Most people think of Argentina when they think of Malbec. However, Malbec didn’t come to Argentina until the late nineteenth century.
What’s in a name?
Malbec goes by many names. In France, it is known as Côt or Pressac and in Alsace and Cahors, as Auxerrois. As a branding initiative, it is starting to now be called Malbec in France as well. In Portugal, people refer to it as Tinta Amarela, and in Australia it is sometimes called Portugal Malbec. In Argentina it can go by the name Fer.
The grape and the wine
Malbec is a thin skinned grape that produces a deep colored medium to full-bodied wine. It does well with more sun and heat than some of the other big reds such as Cabernet or Merlot.
The grapes ripen midseason with ample tannins and intense flavors. The flavors that are most commonly associated with Malbec include blackberry and plum with hints of leather and pepper. If aged in oak, vanilla flavors and aromas are released.
Malbec is drinkable on its own, but is also used as a blending wine with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to produce claret. With its high tannin level, Malbecs can be produced that will age for a decade however most Malbecs are made to be consumed once on the market.
Unfortunately, Malbec can be susceptible to mold, frosts, mildew, rot, and coulore (a vine disease in which the grapes fail to develop). Malbec’s proclivity for these diseases changed its course of history in France.
Malbec in Portugal
The Portuguese are a people o-/\\.
Malbec in France
Malbec grapes have been grown in France for over 800 years. Malbec is one of the varieties that are allowed in Bordeaux, although this practice is now not very common.
A deep freeze hit France in early 1956, destroying many Malbec vines. Because Malbec is susceptible to so many diseases, the French in Bordeaux made a decision to not replant Malbec, instead planting the easier to manage Merlot.
Malbec has declined in popularity over the years in France, now composing just 2,300 acres. Compare that to 170,000 acres of Merlot!
Cahors, reached in less than three hours from Bordeaux, took a different approach, replanting their vines, as they had done after the devastating phylloxera blight. Malbec is the main red varietal in Cahors, which was known as far back as the Middle Ages for its “black wine.”
Cahors did not become an appellation contrôlée until 1971 and produces three styles of Malbec:
- “Tender and Fruity’ containing 70-85% Malbec
- “Fiesty and Powerful” containing 85% Malbec
- “Intense and Complex” containing 100% Malbec.
Merlot and Tannat are the allowable blending grapes. The Cahors appellation is governed by one of the strictest set of criteria in France, including yields limited to 50 hl of wine per ha of vine and a natural minimal alcohol content of 11.5%. (Source: Cahors Wine Trade Board Press Kit)
To compete with Argentina, Cahors is now branding itself “the original Malbec.”
Malbec in Argentina
Argentinean wine is dominated by that from the Mendoza region, located at the foot of the Andes Mountains.
The Andes provide a natural barrier to the westerly winds and result in a dry region. Combined with plentiful irrigation water from the Andean snowmelt and a sunny climate, this region is ideal for growing Malbec.
The long warm days and cool nights allow for a slower ripening of the grapes and allow a crisp acidity to be retained. Malbec is the second most common grape grown in Argentina, losing out only to the Cereza variety. Malbec is grown on over 60,000 acres in Argentina.
Malbec was one of a number of vines introduced into Argentina in the mid 19th century by Miguel Pouget, a French agronomist who had been hired to bring French vines to Argentina. As the vines were brought over pre-phylloxera, it is believed that the clone that exists in Argentina no longer exists in France, leading to some of the differences we see today between the product of the two countries.
Argentine winemakers ‘rediscovered’ Malbec in the late 20th century as they shifted their focus from domestic production to exporting high quality wines. Malbec is considered by Argentineans to be their national wine.
What’s the difference between and Argentine Malbec and a French Malbec?
French Malbec grows in looser bunches with larger grapes. The climate in Mendoza is warmer and drier than Cahors, leading to a softer, jammier wine. Malbecs from Cahors have stronger tannins, leading to a more restrained, drier wine.
Where else can Malbec be found?
It is now grown in many regions, such as Chile, Australia, Portugal, New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Canada and the US.
I hope learning a little history about Malbec contributes to your enjoyment of this wonderful wine!