As the summer barbecue season parades forward in full glory, it seems fitting to take note of the history of one of the most food-friendly grape varietals that complement the savory flavors dominating grilled fare – Malbec. Arguably one of the most popular sought-after single varietal wines today, a mere mention of this grape is likely to elicit excited affirmative ‘oooohs’ and ‘yeses’ from seasoned wine lovers and casual drinkers alike. While today Malbecs are world-renowned for their stellar Argentinean examples, just a few decades ago the variety was virtually unknown and uncelebrated.
Indigenous to France, Malbec is a venerable grape, but throughout history its popularity did suffer as a result of being called by a multitude of synonyms. Known as Malbec in Bordeaux, it was called Côt in the Cahors region, as well as Auxerrios, Pressac, Medoc Noir and additional monikers in smaller hamlets around France. Research suggests that Côt was actually the original name for the grape, but its exact birthplace is a bit more ambiguous. Malbec first attained notoriety as the “Inky Black Wine of the Cahors” and as one of the six allowed grape varieties in the Bordeaux blend. While still a crowd-pleaser in Cahors, it has since fallen out of favor in Bordeaux and very little acreage there is dedicated to Malbec vines.
The decline in Malbec’s use in Bordeaux is also a contributing factor in its meteoric rise in South America. Malbec grapes demand more sun than many other international varieties and the high altitude vineyards of Argentina and its neighbors are primed to accommodate. Evidence of an altitude and quality correlation does exist as some of the most esteemed Malbecs hail from the highest vineyards in the foothills of the Andes. Interestingly, the South American Malbecs have significantly thicker skins than those of their European brethren and it is speculated this phenomenon is a result of the elevated altitude.
A few widely planted grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon have strikingly similar flavor profiles regardless of the terroir or conditions in which they are grown. This is not characteristic of Malbec. Old World selections exhibit earthy tobacco tones with deep intense tannins, whereas their New World counterparts showcase blackberry and chocolate flavors with softer rounder tannins.
Malbecs are almost universally oaked to enhance the naturally tannic properties of the grape, but the use of oak below the Equator has been more finely tuned over the past decade or so. Nowadays, an increasing trend in South America is oaking only 30-50% of the wine in the Malbec varietals. This imparts a more elegant sophistication displaying the fine nuances of the fruit rather than allowing a fully oaked wine to overpower those subtleties. This evolution will gain new fans and continue to endear the South American Malbecs to oenophiles around the globe.
In conclusion, it would be remiss not to touch on Malbec’s value as a blending partner. In the aforementioned Bordeaux, as well as other areas around France, this variety has been instrumental in creating many highly regarded blends. Additionally, Malbec is a common grape variety grown in Australia where it plays a mostly supporting role in two or three varietal wines. Finally, Malbec is a card-carrying member of California’s popular red Meritage wines.
Old World or New, fully oaked or partially so, alone or in a blend, pick up a Malbec to enjoy at your next cookout and celebrate the unique history of this amazing grape variety.