Sunrise in Mendoza, Flickr Tony Bailey

The Many Faces of Malbec

I’m sure you already know about Malbec and you’ve most likely seen it on wines from Argentina. In fact, much of the world has an intense love affair with Malbec.

Yet, you may not know that Malbec has many faces. In cooler sites and years, it can show red fruit such as raspberry or red plum but can gain blueberry notes and even riper black berry fruit in warmer areas. When all these fruits combine, they are said to have bramble fruits. Malbec also ages well and can gain a stewed fig and balsamic reduction notes. It can be gamey and smell like game meat, and may have oak spices that give it a sandlewood perfume or a cocoa note. It may even smell of mint leaves.

Some Malbec’s show an immediate sweet taste on the tip of your tongue when it first enters your mouth. Beware of these Malbecs – they are often the most inexpensive ones and have residual sugar in them which it doesn’t need. Malbec is fruit packed on it’s own.

That’s not to say that they’re aren’t great values on excellent Malbecs. I’m sure you’ve tried those too!

In fact, Malbec shows differently depending on where it’s grown. The grape  variety is originally from France. You can taste wines from Cahors AOC to try wines that have slightly lower alcohol levels and certainly an earthier, meatier quality to them.

Perhaps because the world loves Malbec so much, many sommeliers dismiss wines made with Malbec as being too proletariat and ordinary. Yet cool, high elevation sites will show a gravelly mineral note or iodine that wine snobs love. And since Malbec is a grape that changes based where it is grown, it’s worth knowing more about Argentina’s wine regions to know which areas and producers have the styles you love most.

Here are some quick facts about Malbec and why you shouldn’t dismiss this incredible grape! I’ll also share some producers with you so that you can more easily navigate to the styles of Malbec that you like the most.

Somm

Facts

  • Malbec is a black grape originally from Bordeaux, France
  • In France, it has many synonyms such as Côt and Auxerrois
  • After the great frost of 1956, it simply isn't replanted in Bordeaux
  • Bordeaux’s climate is Maritime and wet so it doesn’t work well with poor Malbec who is susceptible to bunch rot.
  • Malbec wines are still made in the village of Cahors where it rains less than in Bordeaux
  • French agronomist Michel Aimé Pouget brought Malbec to Argentina in 1853

History of Malbec

Malbec berries are tightly packed and work well with the dry Argentine climate

Malbec berries are tightly packed and can be susceptible to bunch rot. The grape is therefore well suited to the dry Argentine climate.

Quick Facts Argentina

  • Argentina has a dry climate with which works well with Malbec
  • known as the Zonda, it is a dry, dusty, hot afternoon wind that prevents fungal diseases but can adversely affect flowering
  • that means that organic viticulture is easy here - horray!
  • They still have to worry about frost so many vines in the north (Salta) are trellised high in perral (pergola) to avoid the coolest air. Cool air is heavy and always sinks to the bottom leaving warmer air above.
  • The summer hail here is called Piedra. One feature of Argentinan vineyards are the black nets that cover the vines to protect them from frequent hail storms that can occur every month. These storms can be made of huge stones that also damage cars and trees!
  • Hail problems means that many producers have vineyards planted in different areas as an insurance measure
  • most vines are ungrafted because the biotype of Phylloxera here is mild. Many experts say that wines made from ungrafted vines are superior in quality.
Pergola trellising system in Argentina. In high elevation sites, Malbec will be trellissed high yet underneath the canopy to protect the grapes from sunburn and aerate them to protect the tight bunches from rot

Some high altitude vineyards have Malbec trellised in a pergola or parral. That is, the vines are tied high while the grapes fall below the canopy. This protects Malbec from sunburn as the high altitudes literally put them closer to the sun (more intense ultraviolet radiation). The parral training system also aids aeration so Malbec's tight bunches don't rot.

Argentina's

WINE REGIONS

This can be pretty confusing so we'll just discuss a few...

Cuyo

in the far west of the country next to the Andes Mountains are Cuyo's 3 provinces. Provinces such as Mendoza are divided into departments which are further divided into districs which are further divided into single vineyards. Often there is a department and a district with the same name. Here are Cuyo's 3 provinces.

  1. San Juan
  2. La Rioja – producing mostly white wines
  3. Mendoza

San Juan

Argentina's second biggest wine producing area.

Producers:

Graffigna, Los Moras

most wine comes from the south in Tulum which is at lower elevations of 650 meters (2132 feet). Wines from here are rich and more blue/ black fruited than red. Watch out for those wines that have residual sugar in them!

Best quality wines come from higher elevations in Padernal Valley 1100 meters/3608 feet meters and Calingasta at 1500 meters/4921 feet. Wines from here taste fresher with more red fruit (plums and black raspberry) and may taste dryer and more old world in style.

Mendoza also has 3 subregions

the traditional heartland with the majority of wine production (makes 70% of Argentina's total).

Often Mendozan wines are a blend of all three regions as the producers mentioned on the right may have vineyards in all three regions to use as single vineyards or as a part in blends.

Old school wine press for making Malbec in Uco Valley, Mendoza
Old school wine press for making Malbec in Uco Valley, Mendoza
Maipú
Producers to look for: Alfredo Roca

lower elevation and therefore warmer and traditionally known for higher yields and lower quality although districts of San Rafael (where Alfredo Roca is) and General Alvear can produce high quality wines

Luján de Cuyo
Producers to look for: Cheval des Andes, Mendel, Krontiras

the traditional zone of Mendoza at 800-1000 meters (2600-3200 feet) elevation, clay soils (Malbec likes this!) known for it's red fruit, elegance, mid-palate and texture. Highest elevation vineyards are in Las Compuertas and Vistalba

Uco Valley
Producers to look for: Archaval Ferrer, Salentein

The rising star of Mendoza between 1000-1600 meters (3280-5250 feet). Cool temperatures from higher elevations ensure the sunlight effect on thickening skins for higher tannin, fuller body and pretty violet aromas with natural high acidity. Soils are very poor and have high drainage together with constant breezes that ensure low yields and high quality. Most famous is the department of Tupungato taken from an extinct volcano of the same name.

Salta

Salta hosts the famous property of Colomé which is the regions best and grows Malbec at 3111 meters/ 10,206 feet elevation!

Other producers to look for: El Esteco, El Porvenir

vineyard at Bodega Colomé in Salta Argentina where Malbec vines sit at over 9000 feet
vineyard at Bodega Colomé in Salta, Argentina where vines sit at 3111 meters or 10,206 feet

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Styles

If you like dark fruits, cocoa and oak flavours of baking spices to stand out in your wines try ...

Vista Alba (Corte A)
Viña Cobos (Bramare)
El Porvenir

If you like the bramble fruit and pretty violet notes to stand out...

Salentein
Bodega Noemía
Krontiras
Colomé

Dirt + Blood
or Gravel and Iodine

And if you want those notes of gravel or iodine make sure to choose the top bottlings of a producer from excellent sites. These include high altitude plantings in Uco Valley (Pajare Altamira, Gualtallary (Tupungato), and Vista Flores), or Colomé's Altura Maxima Vineyard (which means Maximum Height)

Argentine Wine Regions

Argentine Wine regions

And if you like what you see, go on and share it!

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* There was no payment for the writing of this post. However, Wines of Argentina did graciously host me for a trip to Argentina in 2016.That’s where I gained a new appreciation for Malbec and all its many faces 🙂

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