Thursday, February 17, 2022

An Argentine Resurrection


In Argentina's Mendoza Valley, at the foot of the Andes mountains, a resurrection in the vineyard has been taking place, breathing new life into a grape that was slowly losing favor. 

Malbec in France

For years in France, Malbec struggled to be a part of the Bordeaux blend.  Known by the Bordelaise as Cot, the Malbec grape played a minor role in Bordeaux to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. 

While it was losing ground in Bordeaux, Malbec held on as the principal grape of the famous "black wines" of Cahors, an ancient region about 120 miles southeast of Bordeaux. In Cahors, Malbec was called Auxerrois, until the grape's success in Argentina, then growers and wineries in Cahors changed the name to Malbec.

In 1851, a Frenchman exiled from his homeland, came to Argentina and began importing grapevines, including Malbec, from France.  The timing was crucial for the Argentine wine industry, since the vines left France before the phylloxera scourge, first noticed about ten years later, destroyed many of the vineyards.

Malbec bounced back and became a favored grape by some Bordeaux chateaux until 1956, when a severe frost damaged many of the vineyards.  But Malbec never recovered and the grape's  soft juicy fruit and deep color where replaced by Merlot, a grape more likely to survive poor fruit set (The French call it coulure) and rot, than Malbec.   

Fact is, Malbec never accounted for more than 15% of a Bordeaux blend and growers were not planting more Malbec vines.  That didn't deter wineries in the southwest regions from preferring Malbec's plummy richness as a blending component.  And in Cahors, where a Malbec must contain 70% of that grape.

Malbec in Argentina

The evolution of Malbec from France to Argentina is an impressive story.  But it wasn't by chance.  In 1852, French immigrants from Bordeaux brought vine cuttings with them to Argentina and planted the first Malbec in the Mendoza Valley. 

A snowy Andes backdrop to Mendoza Vineyards

Mendoza growers and winemakers like Cabernet Sauvignon for its structure and age ability, but the variety they chose as a prime blending partner is Malbec and not Merlot as it is in France.  In fact, Malbec, which accounts for about 18% of the total wine grape plantings, is Argentina's most popular grape today.

Aside: Before the middle of the 20th century, Argentine (and Chilean) growers sold their grapes on weight.  On my first visit to Argentina and Chile, I was told by Miguel Torres, the Spanish scion who had established a winery near Curico, Chile in 1978, that the most resistance he encountered when he first set up shop in Chile, was from old growers who wanted to flood the vineyards before harvest to get the weight of the grapes up.  The vines sucked up the water, plumping the grapes and jacking up grape cluster weight, while the growers grew richer. 

These four wine regions are the most important in Argentina for their size and scope of wines produced:

Mendoza, in the far west of the country, against the eastern Andes, is the largest and most important wine region in Argentina. The sub regions of San Rafael, Lujan de Cuyo, Valle de Uco and Maipu, are prime locations for Argentina's best reds such as Malbec.

San Juan is the second largest region and while it is not known for Malbec, I mention it here because Syrah and Bonarda do well in this region.  More to the north and hotter than Mendoza, San Juan is known for table grapes and raisins.

Salta is the most important wine region in the northwest.  Many of Salta's best vineyards are at high altitudes. Colome Altura vineyard, owned by Donald Hess, of the Hess Collection in the Napa Valley, is at 10,000 feet.  Red varieties like Malbec and Bonarda do well at these altitudes.

Rio Negra, in the south, is a cooler region, better known for pears and apples.  A lighter version of Malbec is produced from Rio Negra grapes.  Also popular are Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, as well as fragrant whites like Torrontes and Riesling. 

Aside: Regular readers of this blog are aware of my interest in wine grape names, especially the many synonyms for the same grape. For example, Torrontes is known by three names in Argentina: Torrontes Riojano, Torrontes Sanjuanino, Torrontes Mendocino. Not only are the names different, but so too are the grapes, although all three produce an aromatic, Muscat-like wine.  In Spain, Torrontes has four different names and is known by a variety of names in Portugal.

There have been big changes in the culture of Argentine wine making as well.  Old timers didn't talk much about how they made wine amongst themselves.  But today's young guns taste, evaluate and comment on each others wines, improving the breed and appealing more to the international taste for fine wine. 

And young winemakers are often trained abroad, usually in France or California, and they travel extensively, observing how grapes are grown and wine is made in other regions.  Its all being part of the international wine community. 

Catena Zapata

Argentine Malbecs are priced between $19 and $40, with a few special bottles hovering around $100.  Here are a few Argentine wineries representative of their regions: Trapache (Mendoza), Zuccardi (Mendoza), Catena Zapata (Mendoza), Wapina (Rio Negro), Bodegas Bianchi (San Raphael), Colome (Salta), Salentein (Vallle de Uco), Susana Balbo (Valle de Uco).

Argentine Malbec shares some of the characteristics with its French cousin, but is probably more like Bordeaux Malbec than the bigger more rustic wines of Cahors. 

Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 26

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