As an Argentine, I may be biased in considering Malbec to be my absolute favorite choice of wine. Regardless, there are so many things to share when it comes to this potent grape, including a history that tells an international, unique story that I am excited to share with you.
Let’s dive into Malbec’s history and cultural importance which only adds to its unique delicious flavor and body. Few things are more synonymous with Argentina than Malbec. Widely considered to be Argentina’s signature red wine, Malbec is made from the grape variety of the same name. Known for its inky dark color and intense fruity flavor, Malbec grape is the most cultivated variety in Argentina – with its plantations accounting for more than 22% of the total cultivated area in the country.
Although Malbec is commonly known as the Argentine varietal, it’s not indigenous to Argentina. It is actually a native of France whose history can be traced back to 150 A.D. It was introduced to Argentina in the 19th century. Ever since then, it has become the most widely grown vine in Argentina and has played an extremely important role in establishing the country’s reputation as one of the top wine producing countries in the world today.
*This post contains compensated links. Find more info in my DISCLAIMER. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
The French Origins of Malbec Grapes
Malbec during the Roman Empire
Malbec is a native of Cahors, which is a small town in Southern France. Some historians claim that Malbec was brought to Cahors from Italy by the Romans in 150 A.D. – this would have been post Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Some other historians claim that Malbec has always been a native of Cahors and the Romans merely continued its cultivation. What is undisputed is the fact that during the Roman Empire, Malbec was the preferred choice of red wine among the Roman elites. Several mentions of the famed Cahors red wine can be found in the works of classical authors like Virgil and Horace.
The Many Names of Malbec
Malbec was originally known as Cot. It was also known by several other names, as local growers in Cahors used to name it after the locality it was grown. Depending on the region it was grown in, it was known as Auxerrois, Noir de Pressac, and Cor.
It’s also claimed that Malbec was named after Sieur Malbek – a Hungarian peasant who planted the grape in the Bordeaux region during the 1700s. It’s still referred to as Cot or Cor by many winemakers in France, as these names are closely linked to the region that birthed the variety – Cahors.
Malbec’s Significance in the Lot Valley
The Lot Valley – which is named after the Lot River – is known for its rich tradition of vine cultivation and contains more than 4,200 hectares of vineyards. Malbec is the most widely grown variety of grape in the region. Its significance can be gauged from the fact that the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) regulations for Cahors wines require Malbec to constitute at least 70% of the blend.
Malbec’s Expansion to Bordeaux
During the Middle Ages, Malbec wines produced in the Cahors region were shipped to Bordeaux to be sold to consumers. At that time, there was a huge demand for red wines in England and Bordeaux was one of the foremost exporters of wines to the UK. Intending to retain their advantage, the tradesmen in Bordeaux preferred to sell Malbec only after they had depleted their own stock first.
At the same time, winemakers in Bordeaux were impressed with Malbec’s unique qualities and used it as a blending grape to enhance the color and mouthfeel of their wines and to create a composite aroma and flavor that cannot be obtained by using a single variety of grape.
At one point, Malbec was one of the most widely grown varieties of grapes cultivated in Bordeaux – particularly in the Medoc and St. Emillion appellations. Malbec attained the peak of its popularity in the 19th century. A number of chateaux mentioned in the historic 1855 Bordeaux Classification used Malbec in their blends, with some chateaux using as much as 50% of Malbec in their Bordeaux blends.
Particularly – the wines produced in Chateau Latour, which was classified as a First Growth in the 1855 Bordeaux Classification, used Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon in their blend, which is a testament to the popularity of the grape during that time period.
Book a Malbec Tasting Experience
Before we dive further into one of my favorite topics, I wanted to share some great Malbec Tasting experiences whether visiting Buenos Aires or in the Malbec Region of Mendoza.
All Viator Malbec Vineyard Tours offer enthusiasts the opportunity to explore the rich tapestry of Malbec’s history and taste its diverse expressions. These tours take you on a journey through the heart of Malbec wine country, where you can witness the magic of this grape varietal firsthand.
Enjoying Malbec at Home
If you or fellow wine lovers in your circle are wanting to enjoy Malbec at home, check out our Best Gifts for Wine Drinkers for our favorite accessories and gadgets.
Malbec’s Role in Enhancing the Flavor Profile of Bordeaux Wines
Malbec is one of the six blending grapes used in Bordeaux – the other five being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere.
Malbec is used as a blending grape primarily due to its ability to impart a rich, intense color and depth to lighter-colored wines. Its dark fruit flavors – with notes of blackberry, raspberry, black cherry, and plum – can bring a touch of vibrant fruitiness to wines.
Malbec has medium tannin levels, which makes it a perfect blending grape for grapes with high tannin levels like Cabernet Sauvignon. It can soften the overall tannic structure of the blend and make the wine smoother and more balanced.
The Decline of Malbec in Bordeaux
Vine growers in France always had a challenging time growing Malbec, as the cold weather made the grapes susceptible to viticultural hazards like frost, rot, downey mildew, and coulure. During the late 19th century, the phylloxera epidemic devastated vineyards across Europe – particularly in France. It’s estimated that the outbreak destroyed nearly two-thirds of the vineyards in Europe.
The vineyards that survived the phylloxera outbreak were further devastated by the Great Frost of 1956. Temperatures ranged from 25°C (77°F) during the day to –17°C (1.4°F) at night. The frost completely destroyed nearly all of the vineyards in the Bordeaux region.
Many vine growers and botanists tried to grow Malbec in the Bordeaux region again by using pest-resistant rootstocks and hybrids. Unlike some other Bordeaux varieties, Malbec failed to adapt to the rootstocks. As a result, many wine growers in Bordeaux chose to replace Malbec wine grapes with Merlot and Cabernets, which were easier to grow and better suited to the climatic conditions.
Malbec’s Arrival in Argentina
Contrary to what some people think, Argentina is not the first country in South America to adopt the French wine making culture. Chile was the first country to import French vine growing expertise and cultivate Malbec – among other grape varieties. Chilean authorities established the Quinta Normal de Santiago in 1841 to educate and train local farmers and help them adopt the best practices of French viticulturists.
At that time, Argentine politician Domingo Faustino Sarmiento was in political exile in Chile. Impressed by the measures taken by the Chilean authorities to adopt the culture of French vine growing and wine making into Chile, he decided to do the same in Argentina upon his return to the country.
On the 17th of April, 1853, Sarmiento established the Quinta Normal – modeled after the institute set up in Chile. He also requested Michel Aime Pouget – a French agronomist who was in charge of the Quinta Normal in Chile – to run the institute. Pouget brought Malbec vine cuttings to Argentina and laid the foundation for the success story of Argentine Malbec. To this day, the 17th of April is celebrated as Malbec World Day in Argentina.
Why Malbec Thrives in Argentina?
There are many reasons why growing Malbec vines in Argentina proved to be a lot easier than growing them in France. These include:
Argentina enjoys abundant sunlight, with clear skies and long hours of sunshine. This consistent sunlight exposure helps the grapes ripen fully and evenly, leading to ripe fruit flavors and balanced acidity in Malbec wines.
Argentina’s wine regions benefit from a dry climate, with minimal rainfall during the growing season. This dryness helps reduce the risk of fungal diseases that can damage grapevines. The lack of excessive moisture also allows for better control over irrigation, promoting grape quality and concentration.
Many of Argentina’s vineyards are situated at high altitudes in regions such as Mendoza, Salta, and San Juan. Altitude provides a natural buffer against extreme temperatures, as it tends to be cooler at higher elevations. This allows for slower ripening of the grapes, which can enhance the development of complex flavors and aromas in Malbec.
Variations in Temperature
The diurnal temperature variation in many Argentine wine regions is significant, with warm daytime temperatures and cool nights. This variation helps to preserve the grape’s natural acidity while allowing the fruit to ripen fully. This balance between acidity and ripeness is crucial for the development of high-quality Malbec wines.
Minimal Risk of Frost
Due to the high altitudes of many vineyards and the dry climate, frost is less of a concern in Argentina compared to some other wine-producing regions. This reduced risk of frost damage is beneficial for Malbec vines, as they can grow and develop without the threat of late-season frosts.
Lack of Viticultural Hazards
One of the most unique aspects of Argentina is the lack of viticultural hazards like insects, fungi, mold, phylloxera, and other problems that affect vineyards in other parts of the world. Due to the lack of these hazards, wine growers are able to cultivate Malbec and other varieties of grapes without the use of pesticides. It’s also the reason why Argentina is home to some of the best organic wines in the region.
Malbec’s Role in Transforming Argentina’s Wine Industry
While Argentina has always been a wine producing country, the introduction of Malbec transformed the country’s wine industry for the better. In 1962, within 100 years of its introduction, Malbec became the most widely cultivated grape variety in Argentina – accounting for more than 22% of all vineyards (more than 58,000 hectares) in the country.
During the following decades, there was an 80% drop in the cultivation of Malbec grapes in Argentina due to intense competition from native varietals like Criolla.
By the end of the 90s, Malbec had gained international acclaim as a single varietal wine. Moreover, wine makers in Argentina also decided to shift their focus from producing wines for local consumption to producing premium quality wines for export. It led to a resurgence in the popularity of Malbec and the vineyards started growing in numbers once again. Even today, Malbec remains the most widely grown and the most popular grape variety in the country.
What Makes Argentine Malbec Wine So Appealing to Consumers?
One of the reasons why Argentine Malbec has become one of the most popular red wines in the world is its distinct taste profile. It is known for its fruit-forward profile, which includes notes of blackberry, black cherry, and plum. Its acidity is characterized by a wide range of flavors including violet flowers, cocoa, chocolate, coffee, molasses, and leather.
Wine makers in Argentina tend to use newer oak barrels and limit the aging time to retain the wine’s fruit flavors. It’s why Malbec remains the preferred choice of those who love bold and flavorful red wines.
One of the most notable qualities of Argentine Malbec is its rich and dark purple color, which never fails to leave a stain on your tongue. Unlike French Malbecs, Argentine Malbecs do not have high tannin levels. The perfect balance of rich fruit flavor and moderate tannin levels is what makes Malbec so enjoyable for red wine enthusiasts.
Argentina’s Innovations in Vineyard Management and Wine Making
Over the years, Argentina has invested a lot in its wine industry and has adopted some of the most innovative practices in vineyard management and wine making to compete at the global stage and to retain its position as one of the top wine producing countries in the world. These include:
Argentina is known for its high-altitude vineyards, which enjoy increased sunlight exposure and significant diurnal temperature variations. These high-altitude locations allow for the cultivation of grapes with concentrated flavors and balanced acidity, which has become a hallmark of Argentine wines.
Many Argentine wineries have adopted microvinification techniques, where small batches of grapes are fermented separately to experiment with different wine making approaches. This allows winemakers to fine-tune their processes and create unique wine styles.
The use of technology such as GPS, remote sensing, and data analytics helps vineyard managers monitor and manage vineyard conditions with precision. This includes optimizing irrigation, managing vine health, and ensuring optimal grape ripeness.
Sustainability and Organic Practices
Argentina’s wine industry has increasingly embraced sustainable and organic farming practices. This includes the use of cover crops, reduced chemical inputs, and eco-friendly pest management. Some wineries have even achieved certifications like organic and biodynamic.
Given the arid climate in many Argentine wine regions, efficient water management is crucial. Wineries have implemented technologies like drip irrigation and soil moisture sensors to optimize water usage in vineyards.
Barrel Aging Innovation
Winemakers are experimenting with different types of oak barrels and aging techniques to impart specific flavors and characteristics to their wines. Some are also using alternative aging vessels like concrete and amphorae.
Malbec Cultivation in Argentina and Around the World
Malbec is cultivated widely across Argentina. The most prominent regions include Mendoza, Salta, San Juan, La Rioja, Neuquen, San Rafael, Catamarca, and La Pampa. Mendoza, in particular, is known for its high quality Malbec vineyards.
Apart from France and Argentina, many other countries around the world also cultivate Malbec. These include Chile, United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Spain, Italy, and Uruguay.
The Best Food Pairings for Argentine Malbec Wine
Like most red wines, Malbec tastes best with cheese. The cheese varieties you can try with Malbec include Gouda, Provolone, cheddar, Swiss alp cheeses and blue cheese. When it comes to meat, tender cuts of steak and grilled meats are the perfect pair for Malbec. Lamb with mint and herbs is also considered a perfect Malbec food pairing by many.
If you prefer vegetarian foods, you can opt for roasted mushrooms, peppers, and eggplants, all of which can complement the fruit flavors of the wine. Lastly, you can also pair Malbec with dark chocolate or any dark chocolate based dessert – as long as it’s not too sweet.
The Malbec Journey Continues
Malbec’s captivating, cross-continental history continues today, as it is cultivated across the world and remains a globally loved wine. One of the reasons why Malbec stands out from many other varieties of wine grapes is its versatility. In Argentina, Malbec is used to produce a wide range of wines including rose wines, sparkling wines, sweet wines, white wines, and Malamado.
Today, Malbec has achieved global popularity as a single-varietal wine as well as a Bordeaux blend. With its bold flavors and distinct taste, Malbec continues to find new markets across the world.