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The Story of Malbec

The Story of Malbec

Malbec, sometimes called Côt or Auxxerois, is a 2,000-year-old black and thick-skinned grape variety with quite a history. Although Malbec originated in France, today it is often celebrated in association with Argentina. Malbec produces a full-bodied and deep coloured red wine known for its ripe plum flavours and notes of dark fruit such as blackberries and dark cherry. Thanks to its dark and inky colour, Malbec earned itself the nickname "Black Wine". In particular, Argentinian Malbecs have a fruit-forward, juicy style with a reputation for richness balanced by high acidity and round, soft tannins. Already sounds like the perfect match for a good steak, no? So, what's the story of Malbec and how did it become the iconic wine grape of Argentina?


The origins of Malbec

Malbec has a bit of a troubled history in its homeland. Malbec is native to Cahors in southwest France and was once one of the most widely planted grapes in France. Even today, Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) regulations for Cahors wines require a minimum content of 70% Malbec. It's also one of the six grapes used to create red Bordeaux blends, alongside Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Carmenère. But along came the devastation of phylloxera and then the Great Frost of 1956. Phylloxera is famous as the pest that destroyed vast areas of European vineyards in the 19th century. The Great Frost of 1956 was catastrophic for vines as temperatures plunged from 25°C in the daytime to -17°C at night. The frost wiped out most of the vineyards on both banks of Bordeaux and its surrounding areas overnight. Malbec was replanted in Cahors and continued to be popular in that area, but its poor resistance to weather, diseases and pests meant it was not the varietal of choice in other areas. Many growers favoured the more reliable Merlot or Cabernets instead. Furthermore, the traditional tannic expressions of Malbec from southwest France was quite unapproachable to new consumers. All of these factors led to the declining popularity of Malbec and was why it never achieved the global stature that other grape varietals from France did.


Where is Malbec now?

Malbec was saved in the mid 19th century, when it found a new home to thrive in. French agronomist Michel Aimé Pouget (1821–1875) introduced Malbec to Argentina in the 1850s. In an effort to improve the quality of Argentinian wines, provincial governor Domingo Sarmiento commissioned Michel Pouget to bring grapevine cuttings from France to Argentina. One of the vines that Michel Pouget brought was pre-phylloxera cuttings of Malbec. Malbec began to thrive upon its arrival in Argentina's mountainous landscapes, especially in regions like Mendoza, San Juan and Salta. Thanks to its success in Argentina, this relatively obscure grape variety shot to international fame within a few short decades. Today, Argentina leads the production of Malbec with over 75% of all the acres of Malbec in the world. Now it grows in seven countries (Argentina, France, USA, Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) and continues to grow in popularity.


What type of climate does Malbec favour?

Yes, grapes tend to be temperamental things, with different varieties requiring different climates to flourish. Malbec loves high altitudes and requires warmer conditions than either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to fully ripen. At lower altitudes, Malbec grapes tend to have thinner skins and struggle to produce the acidity they need to create great tasting and long-lasting wine. High altitude areas with a wide diurnal temperature (i.e. hot day, cold night) allow the grapes to produce more acidity. High altitudes also pose a lower risk of diseases and pests such as phylloxera.


The tasting notes of Malbec

Argentinian Malbecs are a well-known crowd pleaser; rich and fruity with soft tannins and a high acidity that means it's built to last. Due to the warmer climate in Argentina, it has dominant ripe blackberry and plum fruit flavours. It often features nuances of chocolate, violet flowers and a smoky or sweet tobacco finish. Compared to French Malbecs, Argentine Malbecs are fruit-forward and softer, with a plusher texture and riper tannins. Malbec seems to produce its darkest, most tannic expressions in limestone soils as found in Cahors. Malbec from the Cahors region is leathery and rustic with black pepper spice attributes. The cooler climate produces flavours of tart red currant, raspberry and black cherry or plum. French Malbecs also tend to age longer since they have a lower alcohol percentage, moderate tannins and acidity. Although the traditional tannic expressions of Malbec from Cahors are quite unapproachable to new consumers, riper and more approachable styles are beginning to appear thanks to climate change and a new generation of producers in Cahors.