Malbec wine is on the rise. It has no doubt become a feature on wine lists and in retailers across the world. Indeed, in 2018, 103.1 million litres were exported from Argentina alone. This represents a 1600% rise in Malbec exports over the past 15 years.
If you’re new to the world of Malbec, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Argentina is its true home. However, while 75% of the world’s Malbec comes from Argentina, Malbec originated from France and is produced in a number of other countries across the world. This doesn’t mean that it is an easily adaptable grape. The small Malbec grapes are deeply affected by the environment in which they are grown. This explains why Malbec varies so much across countries and why it hadn’t seen great successes until relatively recently.
During this article, we will delve into Malbec wine. Both in terms of its origins and its place in the world today. Next time you see a Malbec on the menu, you’ll know how it got there and which nation’s variety is the right Malbec for you.
Malbec Grape Variety
Malbec grapes are small, possessing a deep and dark colour. The grapes are temperamental, shown frequently by the grape’s sensitivity to environmental hazards. Rot, pests and frost all have potentially detrimental effects to any Malbec vintner.
This explains why the vastly different growing conditions of Malbec wine’s ancestral and modern day home have changed the end product so much. A dry climate with plenty of sunshine, which is found in Argentina, is more forgiving. Even though Malbec grapes thrive in the sun, they can’t withstand high temperatures. The high altitude Argentinian vineyards, which have a dry and cooler climate, is perfect growing conditions for Malbec.
These ‘sunny’ Argentinian Malbec grapes end up producing a more jammy, fruit-forward and softer wine. Conversely, Malbec wine grown in Bordeaux France has firmer tannins and a darker, richer and more astringent finish to it. I think if I spent my time in frost-bitten French fields rather than sun-drenched mountains, I’d also be far more prone to being dark and brooding.
Malbec Food Pairings
If you’re looking for a perfect food pairing for Malbec wine, then try beef short rib. This works whether you’re opting for a French, or an Argentinian Malbec. Each nation has its own take on the short rib and both would be perfect accompaniments for different occasions.
For the Argentinian version, try ‘Asado de Tira’. This is cooked over naked flames and served on the bone. The lighter Argentinian Malbec makes it perfect for Summer nights, where cooking outside on a BBQ is the place to be.
The French version of a classic French beef short rib is braised in red wine. This dish is far more hearty and rich, making it better for a cold winter’s night. This will perfectly compliment the deeper, darker French Malbec.
The Original Malbec Wine
Now, we know a bit about these small and capricious grapes. Let’s look into where Malbec came from.
Malbec wine has ancient roots and was first noticed by Roman legionnaires in the Cahors region of France 2000 years ago. It still features prominently in Cahors wine, which by law, must contain at least 70% Malbec. Although, it is often instead referred to by its French name ‘Côt’. Malbec also has roots in the Bordeaux region where it frequently made part of a blend with other red grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot.
French Malbec fell out of favour though. This was primarily down to a number of near extinction events for the fickle Malbec grape. A Phylloxera epidemic, (a pest detrimental to grapevines), in the late 19th century, as well as a severe frost in 1956, both led French vintners to turn away from the Malbec grape. Instead, they came to favour the more robust Merlot.
Malbec may have been down in France, but it wasn’t out. The successes across the world have helped contribute to a revival in France. Cahors represents some of the cheapest real estate in France, when discussing vineyards. It is also in many large areas unplanted. With Malbec wine now a globally recognised and revered grape, Cahors could become hot property. A new French Gold Rush could be there for any daring vintners ready to conquer looming frosts and Phylloxera.
Malbec Wine’s New Home
Originally brought over from France in the 1850s, Malbec wine quickly found its feet in Argentina. We’ve touched upon what makes Malbec wine thrive in Argentina. Malbec grapes thrive in the sun and produce an end product heavily linked to their terroir. Indeed, experts tested a number of Malbec vintages and found that, thanks to the terroir, they without fail could tell the vintages apart.
The terroir affects the taste and aroma what we consume. Luckily for us, that’s a good thing. Mendoza is the prime producer of Malbec wine, and wine in general, in Argentina. Mendoza is situated at the foot of the Andes mountains. This means that vineyards found here are often at high altitude. This helps negate the potentially damaging effect of the sun’s heat, with cool mountain breezes.
When discussing Argentinian Malbec, one person to mention is Susana Balbo. Susana was one of the first women to make a name for herself in the world of Argentinian wine. Since starting, she has had a long and storied career, even winning a number of prestigious awards. Both for her business acumen and decades of producing fantastic Malbec wine.
Another name to look out for in the world of Argentinian wine is Angulo Innocenti. Like the Balbo family, the Innocenti’s are descendants of winemakers in Europe. They emigrated from their native countries to Argentina in the late 19th century. Another stunning vineyard, set in the Andes mountains. The terroir leads to rich black fruit flavours in their delicious wines, with the flagship Malbec wine leading the pack.
Other Notable Malbec Wine Producers
While Malbec may have originated in France and found its home in Argentina. There are a number of other countries making a name for themselves in the world of Malbec wine. Notable producers of Malbec wine, include countries such as Chile, the U.S.A, South Africa and Australia. However the heat of the latter two limit how much terroir in these wine regions is suitable for producing quality Malbec wine.
Geographically speaking, it’s unsurprising that Chile is the third most established. Actually, Chilean Malbec exports are quickly growing. Sales increased within the UK by 51% in 2017. From Mendoza, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump over the Andes mountains to the Chilean capital of Santiago. The unique terroir that makes Argentinian Malbec what it is, provides similar benefits for Chilean Malbec. Long sunny days and high-altitude makes Chile the perfect environment for Malbec wine.
The success of Malbec wine in Argentina will serve as a stepping stone for many others. Perhaps Chile caught whispers of the success on the mountain winds and got there first. However, others are taking note and many of the great ‘New World’ wine producing countries are beginning to make their own Malbec wine.
Will We SEE Malbec Wine Produced in the UK?
The UK is no different from the rest of the world. There seems to be an ever growing thirst for Malbec wine. Argentinian exports have grown by 94% in 2020 into the UK. Without question, a vast amount of those imports will be Malbec wine.
Not only this, but there has even been some tentative speculation that we will join in on the fun ourselves and become a nation which produces Malbec wine. Climate change is warming the globe. At some point in the future this will push temperatures to a point where Malbec grapes can no longer take the Argentinian or Chilean heat. As a result it may push UK temperatures to a point where Malbec vines thrive.
The study commissioned by Laithwaite’s Wine suggests that as temperature rises, the British vineyards will flourish. This is because a more richly diverse variety of grapes will be able to be grown on British soil. It’s worth mentioning that this won’t be until 2100. UK Malbec wine may be one for our kids, rather than us. Regardless, it’s nice to dream.
Malbec wine is a ubiquitous element on wine lists and in retailers across the globe. It’s got history. It’s rich, varied in taste and delicious. Now that you’ve read about it, treat yourself to a bottle of Malbec, knowing you’re picking the one that’s best for you!
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