Malbec is a black-skinned grape variety native to southern France (specifically the area around Cahors), but now better known as the icon wine grape of Argentina. Through its success in the vineyards of Mendoza, in a few short decades Malbec has shot from relative obscurity to international fame, simultaneously bringing new-found attention and respect to Argentina as a wine-producing nation.
Malbec typically ripens midway through the growing season and produces small, intensely colored grapes. As it is so sensitive to its growing environment the level of ripeness has a considerable effect on the structure of the eventual wine. Broadly speaking, French Malbec tends to be more meaty, rustic and tannic, while examples from Argentina seem to be uniformly rich, ripe, jammy and juicy. On both sides of the Atlantic, Malbec wines are generally aged in oak to enhance the wine’s structure and aging potential.
In France, Malbec is the grape of Cahors. It must constitute a minimum of 70% of any AOC Cahors wine, accompanied by rich, round Merlot and rustic, tannic Tannat. It is also a common ingredient in red wines from Bordeaux, as a constituent of the classic Bordeaux Blend. In both of these regions the variety has traditionally gone by its local name 'Cot', but due to the success of Malbec in Argentina, it is increasingly known by this more internationally-recognized name. In the Loire Valley, Malbec is blended with Cabernet Franc and Gamay, sometimes as part of a sparkling Saumur wine.
The 20th Century presented some significant set-backs for Malbec as a vine variety. Its importance in Bordeaux was significantly reduced after the great frost of 1956, which killed off many of the region's oldest vines. In the years following this, most vignerons chose to replant their vineyards not with Malbec, but with more reliable, economically viable varieties such as Merlot. Malbec suffered similar losses during Argentina's national vine-pull scheme in the late 1980s, during which a vast number of Malbec vines (including some of the South America's oldest) were uprooted.
Susceptibility to frost and coulure has done little to endear the variety to European vignerons, but in the higher, drier climes of South America, Malbec has really come into its own. Argentinean Malbec vines produce a wide range of wine styles. At lower altitudes, the variety's skins tend to be thinner, and the fruit soft and supple – ideal for rosés and mass-produced reds (carbonic maceration is sometimes used to create an approachable, light red wine for summer). Further up, on the lower slopes of the Andes Mountains, the variety develops a thicker skin and a deeper concentration of flavor. Wines from these altitudes (particularly between 1000ft and 1200ft) are more aromatic and have intense, vibrant coloring, and rank among the most respected of all South American wines. Argentina's very highest vineyards, in the Salta province, reach altitudes of almost 10,000ft (3050m) above sea level, and are among the very highest in the world. These are typically planted with Malbec, along with the nation's icon white wine variety Torrontes.
Malbec forms part of the Meritage blend in the United States, and has a strong presence in California. In Australia and New Zealand, it is frequently blended with the softer, less tannic Merlot, to produce bright, fruit-driven wines against a backbone of oak. Plums and violets are common flavor descriptors.
Synonyms include: Cot, Cahors, Auxerrois, Malbeck.
Food matches include:
Europe: Confit goose; sirloin of Ibérico pork
Asia: Beijing barbecue beef skewers; fried stuffed peppers (putgochu jeon)
Americas: Traditional Argentinan asado (various barbecued meats)
Australasia/Oceania: Braised lamb shoulder with roasted parsnips