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Malbec: Another Merlot?
By Michael Apstein
Jan 11, 2011
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Malbec is the new “black.”  Then again, maybe not so new, since the wine from Cahors in south central France, the traditional home to Malbec, was known as the “black wine” in the 13th century because of its power and concentration.  But you know it must be a hot wine today when the French, who eschew putting grape names on labels of their appellation controllée wines, start labeling the wines from Cahors with the Malbec moniker.

Although grown all over the world (Western Australia, Bordeaux, Chile and even Ohio), Argentina has become the place for Malbec, becoming that country’s signature wine.  And that’s saying something since Argentina makes a lot of wine.  It’s the world’s fifth largest wine producer, ahead of Australia, but ranking behind Italy, France, Spain and the United States, according to figures for 2008 from the Wine Institute.  But if the Argentines aren’t careful, Malbec may sink the Argentine wine industry as quickly as it has made it.  It risks following the course that Merlot took in this country--lots of initial excitement followed by disappointment with the occasional peaks of quality lost amidst a sea of mediocrity.

The Potential to Disappoint

Argentine Malbec satisfies the current thirst in the United States for big, ripe, fruity red wines to accompany the robust flavors found on the plates in fashionably boisterous restaurants.  Its size also makes it stylistically appropriate for the beef-laden Argentine diet.  As the popularity of Malbec soared, growers expanded their plantings of it and more wines made from young vines flooded the market.  But wines made from young vines emphasize the fruit aspect of the grape, as opposed to wines made from older vines, which tend to deliver more complexity.  Hence, there are plenty of Malbecs from Argentina that disappoint with their simplicity and monotonic profile of dark black fruit.  

Home in Bordeaux

In addition to Cahors, Malbec’s traditional home in the 19th century was Bordeaux where it was a component of the classical red Bordeaux blend along side Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot.  Even a small percentage of the jet-black juice added concentration and color to the finished wine.  After phylloxera destroyed the Bordeaux vineyards, the Bordelais opted not to replant Malbec extensively.  Its drawback was that, as an early-budding variety, it was susceptible to coulure (a.k.a. poor flowering or shatter), which is caused by cold weather in the spring and results in a short crop, not good for the bottom line.

Argentina’s Wine

Today, however, Malbec has found a perfect home in sunny Argentina, a country where spring frosts are not a problem.  Argentina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was experiencing an economic boom and golden era.  The populace, despite its Spanish and Italian heritage, emulated France, since that European country was still the benchmark for style and class.  Hence, winemakers imported and planted Malbec along with other French vines. 

Although extremely popular now, Malbec has had a rocky history in Argentina.  It was very popular in the 1960s, when 125,000 acres of it were planted--far more than are planted today.  Depressed prices in the 1970s and 1980s saw plantings tumble to only 25,000 acres by 1990. But its popularity since then has resulted in a resurgence, and it is now Argentina’s most widely planted red grape, comprising 15% of the countries total vineyard area or about 75,000 acres.  (By way of comparison, the plantings in the entire appellation of Cahors cover only about 10,000 acres--and only 2/3rds of them are Malbec.  Napa Valley has a total of about 50,000 acres under vines of all varieties.)

While the warm Argentine weather minimizes the risk of coulure, it allows growers to increase yields and delay harvest, which can result in overripe grapes and overly alcoholic wine. 

All Malbec Is Not The Same

Consumers beware.  Just because “Malbec” appears on the label of a bottle of Cahors doesn’t mean it will taste like an Argentine Malbec.  The wines are very different.  A recent Wine Media Guild tasting in New York compared Cahors and Argentine Malbec--with a few from Chile thrown in--and put the differences in dramatic relief.  The wines are so different that it makes you wonder whether the grape variety is actually the same or whether it’s just another example of the enormous importance of where the grape is grown.  It would not be the only example of vastly different wines produced from the same variety--think red Burgundy and most California Pinot Noir. 

Cahors

Wines from Cahors are generally more muscular, structured and tannic than the softer, more approachable and fruitier Malbec from Argentina.  Ricardo Giadorou, CEO of Dolium Winery in Argentina described the tannins in Cahors as “assertive” and felt that the sweeter, softer ones in Argentine Malbec are what Americans prefer.  But with the added structure of Cahors comes an appealing and intriguing earthy minerality and complexity, often lacking in the fruit forward, softer Argentine wines.  Jean-Louis Carbonnier, a spokesperson for the Cahors appellation, notes that Cahors was--and still is--a poor area and hence the use of new oak--read expensive--barrels has never been embraced.  The lack of oak aging allows the wines to express their origins.

The tasting confirmed those generalizations.  The 2007 Cahors had the fierce tannins characteristic of the appellation’s wines.  The wines had plenty of stuffing and an appealing underlying dense core and but will need several more years to soften before pulling the cork. 

The 2005 Cahors wines were a revelation, especially given the area’s reputation for vigorous tannins.  Beautifully balanced, they had ample concentration and minerality to offset the tannins, which surprisingly, although firm, were not intrusive.  While by no means mature, most of these wines showed extremely well with food.  Four 2005s that are easy to recommend, all $20 a bottle or less, are Georges Vigouroux’s Pigmentum, ($12, imported by Baron Francois), Château la Coustarelle’s Tradition ($13, Michael Skurnik), Château la Martine ($18, Edward wines) and Château de Haute Serre ($20, Baron Francois).   All are structured and robust, but not overdone, with bright acidity that keeps them lively and fresh.  Any of them would be an excellent choice with hearty winter stews.

Argentine Malbec

While many Argentine Malbec deliver only fruit, oak and alcohol, there are notable exceptions, proving the grape indeed has great potential in that country.   The 2008 Terrazas de Los Andes, Malbec Reserva ($17, imported by Moët Hennessey), the 2008 Bodegas Catena Zapata Malbec ($20, Winebow) and especially Catena Zapata’s 2007 Alta Malbec ($54, Winebow) are excellent examples of harmony and most of all, complexity.  The Catena Zapata Alta Malbec, which is a special selection in the vineyard and the cellar, has extraordinary depth and delivers the extra non-fruit dimension that separates wine from fruit juice.  All have the Argentine signature of polished tannins.

Chilean Malbec

With fewer than 7,500 acres devoted to it, Malbec plays a minor role in Chile.  Viu Manent, who has been producing Malbec since 1994, has benefited from the “Argentine Boom.” Their 2007 Malbec from the Colchagua Valley, a single vineyard wine from 80-year old vines labeled, San Carlos Estate, ($25, Wine Symphony) is less ripe than its counterparts from Argentina, has layered flavors of fruits and earth and offers yet another style to this varietal. 

Best in a Blend

In a “back to the future” kind of way, many of the most interesting Argentine wines, both at the Wine Media Guild tasting and at another extensive tasting of Argentine wines, were Malbec-dominated blends, usually with other Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot, but occasionally with Syrah or Tannat.  The 2006 Cheval des Andes Malbec ($66, Moët Hennessey), a blend of Malbec (60%) and other Bordeaux varieties, is classy and layered, delivering more than just fruit flavors.  The 2008 Clos de los Siete ($20, Dourthe), a fabulous buy, is a polished and refined blend of Malbec (56%), other Bordeaux varieties and Syrah that conveys complexity and concentration without being overdone.  Colomé’s 2008 Malbec ($29, Hess Collection), a blend of Malbec (85%), Tannat (8%), Cabernet Sauvignon (5%) and Syrah, draws on old vine Malbec for its seamless combination of power and elegance.  Achaval Ferrer 2007 “Quimera” ($30,TGIC Imports), a masterful combination of Malbec (35%), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot (each 24%) and Cabernet Franc, reinforces the idea that the best use for Malbec in Argentina might just be as a component of a blend.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Malbec at mapstein@winereviewonline.com