Dark, full-flavored and tannic, Malbec was once known as the sideline wine which added structure and body to Bordeaux blends. It took a few plantings in the hot, dry climate at the foot of the Andes mountain range of Argentina for the wine world to realize that this grape was a serious contender… serious enough to stand on its own in 100% bottlings, and serious enough to win some “serious” awards.
A popular but unconfirmed theory claims that Malbec is named after a Hungarian peasant who first spread the grape variety throughout France. However the French viticulturist Pierre Galet notes that most evidence suggest that Côt was the variety’s original name and that it probably originated in northern Burgundy. Some believe that the high tannins of the grape led to its name, which evolved from “mal boca” (bad mouth, from the puckering tannins).
At one point Malbec was grown in 30 different departments of France; however,the popularity of the variety has been steadily declining. It remains the most popular in Cahors, France, where the French government regulated system (the Appellation Controlée) states that wines from Cahors possess a minimum of 70% Malbec. (The remaining 30% are Merlot and Tannat.)
The grape is widely planted in Argentina, where it produces a softer, less tannic version of the Cahors Malbec. The grape was introduced to Argentina by French agricultural engineer Michel Pouget in 1868. The grape clusters of Argentine Malbec are different from its French relatives in that they have smaller berries in tighter, smaller clusters, which suggests that the cuttings brought over by Pouget (and later French immigrants) was a unique clone that may have gone extinct in France due to frost and the phylloxera epidemic.
The grape’s popularity may be diminishing in France; however, it is quickly becoming the unofficial “official grape” of Argentina. Mendoza is the primary growing region for Malbec; however, La Rioja, Salta, San Juan, Catamarca and Buenos Aires (La Pampa) all produce the wine as well. Malbec is also grown in Chile, California (where it is used to make the Meritage blends), Washington State, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, British Columbia, the Long Island AVA of New York, Oregon, southern Bolivia, northeastern Italy and recently in Texas and southern Ontario, and in the Baja California region of Mexico.
Although from the same origin, Argentina and French Malbecs differ greatly. Argentine Malbec wine is known for its deep color and intense fruity flavors, velvety texture and soft yet present tannins. French Malbecs have more present tannins and are more structured, suggesting that they age better than Argentine Malbecs (although the aging potential of Argentine Malbec has certainly improved over the last few years).
New World Malbecs tend to exhibit similar characteristics to the Argentine Malbecs; however, some have a lower alcohol content and less fruit due to cooler growing climates which do not ripen the grapes as much as in Argentina.
Malbecs should be married to barbecued and any other grilled meats: steak, ribs, anything with barbecue sauce, anything charred. The sweetness of some Argentine Malbecs also make them a good pairing for Mexican foods (the same goes for Zinfandel)
Serve Malbec at 65 degrees.
Achaval Ferrer, Carmelo Patti, Durigutti, Enrique Foster Reserva, Nieto Senetiner.