Malbec might be a reasonably recent wine grape in the international scene, but it’s as noble as better-known varietals. And although Malbec has made a name for itself in the New World, you can trace its origins to the most acclaimed French vineyards.
Inky, robust, juicy, and generous — that’s Malbec right there, and yes, it has become the quintessential red wine for summer grilling parties, but it has a place on a fine-dining table as well. Here’s all you need to know about Malbec, a grape that conquered the world with its juicy generosity.
The History of the Malbec Grape Variety
Malbec is one of the five original red grapes in Bordeaux, although, after the great frost of 1956, it’s almost non existent in the region. Still, the noble grape is amongst the most cherished on the French Atlantic Coast.
Malbec is the offspring of two obscure varietals, Magdeleine Noire des Charentes and Prunelard noir, making the Charente department its most probable origin; this is the home of Cognac. And although Malbec was once planted throughout France, today, the grape’s spiritual home is Cahors, in Southwest France, where producers champion the inky grape to produce authentic age-worthy masterpieces. Here the grape is known as côt.
The robust grape is perhaps better known for being the flagship red variety of Argentina. French agronomist Michel Aimé Pouget took the first Malbec vines to the South American country in 1853, but it took the grape over 130 years to become the commercial success it is today.
There’s no doubt Malbec is experiencing a renaissance with wine regions in both the Old and New World producing extraordinary examples every year. And the biggest winners are the consumers — there’s no substitution for Malbec on the table.
The most acclaimed French wine region focused on Malbec is Cahors AOP. More often than not, producers, generations-old, family-owned, small operations make red wine with the grape côt.
Cahors wine must comprise at least 70% Malbec with Merlot and Tannat as supporting actors. Still, most Cahors wine contains much more Malbec than that, and a vast majority is made solely with the primary grape. Other French wine regions have small Malbec plantings, particularly on Bordeaux’s Right Bank or Libournais, but they lack commercial significance.
Although there’s no denying French Malbec is of the highest quality, 80% of the wine made with the grape comes from Argentina, where it displays a plush, ripe personality. Mendoza, particularly high-elevation sites like Lujan de Cuyo, produces world-class Malbec, but it’s safe to say the grape plays a significant role in every Argentine wine region. Small areas dedicated to the grape also exist in California, Chile and Australia.
Malbec is growing in popularity, and grape growers around the world are dedicating new plots to grow it. It remains to be seen if new wine regions can join the conversation dominated by French and Argentine winemakers. The future is bright for Malbec!
Wine Styles & Tasting Notes
Malbec from Cahors is the benchmark for all Malbec wine. Its refined personality often reflects a robust palate of rich tannins and a persistent balancing acidity supporting a bouquet of generous black fruit. Not dissimilar to a claret from Bordeaux, Cahors is age-worthy and elegant and never over-the-top.
New World Malbec is more alcoholic; the black fruit aromas are riper and often more expressive. There are also noticeable oak spices and diminished acidity. Juicy, plush and bold, warm-climate Malbec is crowd-pleasing, but it might lack the finesse known in its French counterparts unless it comes from high altitude vineyards.
What all Malbec has in common is an inky, dark colour and generous blue and black fruit aromas over a tannic but well-rounded palate. Its alcoholic strength and acidity depend on the climate where the grapes are grown.
The use of oak and its influence in the wine depends on the winemakers’ philosophy. However, it has become clear that producers in the New World prefer to infuse their red wine with vanilla and spices from new oak more often than producers in France.
French Malbec from Cahors has incredible versatility on the table. The robust, structured wine pairs marvellously with red meat, game, roasts, cured meat and rustic meat stews. Cahors more noticeable acidity makes it suitable to pair with fine dining and more delicate cuisines and has proven to be an ideal partner for a multi-course meal.
Argentine Malbec is also compatible with red meat, but it shines best when paired with charcoal-grilled meat, charred sausages and offal, all standard items in a classic Argentine ‘asado’.
It comes without saying both Cahors and Mendoza produce young, uncomplicated Malbec and age-worthy, compatible examples. Youthful Malbec is not overly complicated but easy to enjoy. Aged, more concentrated examples are worthy of any wine collection.