruit flavours, less tannins and less oak. Cahors is similar to the Argentinian regions as it is also a drier area, with low rainfall. As a result, the vines struggle a bit more to get water and develop a very deep root system, which enables the vines to extract even more complexities from the soil.
Other wine regions are also producing Malbec wines such as Chile (Colchagua), Australia (South Australia and Western Australia), the USA (Washington State), Canada (British Columbia), South Africa, New Zealand and even Mexico! It appears as if the love for a great Malbec is spreading throughout the world. It’s always incredible to see how a variety expresses itself when grown in different terroirs.
All About the Wine
Malbec wines have quite a wide range of styles and characteristics that are dependent upon the quality of the grapes, the terroir and winemaking choices.
Argentinian Malbec wines range in styles. Those from higher elevations will have higher acidity levels, more tannins and greater complexities of flavours and aromas such as floral and herbaceous notes. Those from lower elevations will tend to be more fruit focused, especially if they are unoaked. Additionally, an Argentinian Malbec will tend to have a smoother, more velvety mouthfeel due to softer, more rounded tannins.
Wines from Cahors, France are noticeably different to those from Argentina. Within a Cahors blend, at least 70% of the grapes must be Malbec, while Tannat and Merlot are often included. These wines are often described as being very dark, full-bodied, less fruit forward, earthy and rather tannic. Some wine experts believe that the smooth, velvety mouthfeel of Argentina’s Malbec wine is influencing winemakers in Cahors to achieve a similar style. Several are ageing their wines in oak for an extended period of time in order to soften the tannins.
No two Malbecs are the same. However, once you find a style that works for you, it’s perfection!
Grape: Malbec (Vitis Vinifera)
Colour: Black grape
Preferred Climate: continental and semi-arid desert conditions
Key Regions: Argentina and France
Sweetness: Dry to Off-dry
Alcohol: Medium to High
Tannins: Medium to Medium +
Body: medium to full-bodied
Acidity: medium to medum +
Aromas and Flavours: (Medium+ Intensity)
Floral: Iris, violet
Fruit: Black cherry, black plum, blackberry
Herbaceous: Mint, eucalyptus and sage
New Oak: spice, tobacco, vanilla, mocha and cinnamon
Bottle Age: Prune, raisin, leather and savoury meat
Pairings: Argentinian Steak!
Drinking Window: Depends upon the wine, but oak aged reservas age longer than those made in a fresh and fruity style.