Three Countries, Three Views, Three Malbecs | Wine Enthusiast
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Three Countries, Three Views, Three Malbecs

Argentine Malbec: More Diverse Than You Thought

by Michael Schachner

If you’re like most red-wine lovers, you’ve developed a fondness for Argentinian Malbec. At its best, Malbec from Argentina is generous, delicious and the perfect match for just about anything grilled, especially beef.

What Argentine Malbec is not, however, is a wine where one style fits all. From Mendoza, the heart of Argentina’s wine country, up to the northerly Salta Province and down to the southern subzones of Patagonia, Malbec reflects the different terroirs from which it hails.

Here’s a look at the grape’s diversity within Argentina, where it has evolved into a world-class wine since the time it was imported from France in the 1850s.

When grown in warm regions like Cafayate in Salta, or the traditional central zones of Mendoza, Malbec tends to be dark, lusty and somewhat high in alcohol, with a fair amount of oak-derived character. But when Malbec comes from the higher and cooler elevation of Mendoza’s Uco Valley, the wines are firmer in structure, with higher natural acidity and more tension.

In cooler, windier and drier Patagonia—specifically the regions of Neuquén and Río Negro—freshness is Malbec’s calling card. Here, the wines are noticeably tighter in build, with slightly lower alcohol levels (14–14.5 percent, as opposed to 15 percent or more) and more emphasis on red-fruit flavors rather than darker ones.

Keep in mind that this mostly refers to premium, ultra-premium and icon-level wines. Argentina also produces millions of bottles of everyday, value-priced Malbecs, the best of which are fruity, medium-bodied wines that are easy to drink.

There’s a Malbec for every taste, whether it be an extracted bruiser with mile-deep blackberry and chocolate aromas and flavors, something more racy and red leaning, or a basic, easy quaffer. Such is the diversity of Argentina’s signature grape.

Springtime vineyards in the Cahors area, south west France
Cahors, France / Getty

Cahors: The Original Malbec

by Roger Voss

Cahors is Malbec. It’s the grape identified with this 10,000-acre region in southwestern France. The producers in the region call it the home of the “original” Malbec, to differentiate their wines from Argentinian Malbec.

Malbec was first recorded in Cahors during the 16th century. Most Malbec in France today are the dark, often firmly structured wines from there.

At one time, the grape was much more widely spread. There are still plantings in the Loire Valley, where it’s known as Côt. Malbec is also occasionally found in some Bordeaux blends, in which it used to be a bigger constituent before most growers gave up on the variety because of its inability to ripen in the ocean climate.

Cahors wine is made for aging—its structure demands it. But it’s not necessarily meant for long aging, especially when the Malbec is blended with the gentler Merlot. Whether on its own or with the equally structured Tannat, Malbec needs at least seven years to allow the tannins to soften and fill out.

Grown on a series of terraces that climb from the beautiful, steep-sided Lot Valley, year to year the wines are increasingly impressive. Increased investment and fresh faces have arrived in kind. Michel Rolland, from Bordeaux, and Paul Hobbs, from Sonoma, contribute their expertise. The region’s estates (called, in the Bordeaux fashion, château, even if the house is quite modest) are carving out a solid international reputation.

While the quantities produced will never be as great as in Argentina, Cahors has re-established itself as a major French wine region, all thanks to Malbec.

àMaurice Cellars in the winter
àMaurice Cellars, of Washington, in the winter / Photo courtesy àMaurice Cellars

The Rising Star of Washington Malbec

by Sean P. Sullivan

Malbec has been a rising star in Washington State over the last decade.

“I would say wholeheartedly that you can make some of the best Malbec in the world in Washington,” says Anna Schafer Cohen, partner and winemaker at àMaurice Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington. Cohen made her first Malbec at àMaurice in 2005 after she worked with the legendary Paul Hobbs at Viña Cobos in Argentina.

“It just does so well here, and there are so few places in the world where it really does well,” she says.

Asked what makes Washington Malbec unique, Cohen says it’s the ability to bring nuance.

“It expresses so much Chinese five spice or Moroccan bazaar spice, where you’ve got coriander and star anise and clove and those kind of sweet spices,” says Cohen. “You can get that in Washington State.”

Part of Malbec’s popularity is tied to its ability to pair with food. “It’s super- friendly on the table,” says Cohen. “It’s easy to say, people remember it, and it’s not the usual suspects. It’s kind of like an adventuresome version of Merlot.”

So, will Malbec become Washington’s next big thing? Don’t count on it. Production remains low at a scant few hundred acres—only about1 percent of the state’s land under vine.

Its lack of availability and high demand also makes it one of the most expensive varieties per ton, which can make it difficult to compete with places like Argentina. But when it comes to quality, Washington Malbec is raising the bar.

Read more about the current state of Malbec—by the numbers—on Beverage Industry Enthusiast.

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