The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Victoria Moore Why we can’t get enough of Argentinian malbec
The grape’s global success has inspired other countries – even its French homeland
On my first visit to Argentina in the 1990s, over empanadas in the sun, winemakers kept fretfully asking if I thought the country was making a mistake, pushing so hard to make malbec its signature grape. Could a single grape really be successful enough to sustain an entire industry?
Hindsight says a big, fat yes: Argentinian malbec became more loved and popular than anyone dreamt possible. We buy it in supermarkets, we drink it in pubs, and sommeliers in Michelinstarred restaurants complain their guests want to order more of this (and sauvignon blanc) than of the obscure wines they would prefer to sell them.
The thirst for the vibrancy and violet-and-damson-scent of malbec from Argentina drove a planting frenzy. Today, Argentina doesn’t just have more land planted with malbec grapevines than any other country in the world, it has also increased the surface area of its malbec vineyards by 171 per cent since 2000. Malbec originated in south-west France, where it provides the famously tannic structure of the wines of Cahors, but it now has a South American passport. There are 109,685 acres of malbec in Argentina today, compared with just 16,842 acres in France, the world’s second-biggest malbec producer, in 2015.
These figures are only a snapshot, though. The full story of what’s happening, and what has been happening with malbec not just in Argentina but also around the world, is more discursive and intriguing. World Malbec Day – recognised on April 17 – marks the date in 1853 on which a landmark plan to transform Argentina’s viticulture with an agronomy school and vine nursery was first presented to government. Malbec arrived in Argentina 15 years later, in 1868, pre-phylloxera, brought in by the French agricultural engineer Michel Pouget, who ran those projects. Fast-forward a century, more or less, to the 1960s and malbec had become the country’s most planted wine grape, with more than 143,000 acres – more than there is today – helping to slake the appetite of a (very) thirsty domestic market.
What happened? Political unrest and instability and a huge fall in domestic consumption (which halved), as a consequence of which “a 1980s vine-pull scheme reduced the total vineyard area by a third, with malbec a specific and dramatic casualty just before its potential was realised”, says The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding. By 1995, Argentina had less than 25,000 acres of malbec. Its resurgence came about because of a decision to build an export market. Malbec performs well in Argentina. While neighbouring Chile had gone with cabernet sauvignon and other, betterknown, grapes, it also appealed as a variety that could potentially become truly Argentina’s. You know the rest.
Of course, the story does not end here. Malbec thrives in California (3,850 acres) and its success in Argentina as a fruity, popular red has led wine producers in other parts of the world to wonder if it could do well for them, too.
In Chile, there has been a small flurry of malbec-planting – about 1,200 acres have gone in over the past decade, increasing the Chilean malbec vineyard by 29 per cent – but this has stalled as Chile focuses on its heritage varieties, such as país, and older vineyards. Idahue Estate Malbec 2018 Licanten, Chile (14%, Corney & Barrow, £13.95) is superb, savoury and layered with a faint edge like cocoa nibs.
Meanwhile, Australia had 1,389 acres of malbec in 2019 (with most of it in
Padthaway, Riverina and Langhorne Creek) and some larger producers have taken an interest as a result of the popularity of malbec in Argentina. Also in Australia, Wendouree, one of the country’s cult producers, makes wines using malbec from vines in the Clare Valley that are more than 100 years old.
Perhaps even more interesting is what has been happening in France. In the south-west, including in Cahors, some producers have begun to make a less tannic, more juicy style of malbec in order to compete more directly with the malbecs from Argentina.
But it’s to Bordeaux that we need to look for the next episode in the malbec tale. Malbec was first planted there in the 18th century and became, in the 19th century, the most widely planted grape in the area. Then came phylloxera and, over the decades that followed the area’s recovery from this, malbec’s sensitivity to frost and coulure (poor fruit set) hastened its decline still further until, by 2010, there were just 2,387 acres of malbec left in the Gironde.
Yet now there is a mini malbec renaissance. In the past decade, Bordeaux’s malbec vineyard has doubled, driven by the Côtes de Bourg appellation, which is on the right bank next to the Côtes de Blaye. In the Côtes de Bourg, malbec once occupied 80 per cent of the vineyard; now it is back up to 10 per cent (compared with 2 per cent across Bordeaux). This rehabilitation has included a 10-year research programme to find the clone best suited to the soil and climate (including trials with plant material from Argentina as well as France).
Back to Argentina. If you’re after a super-cheap, juicy Argentinian malbec, then Buenas Vides Argentinian Malbec 2019 (13.5%, Aldi, £4.49) will do the job. But the malbec conversation has developed. The wines that originally made the country’s name were thick and strong and ripe and oaky. The trend now is for earlier-picking, more juicy styles. The talk is of terroir and regional difference and single vineyards.
Also, Argentina is once again keen to talk about its other grape varieties. One of Argentina’s most widely planted grapes is one you’ve probably never heard of: cereza, a pink-skinned variety that is a crossing between listán prieto (país in Chile; mission in California) and muscat of Alexandria. I have been particularly impressed by the plushness of Argentinian cabernet franc.
The country also grows good chardonnay and makes pleasing, juicy wines from the red bonarda grape. But more of those another time.
Malbec originated in southwest France, but now it has a South American passport