5 Myths of Malbec

Each subject has its myths, and malbec is no exception.

 

 

Catena Zapata, one of Argentine´s malbec referents.

Catena Zapata, one of Argentine´s malbec referents.

It is easy to find in the web world innumerable notes about the myths of wine, in the style of: “red wines are drunk at room temperature” or “with red meat only red wines and with fish only whites.”

But how about if we become more specific and think about the myths of a particular grape?

What if we talk about Malbec? A grape that since the end of the 90s bursts with force in the world markets thanks to the impulse that it achieved by the jump towards the quality, in the country that has the highest production of it: Argentina.

1st myth: Malbec “is” Argentinean.

If we speak strictly from science, this grape massively called “Malbec” (currently, but there are several Argentine labels of the 80s and 90s that called it Malbeck, with “k” ending and this has a separate story), has its origin in the southwest of France. From there it is native, more specifically from the region of Cahors where it is denominated with other meanings such as Auxerrois or Cot. It is also called Pressac on the right bank of Bordeaux, near Libourne. And then why is it associated so much with Argentina?

The official story says that Domingo Sarmiento, Argentinean hero who was president of the country from 1868 to 1874, while he was governor of the province of San Juan, around 1863, hired the French agronomist Michel Aimé Pouget from Bordeaux to establish what was called the “Quinta Agronómica of Mendoza.” Pouget made a commendable work and brought many of the traditional grapes of that country from France in order to improve the quality of Argentine wines. At that time, the vineyards were planted mostly of grapes called “Criollas” that came to cover 96% of the vineyards and provided wines of relatively low quality, but with a lot of volumes. It seems that Malbec was one of the French grapes that best adapted to the desolate Argentine soil.

The unofficial story tells that the grape would have arrived before – along with many others – from the hand of the innumerable immigrants that came from Europe and that its evident rooting and adaptation was a virtuous circle that made it pass from one to another – stake by stake – from hand to hand of those hardworking immigrants who came to “make America”.

So, while the myth says that Malbec is “Argentinean”, due to its positive evolution in this country and the massive success that its wines obtained from the end of the 90s, genetics shows that its ancestors come from Cahors, region that never stopped producing it and is currently the second largest area planted in the world of this grape outside Argentina. The producers of Malbec of Cahors demand to be recognized as the pioneers in their elaboration, although for some years there are several Argentine winemakers, or Europeans with experience cultivating it and elaborating it in Argentina, who are working there as advisors to dump their knowledge and improve the performance of this grape in its own land of origin.

Malbec, on its way to the bottle.

Malbec, on its way to the bottle.

On the other hand, every day there are more countries that test with Malbec, seeking to match the success that it had in consumer countries such as the USA, Canada, Brazil, and England. There they shine in supermarkets and large wine stores in sectors dedicated to the new world with most labels belonging to Argentina, but you can also detect some Malbec from Chile, Canada, Australia, and Uruguay. You would even be surprised to learn that Malbec is part of some famous California blends, like Opus One or that Malbec has been planted even on the Big Island in Hawaii (Tedeschi Wines).

But, so far, the quality of Malbec is overwhelming in Argentina, and although there are some excellent exponents from other countries – the Chilean Malbec Neyen 2016 received 100 points from James Suckling – it is not easy for other regions to compete with the style, the quality, diversity and the incredible price/quality ratio of the Argentine Malbec.

For all this, but mainly because the name Malbec was not used in France for this grape from which it is native, we can say that this myth about “Malbec been Argentinean” is true.

2nd myth: Argentina is just Malbec

This expression is heard a lot, both in Argentina itself and abroad. Although its absolute meaning would indicate that Malbec is the only existing grape in Argentina, or taking it in relative terms, which is practically a majority in production, the reality is much wider.

Analyzing by varieties, it is observed that Malbec has 41,301 hectares (1 acre = 2.47 ha) planted in Argentina. But, although they are good numbers, this is far from representing a vast majority in relation to the other varieties. And the first surprise when we see the statistics of the National Viticulture Institute of Argentina is that the total area cultivated in 2017 was 220,848 ha, which means that Malbec barely reaches 20%! of the total.

Those unaware will surely be surprised to learn that Argentina has an enormous diversity of varieties, existing more than 100 types of planted vines: 49 reds, 40 whites, and 13 pinks.

In 2018, the top ten productions of grapes destined for processing was:

Grape Quintals % of total
Cereza 5.080.146 20,9%
Malbec 4.121.439 16,9%
Criolla Grande 2.517.261 10,3%
Bonarda 2.317.348 9,5%
Pedro Giménez 1.490.153 6,1%
Syrah 1.324.845 5,4%
Cabernet Sauvignon 1.108.595 4,6%
Torrontés Riojano 1.081.636 4,4%
Chardonnay 630.063 2,6%
Tempranillo 657.799 2,7%

Therefore, the myth that Argentina is only Malbec is false, and many insist, precisely, that in terms of varietals and the level of quality that is also obtained with other grapes, that Argentina is not only Malbec but without doubts is the flagship grape.

3rd myth: The best Malbec comes from Mendoza

If a search is done among the Malbec best rated by international critics, there is a large majority of Mendoza exponents. And the reasons are clear, although the grape is widespread along almost the entire piedmont of the Andes, from the south in Patagonia, with vineyards in the provinces of Chubut, Neuquén and Río Negro, at more than 40 ° from latitude and 1,000 feet above sea level, to the northern ones of Salta and Jujuy at 25 ° latitude and incredible heights of up to 10,000 feet; it is in the area of Cuyo (provinces of Mendoza and San Juan) where most of its production is concentrated, reaching Mendoza to cover by itself 83.3% of the Malbec grape production of the whole country (data INV Cosecha and elaboration 2018).

For this reason, most of the exponents of high-end Malbec come from this province, from regions such as Uco Valley (with La Consulta, Gualtallary and Paraje Altamira at the top), from the classic terroirs of the so-called First Zone of Mendoza (Luján de Cuyo and Maipú) and the San Rafael area. There are many Mendoza wineries with award-winning wines or scores above 95 points: Achaval Ferrer, Viña Cobos, Catena Zapata, Zuccardi, Matervini, Pulenta, Trapiche, Susana Balbo, Rutini, O. Fournier, among others.

But here the saying that “the tree does not cover the forest” applies, because from other provinces come exquisite labels like: Noemía from Alto Valley of Río Negro (97 points Tim Atkins), Pyros Barrel Selected Malbec 2014 (winner of the International Trophy in the Japan Wine Challenge 2016) of the Pedernal Valley in San Juan or Malbec of Chañar Punco that is part of a great blend of El Esteco Winery, whose grapes are from the vineyard of the same name in the province of Catamarca. Of the Calchaquíes Valleys in Salta stands out, for example, the Colomé Altura Máxima Malbec 2015. And there is also very good Malbec from the provinces of La Rioja and Neuquén.

A factor to know is that Argentine wine, and Malbec, in particular, is traveling the path of differentiation by terroir: regions, zones, vineyards and even plots within the same vineyard. As a result, certain characteristics that go beyond the classic fruit, round and corpulent Malbec of Lujan de Cuyo are detected with greater ease, to find a great balance between ripeness and freshness in Gualtallary, herbal and balsamic aromas in Altamira or the nerve and acidity in El Cepillo, just to mention specific regions of Valle de Uco.

For the explained, it can be said that it is true that “The best Malbec comes from Mendoza,” but if you are interested in knowing better and better this grape, you should not stop experimenting with those from other provinces.

4th myth: Argentine Malbec is the best in the world

Perhaps this is the truest of all those listed here. There are not many doubts in the world that Argentine Malbec, seen as an entity, is the best. It is clear that there is no other country in which the potential that has crystallized in Argentina as high-end wine is detected, and that it is able to produce, at the same time, an appreciable volume with excellent quality at all price levels.

Beyond the scores given by the press and specialized critics, there are several occasions in which the Argentine Malbec planted a flag in blind tastings against wines from other grapes and origins. And while there are excellent exponents of Malbec in other lands such as Napa Valley, Apalta (Chile) or in their own land of Cahors origin, there are not many doubts that due to their quantity and especially its price/quality ratio is very difficult for them to face the Argentine Malbec. Just to name a few: from the already established -from the end of the 70- Weinert Malbec Estrella, or the Famiglia Bianchi Malbec 2012 winner of the Trophy in the red wines category of the 2014 Vinalies International Contest, up to labels that have been cataloged with 100 points as the Viña Cobos Malbec 2011 by James Suckling or the Catena Zapata Fortuna Terrae 2012 by Robert Parker.

5th myth: Malbec pairs with red meats

As an expert in Malbec (almost every Argentine oenophile is since it is a regular part of our table), I can assure you that one of its main skills is its adaptability to local cuisine, in which the “asado” stands out. Grilled meats will never get mad if we put a good and rich Malbec next to them. But as labels of different terroirs appear, and new features are added to the offer, it is becoming easier to find a Malbec that can harmonize not only with traditional pastas with tomato sauces (in Argentina there is a strong Italian immigration current that has made the pasta -and the wine-part of the daily table), but also take advantage of fresh and light Malbec that can go with some sauces in the Mediterranean style or with white meats like chicken or even fish. Yes, a fillet of grilled salmon can be perfectly paired with a fresh Malbec from El Cepillo, for example.

That is why we allow ourselves to question the myth, to say that fish can not only be accompanied by white wine but can also be paired with the right Malbec. In addition, there are several Malbec wines vinified as rosé and even some as white.

Therefore, while the myth is perfectly valid, you do not need to tie yourself to it. Encouraging and experimenting with Malbec with characteristics other than traditional round, corpulent and greedy style, ideal for red meat, can result in a pleasant experience.

We have seen that the only myth that turned out not to be true is the one that says that Argentina “is just Malbec.” A good reason to begin to venture also with the other grapes that stand out in Argentina as the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Petit Verdot between the reds and the Torrontés and the Chardonnay among the white ones. And why not even with a Criolla rosé?

We also found that most of the myths that circulate about Malbec are, to a greater or lesser extent, certain. Therefore, if you are not yet a habitual consumer of Argentine Malbec, it is worth trying it, you will find a very versatile wine, with excellent quality and at very reasonable prices. And if you already know and consume them, we suggest you try different regions and take advantage of their breadth of pairing to combine them with different foods, one of the best ways to enjoy a good wine.

Ángel Ramos

@angelyvino

In the summers, as a child, I went all over a small vineyard of white grapes in Patagonia (Río Negro), with my grandfather and my uncle. I saw them elaborating homemade wine using an old press. All memories that kept alive the flame of the interest that made me devour all the texts related to wine that fell into my hands. I felt included among the “serfs of the wine” named by Miguel Brascó in his column in La Nacion magazine. Almost without realizing it, I became an oenophile. I enjoy wine, I taste it, I research and I relate to the people of the world of wine. I tweet and I write a blog called “El Angel del Vino” (the angel of wine) where I reflect these experiences: I spread the word about Argentinian wine and I stand up for it.

 

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