Malbec and Argentina have become inseparable on many wine lists, but this grape variety’s origins lie in south-west France where it was also known as Côt and used to produce the ‘black wine’ of Cahors.
This black grape is also one of the varieties permitted in a Bordeaux red blend, although these days it is very much a minor partner to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
Carmenère, now with a second home in Chile, is in a similar position to Malbec in the hierarchy of permitted Bordeaux grapes, although hasn’t achieved the allure of Malbec in key export markets, such as the US and UK.
What does Malbec taste like?
Argentinian Malbec has become known for a fruit-forward, juicy style often showing ripe plum notes with dark fruits such as blackberries and black cherry.
Chocolate can also be present on the nose, and when you put all of this together it’s not hard to see why Argentina’s version of Malbec has become known as a crowd pleaser.
These wines can have a distinctive, deep purple hue in the glass, especially when young.
Managing alcohol levels can be a particular issue in Mendoza’s hot climate, and it’s common to see Malbecs from here above 14% abv. Yet, the grape’s natural acidity also gives it the means to retain balance in warm conditions, if handled well.
Such a reputation for richness balanced with acidity and relatively round, soft tannins helped Malbec to become a classic wine pairing for steak; a notion certainly enhanced by Argentina’s notoriety for producing top quality beef.
At higher altitudes, such as in the Uco Valley, Malbec can lean further towards intense red fruits and show some floral notes, such as violet – based on Decanter expert tasting notes.
Malbec is also made in Salta province, further north, which lays claim to some of the highest vineyards in the world.
Several Malbec blends are also worth seeking out, with Cabernet Franc a common accomplice in the bottle.
Malbec is also produced in Chile, which could be a nation to watch with this grape variety.
Malbec was once one of France’s most widely planted grapes.
But, it ran into a range of problems. The traditional tannic structure of expressions in south-west France made them fairly un-approachable to new consumers and, in the Bordeaux area in particular, growers believed that Malbec was too susceptible to disease.
Over centuries, too, Cahors and some other wine-growing areas of south-west France were gradually usurped at a commercial level by vineyards and estates lying closer to the Bordeaux’s port.
Times have since changed to some extent and a new generation of producers in Cahors has sought to create a more approachable style, as Andrew Jefford wrote in his 2016 column with the deliberately provocative title,‘Cahors’ Argentine revival’.
Cahors wines must contain at least 70% Malbec and it is common to blend use Tannat and/or Merlot in the final blend.
Some believe Cahors’ best days could lie ahead of it, despite its rich history.
Jefford said, ‘Everyone in the region, moreover, knows that the greatest terroirs are largely unplanted at present. These are the slope sites between the Lot river terraces and the upland limestone causses or plateau land, abandoned after phylloxera and never subsequently reclaimed.’
Cahors vineyard land prices certainly carry a certain appeal for would-be investors, as some of the cheapest in France.
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