A Little Bit of Malbec

Fascinating, terroir-driven wines

 


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!
Slideshow
6 Malbecs Reviewed

Click to see a slideshow of 6 Malbecs Reviewed

Before we turn to the actual tasting notes it’s worth taking a moment to consider what Malbec is doing today and where it’s come from. Historically Malbec was planted through France. Its ability to produce a deeply colored, structured wine made it an important blending grape, a status that it generally maintained until the middle of the 20th century, when a devastating frost killed off much of the Malbec planted throughout the southwest of France.

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!

Mentioned in this article

Comments

  • Snooth User: Viking70
    267581 9

    We have recently planted a few rows of Malbec (2009) at St Joseph Vineyard in the Grand River Valley Appellation of northeast Ohio. St Joseph has done really well with Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Syrah.

    Feb 14, 2011 at 1:07 PM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 208,793

    Very interesting. I look forward to hearing more about your trials with Malbec!

    Feb 14, 2011 at 1:18 PM


  • I wouldn't think Malbec when I think NE Ohio...but that's what makes wine great! Creativity. Good luck.

    Feb 14, 2011 at 1:37 PM


  • Whenever I read reviews on Malbec, Obra Prima is inevitably overlooked, and I don't know why that is. I love it, and everyone I have ever recommended it to feels the same. It sells for approx. $18.00/bottle, is deep in color, rich in oaky flavor, and is bottled by Familla Cassone in Mendoza. A must try.

    Feb 14, 2011 at 2:37 PM


  • Snooth User: courgette
    124481 148

    Just wondering who's cringing at "Argentinian," and why... I see it in several dictionaries as "of or pertaining to Argentina," and similar definitions. When I speak of citizens of Argentina, I call them "Argentines," but I say "an Argentinian winemaker."

    And then there's the word Argentine-- last syllable rhyming with either 'mean' or 'mine'-- which now seems primarily to denote a person from that nation; but it was long (in England, anyway) used for the country's name, as in "The Argentine," as you see in this verse from Kurt Weill's SAGA OF JENNY:

    Jenny made her mind up at thirty-nine
    She would take a trip to the Argentine
    She was only on a vacation, but the Latins agree
    Jenny was the one who started the Good Neighbor policy..



    Feb 14, 2011 at 3:07 PM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 208,793

    Thanks Patrice, I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

    My Argentine friends tend to most of the cringing!

    Feb 14, 2011 at 3:16 PM


  • Snooth User: jamesy
    362251 12

    @ cringing
    I'll bet. I have the same response to Estados Unitos.
    Its ENGLISH, get used to it

    Feb 14, 2011 at 3:36 PM


  • Snooth User: Gavilan Vineyards
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    517320 40

    Very nice article on Malbec.
    I hope you will venture into the true black grape, Bonarda from Argentina or otherwise known as Corbeau in France. There you have a bold wine that is black to the bone. The second largest planted grape varietal in Argentina and also mostly used previously for bulk production, here mainly to put color into the table wines made from lesser grapes.

    As for Malbec there are many many new ones coming. Be surprised. Try them all. Although the big wineries are mostly a safe bet, they tend to leave a lot on the table when making their wine to please a wide band of wine lovers. Some of the smaller producers go all out and bring the very best out of their grapes and are making wines that are different from year to year, as the grapes are different from year to year but each speaking their own interesting language.

    We grafted this year 1ha of old rootstock to Malbec and planted 6 ha (15 acres) of new vineyard with Malbec for our Wine Estate owners. The grafted stock will produce as early as next March. In fact we had already grape clusters on the shoots this year.

    Malbec has certainly found a home here in Argentina. Perfect growing conditions.

    Feb 14, 2011 at 4:54 PM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 208,793

    I'm a big fan of Argentine Bonarda. Carly Wray an associate editor her at Snooth, recently spent some time in Argentina and will be publishing articles on her adventures soon. Bonarda is in the loop as far as I know.

    Feb 14, 2011 at 5:08 PM


  • As you tire of malbecs seeming only to come from the Argentine (sic!) I tire of malbecs on sellers' shelves seeming to only come from Mendoza. There are many very good wine growing areas in Argentina, but, to my mind, none better than the Salta region, with its single grape malbecs and subtle blends.
    Phil

    Feb 14, 2011 at 5:52 PM


  • Write your comment here.

    Feb 14, 2011 at 5:52 PM


  • I just got back from Mendoza (mostly the Lujan de Cuyo area) and tried amazing Malbecs, as well as great Bonarda's. They are also doing some really interesting things with Chardonnay

    Feb 14, 2011 at 6:20 PM


  • Snooth User: Shai Gar
    562227 10

    I would love to see this vine planted in the central highlands in Queensland, Australia. I grew up there and if warm and sunny is needed, there's that in abundance.

    Feb 14, 2011 at 6:25 PM


  • Snooth User: tinhart
    265948 52

    I have no doubt in the slightest that Argentina selectively exports their best Malbecs (poor us in the USA!)... but the BEST Malbec I have had (outside of anything generally available in the USA, from Argentina, for under $30) comes from Washington state, no ifs and or buts... our long, warm, dry summers with as much as 16 hours of daylight offer fantastic growing conditions... what we lack in affordability we can more than make up for in overall quality. Seek out the rarest Red Mountain and or Walla Walla Malbecs, and you will taste some of the finest Malbecs ever produced in the northern hemisphere, I promise (see Les Collines, Stillwater Creek, and other vineyards in Columbia Valley, Rattlesnake Hills, Wahluke Slope, etc).

    Feb 14, 2011 at 10:17 PM


  • Not only Cahors makes wine with Malbec. there is a tiny appellation called rulhois where a very fine maker is rated by the top French guides and it sells at 14 euros a bottle - called l Horloge - the clock. I plan to buy a few bottles later this year to find out if it matches the wines from Argentina. The climate around this area is warmer than in Bordeaux and it should be fruitier and more mature than the Cahors versions.
    Brian Wilkie France

    Feb 15, 2011 at 2:01 AM


  • Snooth User: Cahors Wines
    Hand of Snooth
    498228 69

    Thank you for the good article! I am pleased that the underrated wine from the Cahors region has received some attention again. Indeed, most Malbec vines in Argentina are imported from France .....

    Feb 15, 2011 at 2:58 AM


  • Snooth User: TrevorG
    519681 18

    What about Chilean Malbec? including Casillero del Diablo 2010 that received 90 points in Decanter magazine recently.

    Feb 15, 2011 at 4:04 AM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 208,793

    The wines of Cahors deserve their own article, and I hope to have the samples for one in the near future!

    Feb 15, 2011 at 8:45 AM


  • Being punctilious about something so unnervingly trite as Argentine v Argentinian really is more germane to the pursuit of being a supercilious douche than the elucidation that is purported to be aim of this article, no?

    May 10, 2011 at 1:53 PM


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