The Vines of Mendoza

Malbec - from Cahors to Mendoza



Here is yet another example of the Malbec grape picking up heat in the international press! This one compares Malbec from Argentina to that from it's native home in Cahors, France. We here at The Vines of Mendoza certainly prefer the local variety...

From, Jonathan Ray on an old-world varietal's new spiritual home:

wine.jpgThey do like their beef in Argentina. For the sixth meal running, I'm faced with a saddle-sized slab of bleeding sirloin without so much as a hint of greens.

But it is so absurdly tasty and melt-in-the-mouth tender that I wolf it down. And I help it on its way with a cracking bottle of local malbec for which I'm also developing a taste. That should give me enough vitamins.

I am in the Uco Valley in Mendoza in what appears to be a little corner of France. My host, winemaker Jean Bousquet, hails from Carcassonne and so impenetrable is his accent, with its hybrid Languedoc/Argentine twang, that half the time I can't tell whether he's speaking French or Spanish.

Somehow we make each other understood.

"I came here because I was tired of making wine in France, with its petty regulations and crippling costs," he explains. "I had heard tell of Mendoza and once I saw its perfect weather, soil, aspect and altitude, I knew it was for me. I planned to grow pinot noir and chardonnay, but once I tasted other people's wines I realised that malbec was the key. I dug up my vines and started again."

Some 70 per cent of Argentina's wines come from Mendoza and although some great cabernets and merlots are made here, malbec, the most planted variety, is king.

Once widely grown in Bordeaux, nowadays the grape is barely seen outside Cahors in south-west France and Mendoza is fast proving to be its spiritual home.

"It's a minor player in France now, but a major player here, capable of great things," says Bousquet. "Somewhere in style between cabernet and merlot, Argentine malbec has colour, structure and wonderful fruit. It's ideal for making fine, competitive wines.

"Winemakers are restricted in France, but here we are free to make the wines we like in the way we want and malbec is a joy to work with. I'm not in exile here, I'm in paradise."

Bousquet's fellow countryman, the fabled Michel Rolland, consultant winemaker to some of the world's finest wineries, has also set up shop in Mendoza.

Clos de los Siete is a spectacular, state of the art operation backed by a number of high profile French investors including the Cuvelier family (of Château Léoville-Poyferré fame) and Baron Benjamin de Rothschild (of Château Clarke).

An 850 hectare (2,100 acre) estate at the foot of the staggering snow-capped Andes, it is a unique collaboration of seven wineries, all making their own wines as well as contributing to one joint one, Clos de los Siete itself.

"Here it is all about malbec," explains general manager Carlos Tizio Mayer. "The grape was brought from France to Argentina via Chile in the 1860s and prospered after 150 years of careful selection using the best cuttings. I believe the variety has developed into something quite distinct from French malbec.

"It is a genetic gem with superb colour and acidity and is perfectly suited to Mendoza. Do you think Michel Rolland and his associates came here because it was cheap? Don't be absurd! They came here because of quality. They could have gone anywhere in the world, but chose malbec and Mendoza."

So, too, did François and Jacques Lurton down the road, scions of the illustrious Bordelais family. François recently bought out his brother and although by a strange quirk he is having huge success with pinot gris (he ordered chardonnay cuttings from France, was sent pinot gris by mistake, planted it anyway and loved the result), his malbec is a thing of wonder.

Jean-Pierre Thibaud, former CEO of sparkling wine producer Bodegas Chandon and now owner of Ruca Malén, is yet another Frenchman (well, sort of: he was born in Argentina, but of French parents) making the most of malbec in Mendoza.

"We don't yet fully appreciate the jewel we have," he says. "That we can make superb wines here is not in doubt. Our consultants tell us they can't believe the quality of our fruit. We have 330 days of sunshine a year and haven't had a bad vintage since 1998.

"Our vineyards are planted at high altitude where it is sunny but cool. We harvest fully ripened grapes with thick skins which is great for colour, structure and silky tannins. I'd say our biggest challenge isn't the weather, but the management of our country's economy."

As well as these French-flavoured wineries, I visit Salentein, Sophenia, Benvenuto de la Serna, Antucura, Catena and Fournier. Some are small, others are vast and modern. Some are dedicated simply to wine, others boast restaurants, guest houses and hotels. One even has a remarkable art gallery. It's boom time and all are gearing themselves up for wine tourism.

I sample delectable violet-scented, ripe, soft, supple, fleshy, plummy, velvety smooth malbecs: some single varietals, some blended with dashes of cabernet, merlot or syrah. I find that I've fallen for Mendoza and its wines in a big way.

If I see another steak, though, I'll scream.

comments powered by Disqus