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The Lowdown on Malbec
By Gerald D. Boyd
Jan 26, 2010
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By now, every wine fan knows the story of Argentine Malbec, the black
wine grape that, while declining in popularity in France, is having great success in Argentina. Once grown throughout western France, Malbec acreage in Bordeaux has declined rapidly since 2000. Part of the reason for Malbec’s decline in France is the grape’s susceptibility to diseases and its rustic character, which doesn’t play well with today’s wine drinkers.

From the consumer’s view, Malbec in France is also confusing with the grape’s many synonyms. In the seminal Cepages et Vignobles de France, renowned French ampelographer (one who identifies vine species and varieties) Pierre Galet lists a great many synonyms for the grape we call Malbec. Galet points out that Malbec goes by its true name, Cot, in the Loire Valley and parts of western France and in Cahors, the name given for Malbec is Auxerrois. In 2000, Galet’s mammoth reference was condensed into four volumes by the publisher Hachette. It would seem then, that if wine grapes can suffer from multiple personality syndrome, then Malbec is a prime candidate.

But, how did an unpopular grape with a personality identification problem in its homeland travel thousands of miles to Argentina? Most likely through the migration of French winemakers and growers immigrating to the Mendoza Valley in the late 19th century looking for new and more challenging places to make wine. Records show that in the 1960s Malbec accounted for about 123,000 acres in Argentina, far behind Criola and Bonarda. In the 1990s, after a disastrous “vine pull scheme” dramatically reducing the amount of Malbec, plantings bounced back in Argentina to about 50,000 acres in the early years of the 21st century.

By all rights, the Mendoza Valley in western Argentina should be a poor place to grow premium wine grapes. Using ample runoff from the Andes, enterprising farmers and grape growers channeled water through a system of irrigation canals, eventually converting the semi-arid high desert valley along the eastern foothills, into green farmland and vineyards.

Today, most vineyards in the Mendoza Valley are over 3,000 feet above sea level and are influenced by a continental climate, with four distinct seasons but no extreme temperatures. These conditions mean that grape growers use elevation to mitigate rising temperatures, rather than cooling breezes that often favor maritime vineyards. Malbec is grown throughout Mendoza, with the Uco Valley in the south including the sub districts of Tupungato and La Consulta, a new hot spot for cool climate Malbec. North of the Uco Valley is Lujan de Cuyo, home of prime Malbec sub districts Alto Agrelo, Agrelo. East Mendoza has vast vineyards but is not known as Malbec country.

Last October, I was invited to participate in a Comparative Malbec Virtual Tasting, conducted by Vine Connections, an import company that promotes itself as “Authentically Argentine--Uniquely Ginjo--Consistently Impressive.” I also talked with Patrick Campbell, owner-winemaker of Laurel Glen in Sonoma Valley and an advocate of Argentine Malbec. More on Campbell and his love of Malbec later, but first some observations from the virtual tasting.

Vine Connections co-founder Ed Lehrman and Mendel winemaker Roberto de la Mota were in Mendoza, talking to a group of faceless journalists through a hookup by phone and the Internet--we could see them but they couldn’t see us. Each participant had been sent eight Argentine Malbecs from the Vine Connections portfolio. Lehrman and de la Mota talked about Malbec and fielded questions, and the participants had the option to taste each wine as it was presented by de la Mota, or at another time of their choosing. I tasted the wines before the virtual tasting so I could look at my notes during the discussion and not have to juggle looking, listening, writing and tasting. It was a virtual tasting where virtually anything went, including participating in your pajamas.

The bracket of Malbecs included wines from five different producers selecting grapes from the Uco Valley and Lujan de Cuyo, two of Mendoza’s better sites for growing Malbec. The wines ranged in price from $18 to $115 and all were 100% varietal, except for two that were blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. My general impression of the wines was very good, across the board, with uniformly deep colors, ripe forward fruitiness evident in the aromatics and flavors, good acidity, integrated refined tannins, but not a lot of obvious oak and none of the rustic quality often attributed to French Malbecs from places like Cahors. In today’s terms, the alcohol levels were moderate, most between 13.% and 14.5%.

A negative was the excessively heavy bottles for some of the wines, especially the more expensive ones. This unfortunate marketing decision is not environmentally friendly and has nothing to do with the quality of the wine inside the heavy bottle.

Following the virtual tasting, I e-mailed Lehrman for more comprehensive views on Argentine Malbec. He says that Argentina makes other “nice reds,” especially some of the top-tier wines, but few can compete with Malbec. “I would be hard pressed to say that any of the other Argentine varietal wines have as many strengths as Malbec. And Malbec has the fortunate position, at least for the moment, of not having much competition from other countries.” Lehrman says that Cahors is arguably not a competitor due to the significant difference in Malbec style, but I asked him about Chilean Carmenère, a varietal that some observers see as Chile’s Malbec. “Chile is searching for an identity outside of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, because while it makes both wines well, so too do many other countries. Carmenère is certainly a possibility for Chile, but I don’t think it will ever compete with Malbec directly. “

Vine Connections was founded by Ed Lehrman and Nick Ramkowsky in 1999 to build what they consider the largest portfolio, 42 wines and 12 brands, of Argentine wine in the United States. Lehrman and Ramkowsky have been going to Argentina for 11 years, believing in the late 1990s, as Lehrman recalls, that “Malbec may just be the perfect wine for American tastes. Malbec has the complete package; it can be made well at $10 and at $100 and at every price in between.” Considering the usual differences in viticultural practices and winemaking, Lehrman added: “I’d say most Malbecs, especially from $11 to $30, over-deliver taste for price compared with other varieties, with Malbec’s ripe fruit, solid weight without excessive alcohol, complexity of flavor, deep color and good acidity.” The only other beverage imported by Vine Connections is Japanese Sake, an unusual pair, testifying that for Lehrman and Ramkowsky, Vine Connections is a labor of love.

During the Internet conversation, de la Mota offered some general comments on making Malbec. “Rootstock grafting is not necessary in Mendoza as we have no problem with phylloxera. And because of the dry climate, irrigation is necessary, but it’s easy to work with both organic and biodynamic grape growing.” Responding to a question about blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Malbec, de la Mota noted that his Mendel “Unus” is mostly Malbec blended with 30% Cabernet Sauvignon coming from old vines in the same vineyard, and that the two varieties are very compatible. Lehrman added that Susanna Balbo’s 2007 Malbec is blended with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, that that he likes the way that Cabernet adds length to Malbec.

For another view on Argentine Malbec, I turned to Patrick Campbell, owner-winemaker for Laurel Glen Winery in Sonoma Valley. Campbell is passionate about Malbec and travels five times a year to oversee his four vineyards in Mendoza. He ferments three different Malbecs in Mendoza then ships the wines to Graton where they are oak-aged and bottled. Why not bottle in Mendoza? “Less carbon footprint by not shipping the weight and bulk of cases,” he says. “Plus, we can keep our eye on the wines as they age in our own barrels.”

Campbell is no fan of the big, heavily-oaked, higher alcohol Malbecs, preferring to show the grape’s fresh fruit character. “You may have noticed that the current trend in Mendoza, particularly among the more recent producers, is to make Malbec oakier, fatter, more alcoholic and more Cabernet-like. This is not our style, nor do I think it is appropriate for Malbec, which we have learned over the years needs a lighter touch than Cabernet Sauvignon. We prefer to let the pure Malbec fruit speak for itself.”

Then, reflecting on the past, present and future of Argentine Malbec, Campbell added this: “The future for Malbec is bright. Made correctly, Malbec captures what everyone likes about red wines: dark, mouth-filling without being too heavy or tiring to drink, hedonistic, complex enough to be interesting, and very reflective of terroir.” Stylistic preference is, of course, a personal matter…so you be the judge.