Join us to celebrate International Malbec Day on the 17 April at Vino Gusto. We focus on this remarkable grape and above all its adaptation and international style – developed and championed by Argentina – now one of the UK’s favourites. Strictly Come Malbec … time to tango?
Malbec was originally a French varietal, and historically one of the component parts of the blend in nineteenth century red Bordeaux. Malbec was brought to Argentina – now the world’s most famous home for the grape - in 1852, by Michel Pouget. Pouget was a French agronomist who was hired by the Argentine government to help develop their nascent wine industry - and Malbec World Day is celebrated on April 17, to commemorate the day in 1853 when the then President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento made it his mission to transform Argentina's wine industry.
The Malbec vine (which is known to have existed for at least 2,000 years) was often referred to as Cot in France (which may point to origins in Burgundy?) and when disease all but wiped out the French wine industry in the nineteenth century Argentina became the only country left to have original Malbec vines of French heritage. In fact, today there is very little Malbec at all in Bordeaux and the only serious enclave left in France for the variety is in the South-Western region of Cahors, although the South of France and (again) Bordeaux (no doubt in reaction to its success in Argentina) are seeing increased plantings. It’s also worth noting that parcels have been grown in the Loire Valley despite its obviously cool climate, where it is used in blends to add a crunchy, briary fruit note.
By contrast Argentina’s love affair with Malbec saw plantings take off in the 1990s with over 10,000 acres planted. Today plantings have reached 100,000 acres (compared to less than 10,000 acres planted in the whole of France) with the vast majority of these – some 86% - in the famous, warm, central district of Mendoza. 75% of all world plantings are now found in the country.
Malbec is a late ripening variety (by that it requires warm weather and/or long autumns to ripen) and seems to like the calcareous, sandy clay soils which are found in the Mendoza and Andes regions. The combination of these climatic and geographic features helps to define the Argentine Malbec style, which may be described as one of mouth-filling, juicy black fruits, subtle pepper spice, with silky tannins.
Adopting the Right Altitude
Such has been the progress made with Malbec in the Mendoza region that star sub regions have now been identified where superior styles within Mendoza are being produced. A number of these have been formally classified via Argentina’s DOC (controlled denomination of origin) system which protects the authenticity of these areas whilst imposing more rigorous quality demands on vine growing and winemaking.
Today, within Mendoza, the most highly rated Malbec vineyards are found in the higher altitude regions of Luján de Cuyo and Uco Valley. These areas are found in the lower levels of the Andes Mountains, anywhere from 800 to 1500 metres in altitude. This elevation (off the hot Mendoza Valley floor) prolongs the growing season (without any loss of ripeness) but lifts both the freshness (acidity) and complexity of flavour in the juice. The result is a more intense flavour and aromatic quality with nuances of black cherry, sweet spice and even some mineral notes in top examples.
In addition to these there are significant plantings if we head north to The Salta region and the district of Cafayate. Here Malbec is grown to altitudes in excess of 10,000 feet making them the largest expanse of high-altitude vineyards in the world. The vines gain what might be called a “skier’s suntan” due to the strength of the UV light, but the freshness and coolness of the air gives these Malbecs a vitality and intensity which can be thrilling.
High altitude Malbec – here in Cafayate Argentina where vineyards reach over 10,000 feet in altitude
Other New World Sites and Potential
It will come as no surprise that the success of Malbec in Argentina has made many other producers relook at the variety, and in the New World climates in many areas are ideal for its production. Chile, not least, has looked over its shoulders (and Andes) and plantings are growing here. Pockets of Malbec have historically been grown in New Zealand but it relatively cooler climate may be an inhibitor. South Africa sees potential in the variety along with California. In Australia, though, potential maybe subdued as the country is so closely wedded to Shiraz as its main black variety. There is little doubt overall though that plantings and choice of styles will increase – this is a variety that is on the way up.
For now, Argentine Malbec is one of the most enjoyable and highly popular of all red wine styles in the UK. With its rich fruit flavours and medium plus body, it makes an ideal partner to meat dishes, especially beef and lamb, and works well with richer (roasted) vegetarian dishes with Puy lentils for example, tomato-based dishes, and pasta with a rich ragu sauce.
The focus here is clearly on Argentina, and Mendoza, but please do try the Amalaya example from the high altitude Cafayate region in Salta – it really aligns freshness to the richness of the grape and style. The Argentine offerings showcase a lovely range of styles by price, but both the South African and Loire wines show how the variety can be used effectively in a blend.
Raise a glass on the 17th of April!
Nick Adams MW
Nick says, “I am looking forward to working even more closely with Jake and the team at Vino Gusto. I hope to bring my broad trade experience into play to keep you informed and entertained via these monthly blog releases. Please do though let us know of any subject matters which might be of special interest to you, and we will see if can get these included over the coming months”.