I am currently in Mendoza, Argentina and over the past three days of winery tours and wine-laden lunches and dinners I’ve consumed more Malbec than I have in my entire life. I’ve learned a lot of interesting facts about Malbec, Argentina’s signature wine grape.
Malbec is a French Grape
The Malbec grape was grown all around France in the Middle Ages and was known as a favored wine of royalty and the elites. It was known by many names, including “the black wine.” Notably, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Louis VII of France and then Henry II of England, was fond of Malbec. Henry and Eleanor drank Malbec at their wedding. Additionally, Pope John XXII and Peter the Great chose it for their communion wines.
However, the Malbec grape is temperamental and was sensitive to the wet and cold weather of France’s wine regions and fell out of favor due to often producing low yields. In the late 19th century a phylloxera epidemic swept across Europe’s wine regions resulting in 70% of the vines in France being ruined. After phylloxera most growers never replanted Malbec, and only wineries around the town of Cahors in southwest France kept Malbec as a main varietal where it went by the name of Côt.
Malbec’s Journey to New World
Malbec was brought to Argentina in 1852 by Michel Pouget, a French agronomist hired by the Governor of Mendoza to improve the quality of Argentinian wine. The Malbec grape thrived in Argentina. According to the site Wine Frog “It is the Argentine climate, rather than the soil, that is so suited to the Malbec variety. High levels of insolation help develop bold, fruity flavors and aromas. Cool night-time temperatures add a refreshing acidity and ultimately balance the wine. The dry, desert-like conditions of the winemaking regions reduce the risk of damp-related diseases that can afflict the [Malbec grape].” Argentina now produces 85% of the world’s Malbec.
Malbec is a great alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah
Over the past decade or so, Malbec wines from Argentina have increased in quality due to the move to growing the grape at higher altitudes. According to Wine Folly, “in lower elevations, Malbec grapes struggle to produce the acidity they need to create great tasting and long lasting wine. High elevation areas with a wide diurnal temperature shift (i.e., hot days, cold nights) make the grapes produce more acidity.” Here’s information from the winery Catena Zapata on the benefits of high altitude wine making: Extreme High Altitude Vineyard.