Mmmm, Malbec. Known for being fruit-forward with big, bold flavors, velvety texture, dark, rustic, and majorly drinkable with its overall balanced structure. Who doesn’t love Malbec? Though it may seem like this big grape was born with greatness it actually has a long history of being overlooked and underappreciated. So how did Malbec emerge as vinous nobility? Turns out all it took was a little travel and whole lot of sunshine.
2018 – The Malbec We Know and Love
Malbec grapes have a very dark, thin skin that create big, tannic, full-bodied, delicious wines. The most renowned Malbec wines of today come from Argentina, more specifically, the Mendoza region. These luscious vineyards rest in the foothills of the Andes mountains receiving an average of 320 days of hot, South American sunshine, and less than 10 inches of rain per year. Wine growers depend on vast irrigation systems to manage the water intake of the vines and the development of the grapes. Although it is known to have originated in France, Malbec is grown all over the world in major wine regions like Australia, South Africa, Chile, Italy, and of course, the United States. But it grows most famously perhaps in Argentina.
1852 – A Very Good Place to Start
But, let’s back up the beginning. Rewind two centuries to the mid to late 1800’s. Napoleon III, nephew to Napoleon I and the first elected President of the French Second Republic, organizes his own coup d’état and ends up becoming Emperor of the French for the next 18 years. The first few years of his reign bring heavy regulations and censorship and lead many French to leave their homeland for the Americas. They bring with them many vines and plan to cultivate and make wine in the new world.
At this time in France, Malbec, known as “cot,” and by several other regional names, is grown in South West, Bordeaux, and a few other French regions. It is a meek grape often affected by coulure (a condition affecting grapes wherein the fruit ripens improperly due to lack of sunlight or too much cold or rain during the growing season) and primarily used to blend some color into the better tasting Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wine blends. So it’s not really a winemaker’s best friend at this time.
1863-1877 (approximately) – The “Grape Plague”
Grape Phylloxera hits France in the early 1860’s and destroys nearly 85% of all of France’s vines in the span of about 15 years. When the plague passes and vineyards start to be replanted and regrow, many vintners replaced the old Malbec vines with better, more consistent varietals of the regions like Cabernet Sauvignon. Fortunately, Phylloxera never reached South America – and still hasn’t to this day! Chilean and Argentinian vineyards continued to thrive over the next century.
1990s – Hello World, I Am Malbec!
Unlike in France, Malbec flourished in the hot sun and limited rain of South America. And produced a big, very tannic and rustic wine that Argentinians loved and kept mostly to themselves for decades. Argentinian wine consumption is about 10.4 gallons of wine per person, per year. That’s pretty high. It used to be a lot higher and they used to produce a lot less so you can see how much of their wine rarely made it out of the country. (For comparison, wine consumption in the USA is about 1-2 gallons per person, per year). It wasn’t until Argentinian wineries watched Chilean wineries improve wine quality, increase production and bottle price, and then export their wines to more affluent markets like Great Britain and the US, that they decided to follow suit. With Malbec being the most flavor-packed and full-bodied red wine produced in Argentina, the demand steadily increased during the 1990’s and beyond. Today, a mid-priced Mendoza Malbec is a a must have in most wine cellars. These wines, though generally able to age well due to strong tannins and great structure, are often very enjoyable after only a few years. Even at a young age, many Malbec wines are fruity and supple and perfect with just about any meat dish. Yum!
Malbec has been growing in California now for several decades and has started to achieve much acclaim. Malbec vines started appearing in California when winemakers decided they wanted to make “Meritage” or Bordeaux-style wines in the 1990’s. With the growing popularity of Argentinian Malbec, winemakers in California tried their hand at varietal specific Malbec wines. And the industry has somewhat taken off. With a great climate (slightly warmer, and less rainfall than France) for Malbec vines, and many decades of technological winemaking advancements, California Malbec is the new “everyday wine.” When asked for his take on California Malbec, Heringer Estates winemaker Mike Heringer said that Clarksburg, CA Malbec is to an Argentinian Malbec what a Primitivo is to a foothill Zinfandel, its slightly lighter, leaner cousin. “The South American Malbec tends to have more tannin where ours is more medium bodied and fruit-forward.” The best news? “We’re coming up on our 10-year vine birthday for our Malbec and that is really when the vines begin to reach maturity. We are so excited to continue to age this vine and enjoy each vintage as it gets better and better!”
The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil
Wine Skool’D The Podcast, Ep 39 “Malbec Goes West” by Keith Beavers
Wikipedia “Malbec” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malbec