By now Argentina is surely as famous for its bold and luscious Malbec as it is for its mountain ranges, tango dancing, and perfectly marbled beef. However, the reputation of Malbec was not built overnight. The grape began its rise to fame when it was introduced into Argentina in 1868, satiating the locals’ demand for cheap plonk. It was not until the 1980’s that it was recognized as a premium, export quality, grape.
Today it is cultivated wherever grapes are grown in Argentina, the most famous region being Mendoza. But where did this grape come from? And how do the Malbecs of Argentina differ from those produced on their native soil?
Science believes that Malbec is a descendant from a grape in northern Burgundy. Legend has it, though, that either Hungarian peasants brought it to France, or the Romans did in the first century AD. Nowadays, it is recognized as a Bordeaux grape, even though it is only grown in minimal portions there. And the best place to find a bottle of French Malbec? The Cahors region, located just south-east of Bordeaux.
French wine is traditionally named after the place it is from rather than the predominant grape in the bottle. So if you want to buy a bottle of French Malbec, look out for the word ‘Cahors’ on the label.
The performance of this grape in both Cahors and Mendoza has a lot to do with climate and geography, and a little to do with technological advancements. While Cahors a good location for growing grapes, the stars don’t align as they do for Malbec in Mendoza. There, the dry dessert climate organically prevents rot from kicking-off in the tight grape bunches, a problem often found in Cahors. The high altitude and cool nights (especially in the Uco Valley) prolong the ripening season, preserving the grape’s acids and slowing sugar accumulation, buying time for better flavors to develop. Recent investment has led to many wineries having highly controlled irrigation systems which disperse pristine mountain run-off. While there are many other contributors, these factors have played key roles in the grape’s success in Mendoza.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a place in this big ol’ wine market for both the traditional Cahors style and the more modern Argentine rendition. Quality Malbec, grown anywhere, will display flavors of blackberries, plums, blueberries and earth, and is characterized by a deep purple, ink, color. High performing drops can display notes of violets, coffee, sweet spices and pepper. The main differences in taste and aroma are that Mendoza examples are typically more intense, have greater alcohol, and are less tannic with a velvet soft texture. The Cahors versions have tighter, more structured tannins and are renowned for their aging potential.
I can’t think of a better excuse to open two bottles of wine at once and hold a taste-off. Cahors or Mendoza: Which do you prefer?
*Wines made outside of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) quality control guide lines may name the grape variety on the label.
Lindsay Trivers is a London based sommelier who just can’t get enough Malbec, no matter where it’s from. She also blogs at lovewinewithme.com.