• Chris

Malbec

Once upon a time; a long long time ago, on the banks of the Lot river, near Cahors, southwest France, beautiful Princess Magdeleine Noire des Charentes grew side by side with handsome Prince Prunelard. Upon a spring day, with the gentle blow of the "Autan"- wind, the two black grapes cross-pollinized and gave birth to baby Malbec....

The Lot river flowing through Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, medieval village of the Quercy, near Cahors
The Lot river flowing through Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, medieval village of the Quercy, near Cahors

Also known as Côt & Auxerrois in Quercy, Malbec (who shared his mother with half-brother Merlot) became the main grape of the renown "black wine" of Cahors and was slowly propagated throughout southwest France and Bordeaux.


It is said that Cahors wine was served at the wedding of Henri Le Plantagenêt (Duke of Normandie & Count of Anjou) and the Duchess Aliénor d'Aquitaine who soon after their marriage became King & Queen of England. And this was the origin of the wine trade between the port of Bordeaux and the Monarchy of England (1). Aliénor must have missed the wines from home real bad, because exports to England eventually reached hundreds of thousands of hectoliters of wine per year. Today, in Cahors, whether vines grow on limestone or clay, yields must not exceed 50 hl per ha. Malbec must makes at least 70 percent of the blend with Tannat and/ or Merlot to complement. The wines are deeply colored, with scents of black fruit, prune, cedar and tobacco. On the palate the wines have high tannins often tamed by oak maturation and/ or micro-oxygenation. In Bordeaux, although widely planted in the past, Malbec (called Noir de Pressac, on the right bank) was almost not replanted after the dramatic frost of February 1956 that killed the majority of plantings. Many viticulturists preferred to replant Merlot instead, as it is less prone to frost, coulure (2) and mildew (3). Today, Malbec is still used in small quantities of the Bordeaux blend to add color and perfume.


When it was still a major grape in Bordeaux, back in the mid 1800's, French agronomist Michel Aimé Pouget and other South-American and French researchers took part in a project to develop the wine industry in South America. From Bordeaux, they brought Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carménère, Merlot and Malbec to the research center of the Quinta Normal de Santiago de Chile. Michel later crossed the Andes to Argentina to the Quinta Normal Agronómica de Mendoza where he became the principal on the 17th of April 1853. A date that was later retained to celebrate Malbec World Day. Out of all other grape varieties, Malbec did so well in the climate, soils and elevated altitudes of Argentinean vineyards that it became the country's flagship grape with current plantings at 43,000 ha; half of which is in Mendoza - the world's largest plantings of Malbec, by far!

Malbec planted vineyards at the foot of the Andes Mountains in Mendoza, Argentina
Malbec planted vineyards at the foot of the Andes Mountains in Mendoza, Argentina

A classic Argentinian Malbec wine tends to be full-bodied with black fruit notes and high levels of smooth, velvety tannins. Many winemakers tend to mature the wines in new oak to soften tannins and impart scents of vanilla, cinnamon and clove. The best examples are age-worthy and develop complex flavors of prune, tobacco and forest floor. There can be noticeable differences when the wines coming from grapes of high altitude vineyards: The aromatic profile tends to give fresher black fruit notes and violet. On the palate, the wines are juicy, with bright acidity and moderate levels of alcohol. Some winemakers tend to control the level of tannin extraction, other blend Malbec with Cabernet Sauvignon & Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. It is going to be more and more difficult to describe a "typical" Argentinian Malbec with such diversity, but so much fun to explore.


The success of Malbec in Argentina has attracted the attention of viticulturist, winemakers and consumers around the world and today, plantings of Malbec have popped up in vineyards of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and California. Back in Bordeaux, Southwest France, and Cahors, with the help global warming, new clones and modern vinicultural practices, the grape is receiving more attention and we are witnessing a revival of Malbec.


To explore Malbec, you might consider trying a Château du Cèdre from Cahors, La Luz del Vino, Single Vineyard Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, Cloudburst Malbec from Margaret River, Australia, and other producers of Argentina: Achaval-Ferrer, Alta Vista, Altos Las Hormigas, Catena Zapata, Norton Terrazas de Los Andes, Trapiche, Zucardi... From Chile: Atamana, De Martino, Concha y Toro, Montes, MontGras, Odfjell, Valdivieso...


To learn more about grape varieties, enroll our next WSET Level 2 Award in wines and to learn more about French Wines, book your seat to our upcoming French Wine Scholar .

Notes:

(1) Notice that I did not write "The English Monarchy", but the "Monarchy of England" because, Henry Le Plantagenêt and Aliénor d'Aquitaine were not really English were they? Gosh! they did not even speak the local language! They also asked to be buried back home near Poitier, where Richard Coeur de Lion, their son, also King of England is also buried.

(2) Coulure is a condition affecting some grapes during the spring with extremely unusual weather patterns preventing the normal pollicization of flowers, leading to poor fruit set, low yields and susceptibility to other diseases. (3) Powdery Mildew is a fungal disease affecting some vines more than others during the growing season, reducing the yields and quality of grapes and therefore of the resulting wines.



Sources:

Clarke, O. & Rand, M. (2015) Grapes & Wines. New York: Sterling Epicure Lacoste, P. (2013) The History of Malbec: Wines of Argentina http://www.malbecworldday.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/The-History-of-Malbec-by-Pablo-Lacoste.pdf

Robinson, J. (2015) The Oxford Companion to Wine. New York: Oxford University Press Inc


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