Malbec seems as though it is always preceded by the word "Argentine" these days, though the cringe-worthy alternative “Argentinian” is probably even more prevalent! So, what’s up with this Argentine grape you ask?
Well, it’s actually from France, and has contributed to the make-up of Bordeaux for centuries, yet somehow never got past being a supporting actor on much of its home turf. You see, Malbec loves a sunny, dry climate, which is not exactly Bordeaux’s strong suit. Even in Cahors, France’s Malbec stronghold, the climate is such that the resulting wines tend to highlight more of the spice and structure that Malbec has to offer, and is used to such effect in Bordeaux.
On the other hand, in Argentina, the dry, sunny climate allows for a different Malbec, a more powerful version with an opulence and intensity of fruit that is rarely achieved in France. Whether this is better is simply a matter of taste, though it certainly has proven to be quite popular. That popularity, along with the new world’s generally warm and dry climates, has spurred many producers to take a closer look at Malbec. Now it’s my turn to take a closer look at their wines!
While one can make this sort of broad-based statement about Malbec, the truth is that it is affected by terroir as much as any grape and produced a variety of styles that ranged from light and fruity to mean and tannic. In the limestone-rich soils of Cahors, Malbec has tended towards the rather dark, stern, and rustic style that many seem to associate with French Malbec. While this has some truth to it, Cahors are pretty well known as being a bit rustic, the Côt wines (one of perhaps a thousand synonyms for Malbec in France) of the Loire Valley also share some aggressiveness of tannin. It’s the climate, after all.
Malbec needs sun to ripen, and the tight, thick-skinned bunches of grapes can suffer from multiple maladies if they’re not kept nice and dry by warm breezes. Therein lies the reason for the great success in Argentina. Not only were there many old-vine vineyards available, which had been used for bulk wine production for years, but the sun shines brightly on the eastern side of the Andes, and the air is dry and warm; perfect for ripening the tannins of Malbec and allowing the rich, spicy blackberry and plumskin flavors of the grape to develop.
Malbec is seeing a bit of a resurgence in France. The wines of Cahors are becoming more popular as consumers look beyond the opulence of Argentine Malbec in an effort to better understand all that Malbec has to offer and even in Bordeaux, where this once-popular variety had fallen into relative obscurity, one finds an increasing reliance on Malbec in some narrowly defined regions. The Côtes de Bourg, for example, has made a push toward quality Malbec, identifying the south-facing vineyards ideal for its cultivation and creating blends that highlight Malbec. There are even some pure 100% varietal wines entering the mark.
All this is for the good of Malbec, because the truth is, as great as Argentine Malbec may be, there’s a lot more to Malbec than one country can produce. Malbec produces a fascinating, terroir-driven wine in the hands of many producers: complex, and grippy, a great value, and fun to drink. If you’ve had your bell rung by a Malbec, be it French or Argentine, do yourself a favor and continue your exploration with this diverse and sometimes offbeat grape!