The Many Faces of Malbec
You may not know that Malbec has many faces.
However, I’m sure you already know Malbec and you’ve most likely seen this grape in wines from Argentina. In fact, much of the world has an intense love affair with Malbec.
How Malbec tastes when grown in different climates...
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, the red, the blue and black fruits, they are said to have bramble fruits. Malbec also ages well and can gain a stewed fig and balsamic reduction notes (also known as tertiary characteristics) . It can be gamey and smell like game meat (just like Syrah grown in cool climates), 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 (and can result in a headache the next day). Malbec is packed with juicy sweet fruit without adding sugar.
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. As a matter of fact, you are drinking French Malbec wines when the label says Cahors AOC. They tend to have slightly lower alcohol levels and certainly an earthier, meatier quality to them.
And perhaps it is 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-blood saltiness that wine snobs love. Not to mention, 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! More importantly, I’ll name some producers so that you can easily navigate to the styles of Malbec that you like the most.
Malbec berries are tightly packed and can be susceptible to bunch rot in humid climates. The grape is therefore well suited to the dry Argentine climate.
Quick Climate and Viticulture Facts for Argentina
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). Additionally, parral training system aids aeration so Malbec's tight bunches don't rot.
This can be pretty confusing so we'll just discuss a few...
Cuyo's 3 provinces lie in the far west of the country next to the Andes Mountains. 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.
- San Juan
- La Rioja – producing mostly white wines
Argentina's second biggest wine producing area.
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.
you can find out if a wine has extra residual sugar in it by searching for the wine in your browser with the words ‘specification sheet’. Then look for the term ‘rs g/l’ which is short for ‘residual sugar measured in grams per litre’. You are looking to buy Malbec’s that have 5 g/l rs or less.
Mendoza also has 3 subregions
Mendoza is the traditional heartland of Malbec production 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.
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, rich mid-palate and texture. Highest elevation vineyards are in Las Compuertas and Vistalba
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 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
If you like dark fruits, cocoa and oak flavours of baking spices to stand out in your wines try ...
Vista Alba (Corte A)
Graffigna (some have noticable residual sugar so skip those)
Viña Cobos (especially the Bramare line that has very balanced oak and fruit)
If you like the bramble fruit and pretty violet notes to stand out...
Dirt + Blood
Gravel and Iodine- blood like saltiness
For those educated palates trained to notice minerality in their wines to go along with all that blue/ black fruit, try wines the top wines ($$$) from high altitude sites such as those bottles that say Uco Valley (Pajare Altamira, Gualtallary (Tupungato), and Vista Flores), or Colomé's Altura Maxima Vineyard (which means Maximum Height). These wines will have mineral notes of gravel or iodine.
Therefore, if you are already a Malbec drinker, we hope you’ll branch out and taste some of the other Malbecs out there. Considering that Argentina is a large country spread over long distances its not hard to imagine how many different climates they grow Malbec in.
For more information about Argentine Malbec you can check out the Wines of Argentina website here.
Happy Malbec Day!
Map of Argentine Wine Regions
And if you like what you see, go on and share it!
* 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 🙂