Once every decade or so a wine grape comes along that transcends region, winery, or even common sense to become a brand unto itself. The first of these was (based on nothing other than my brain), Chardonnay, followed by Cab. By Cab, people meant Cabernet Sauvignon. At least I think they did. I think what they actually meant was a thick inky red from California in a heavy dark glass bottle. Who knows? Shiraz made a brief appearance in this category until it disappeared with the implosion of the Critter-Label-fueled Aussie wine business.
Malbec has now joined that illustrious club of brand unto-itself varietals. Malbec is an old grape varietal from France, where it was grown throughout the country but was particularly common in Bordeaux, Cahors, and the Southwest. Once a Bordeaux mainstay, the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s started a precipitous decline in popularity due to Malbec’s susceptibility to pests, frost, and mildew. By the time a frost hit in 1956 which destroyed 70% of the crop, French wine makers were fed-up with the fragile vine and most plantings were replaced with hardier, more internationally-viable grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Today, the region of Cahors is the only remaining wine region in France where Malbec predominates.
But, have no fear, Argentina is here! Wine grape plantings began in earnest in the 1850s in Argentina and Malbec was among the first varietals planted. Argentina’s high elevations and dry air meant fewer pests and minimal risk of mildew, which allowed Malbec to thrive. The unique clone of Malbec in Argentina produces brighter fruit flavors than its French counterpart while its moderate tannins make for a very approachable wine. That, coupled with Argentina’s low cost of doing business, made the wine poised for an international breakthrough.
But with great notoriety comes great risk of being subsumed by French wine speculators and this has happened in Argentina. Large French producers have begun to buy up vineyards in Argentina to produce inexpensive ersatz-Bordeaux. These wines aren’t bad, but they’re characterless and inauthentic.
Seek out Malbecs from family-owned estates, especially those from the Mendoza and Salta regions in the Andes. There are old vines and multi-generational family estates producing honest, real Malbec that is quite interesting and delicious.