Today is International Malbec Day, so here’s a post celebrating that grape and its wines. I have chosen Argentina for my own celebration with some history, a comparison with my favourite Burgundy (!), and some recommendations of Argentinian vineyards plus some bottles from The Wine Society (UK). I hope you enjoy it and send me your own recommendations.
In recent months whenever I couldn’t see a decent Burgundy on a restaurant or wine bar menu I’ve turned to …….. a Malbec for a red wine and a Sauvignon Blanc for a white. I’ll post about the Sauvignon Blanc choice in a separate post, but for now this is about my red wine alternative.
The big problem in finding a red burgundy substitute is caused by how the Pinot Noir grape variety is so terroir “conscious”. It is so susceptible to so many terroir components: soil type, climate especially mean temperature, length of season and frost risk, aspect ….. eg south facing, slope, altitude, latitude, rainfall. It is no wonder that growing Pinot Noir outside Burgundy is so difficult and that prices are so high. But, for those who love a Californian or New Zealand version, don’t misunderstand me, it’s all about personal taste and nothing else.
So, back to Malbec, found in the Cahors region in the South West of France with the grape also known as Auxerrois or Cot Noir. Previously it has been blended with two other grapes, Merlot and Tannat to give dark inky black wines loaded with tannin giving it great ageing potential, and …….. that recent evidence supports the theory that Cot Noir originated in ………. Burgundy! But more recently winemakers have been developing wines unblended as 100% Malbec with great success.
From across the ocean however it is Argentina that is rightly becoming famed for its Malbec based wines. Historically Argentina depended on Spanish colonisers for their first imports of the vinifera vines which arrived direct from Spain in 1541. Then a year later and also in 1550 seeds and vines were imported from Peru. Then in 1556 more vines arrived from Chile. But these imports were NOT Malbec. However it was in 1851 that the provincial governor, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento received grapevine cuttings from France brought by Miguel Pouget, a French agronomist, and amongst them was Malbec. Despite this, it wasn’t until more than 100 years later in the late 20th century that Argentinian winemakers realised that they had underplanted a grape vine that could produce higher quality premium wines, and so Malbec became the most predominant and widely planted grape in the country.
Argentina: Wine Regions
But none of this explains my sudden interest in Argentinian Malbec beyond quaffing a cheerful version in a restaurant when a decent Burgundy isn’t available. The clues are in my opening paragraphs above, first that the Malbec/Cot/Auxerrois grape originated in Burgundy, and second that about 10 years ago one particular winemaker, Sebastian Zuccardi, began experimenting with growing vines in different parts of his land with differing soils. These soils are diverse, caused by the shifting rock, sand and chalk of the Andes mountains. Today, he has around 20 different wines each year, all Malbec, all because of terroir …….. soil variations especially, but also related to climate and altitude. And so now instead of making only homogenised and blended wines from a single grape into a single wine, Zuccardi and many others are carefully crafting quite different wines with the terroir-driven Malbec grape.
Most winemaking in Argentina takes place in the foothills of the Andes, and most famously in Mendoza, where desert landscapes and high altitudes combine to make a terroir that gives rise to aromatic, intensely flavored red wines. Vineyards in Mendoza reach as high as 5000ft (1500m) above sea level. Here, increased levels of solar radiation and a high diurnal temperature variation make for a long, slow ripening period, leading to balanced sugars and acidity in the grapes. Nearly three-quarters of Argentinian wine production takes place in Mendoza, and in addition to Malbec, there are significant plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Bonarda. Mendoza’s position in the rain shadow of the Andes means that there is little rainfall, and irrigation is supplied by Andean meltwater. Further north, the regions of Salta and Catamarca are even higher, and a world-topping vineyard owned by Bodega Colome in Molinos sits at 9900ft!
So, there you have it in a very large nutshell, I’ve always been a terroiriste rather than a garagiste and would like to welcome Argentinian Mendoza Malbec to my world alongside French Burgundian Pinot Noir! But will I ever get a chance to visit a vineyard or two? Who knows, but here’s my current selection of two Argentinian Malbecs from a couple of its top wine estates in Mendoza:
- The Wine Society Argentine Malbec 2019, (£8.50) made at Dominio del Plata by owner Susana Balbo, the country’s first female winemaker and recognised and known as The Queen of Malbec.
- Mendel Mendoza Malbec 2017, (£16.00) and made by winemaker Roberta de la Mota. This estate has three different vineyards in three different terroir, this bottle coming from Finca Mendel in Mayor Drummond and at an altitude of 3000ft.