Malbec grapes represent one of five main varietals of Bordeaux wines. Originally, this grape was known as Auxerrois, then later as Noir de Pressac (or Pressac for short). It was also known at one time as Côt.
The grape enjoyed early popularity in the Saint-Émilion and Right Bank regions. It was brought from the Right Bank by Sieur Malbek in the 1700s and widely planted throughout the terroirs of the Médoc. Due to the popularity and success of Pressac in Bordeaux’s Left Bank, it was given the name Malbec in tribute to Sieur Malbek.
Malbec in Modern France
Today in Bordeaux, the popularity of Malbec is on the decline. For many years, Malbec was an important varietal throughout southwestern France, and that was the case until the phylloxera epidemic hit the region. Numerous chateaux vintages classified in 1885 used Malbec in their blends before the onset of phylloxera.
There are not many Malbec vines left in Bordeaux. Even those vineyards considered to have high concentrations of the varietal only allocate between 3 percent and 10 percent of the available soils to growing Malbec. There are, however, areas throughout France that still plant the grapes in greater abundance, but even so, the blends almost never account for them in high percentage.
Some of the estates in France used as much as 50 percent Malbec in their blends during the earlier part of the 19th century, before the outbreak, but many of the vines growing Malbec were destroyed afterward due to the grape’s particular susceptibility to a number of diseases that included not only phylloxera, but also coulure, mildew, and frost. The complete fall out of favour for Malbec in Bordeaux began with the now famous frost of 1956, after which growers began replacing it with varieties that could stand up better to the conditions of the region, including Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The spiritual home for Malbec in France remains Cahors, where AOC law mandates that 70 percent or greater of every blend must be made up by Malbec. The history of the varietal there can be traced back to the middle ages, and a fierce loyalty to it still exists today throughout the region.
Malbec in Argentina
Malbec’s global influence is far from lost. For instance, it is considered Argentina’s star grape. First brought to the region in the mid-19th century by Michel Pouget, the dark-coloured and thin-skinned grape requires a rigid set of climatic conditions to be able to thrive. The dry climate, abundant sunshine, and high elevation of Mendoza is a nearly ideal environment for Malbec to achieve the height of its expression. When fully ripe, the environment adds tannin, colour, and elements of spice to the wine. The wine itself takes on a deep, rich colour, flavour, and texture with a good balance of acidity and sweetness with hints of blackberry and plum.
The expression produced in France is drastically different. There, Malbec has a more tannic and rustic expression, which is why it is only used as a part of the blend. In Mendoza, however, Malbec takes centre stage in the local blends. Other areas of Argentina, including San Juana, Salta, and Catamarca, also provide ideal environments for growing the grape. In fact, it has become so popular in Argentina that it has even earned its own holiday. International Malbec Day is celebrated every year on April 17.
Malbec is planted in other places around the world with varying levels of success. You can find Malbec vines in Napa Valley, Washington state, Oregon, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Chile, making it an interesting varietal to pursue for your wine journal.
Malbec pairs well with a number of foods, but you might want to take your cues from the Argentinians for finding real winners. Popular pairings in Argentina include grilled and barbecued steaks and sausages. Wine connoisseurs worldwide agree that the supple and rich textures, along with its spicy elements, make Malbec an excellent choice to pair with veal, pork, chicken, or beef. It also pairs well with braises, dry cheeses, cured meats, and any kind of spicy food.