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Wine Guide: Malbec

It's official: Malbec is having a moment on the American market. Consumers are going crazy for this purple-hued, red wine grape, and it's not hard to figure out why. These inky, full-bodied wines are full of savory fruit flavor, brimming with rugged tannins and floral undertones. What more could the heart desire? 

While most of the Malbecs we know and love hail from the gorgeous southern-hemisphere region of Mendoza, Argentina, the grape itself actually has a much more deep-rooted history than in just South America. Don't worry, we'll explain.


Roots, Roots, Roots

Despite its South American success, Malbec was actually born in Cahors, France, located in the Sud-Ouest (South West) region just below Bordeaux. Here, the local name for the grape is Côt or Auxerrois. In the past, Malbec was quite popular in Bordeaux blends and still remains one of the only six red grapes permitted in the regional assemblage. However, when a severe frost hit Bordeaux in the mid 1950s, nearly three-quarters of the grape's vineyard coverings were killed off. Although somewhat forgotten in Bordeaux post-frost, the South West replanted a bunch of their devastated vines, continuing to produce big, bold reds from Malbec and Tannat blends.

When it comes to blind tasting, Malbec-based wines are pretty straight forward. The purple, thin skinned grape produces inky, plum-colored wines, exuding strong floral aromas of violet, pepper, and ripe berries. The grape requires a decent amount of sun to ripen, and upon maturity, produces deeply-colored wines with robust tannins. The juice is generally dark, succulent, and super fruit-forward.

 
Success in South America

Although Malbec has become less popular in its native country, the grape is soaring in popularity in Argentina, unofficially becoming the country's 'national' grape variety. Malbec first made its way into South America in the mid 1800s via Miguel Pouget, a French agronomist recruited by the then governor of Argentina. After a surge in mass-production bulk wine, Malbec saw a renaissance in the late 1900s, when a quality over quantity mentality was finally adopted by the region. However, when it comes to wine, a grape isn't just merely one of its kind; multiple clones of our favorite varieties exist-- yep, Malbec included.

The clone of Malbec used in Argentina is slightly different than the OG French variety, consisting of smaller berries that form in tinier, more compact clusters. Malbec-based wines produced in Argentina are generally smoother and more fruit-forward than the wines of the Sud Ouest, with more approachable tannins and a plusher, more luscious mouthfeel. While Mendoza reigns king for Argentinian Malbec, the grape is now planted throughout the entire country.

 
Back to the Basics

Now let's take it back to the roots for just one seconds. Rooted in Cahors, Malbec is still definitely the dominant grape in this appellation, comprising at least 70% of the region's blends by law (Merlot and Tannat are permitted in the other 30%.) As the grape continues to rise in popularity on the international market, 100% varietal bottlings of Malbec are becoming more and more popular in Cahors as well. Other local Sud Ouest appellations, such as Côtes de Duras, Bergerac, Fronton, and Buzet also use Malbec in their blends, though plantings are much more scarce. In Bordeaux, Malbec was used much more frequently to boost pigment and fruit-forwardness to the blends in the past; once vignerons found out how much easier it was to cultivate Merlot and Cabernet Franc (Malbec is quite finicky and is susceptible to many vineyard diseases due to its thin skins), the grape became quickly uprooted and replaced by many producers.

 
An Unlikely Surprise

However, there is one French region where Malbec (here, we'll call it Côt) has a somewhat small percentage of plantings, yet the wines are just too good to leave unmentioned. In the Loire Valley, Côt from Touraine produces super light, ridiculously drinkable wines, much brighter and fresher than those of the New World or Cahors. The wines are generally vibrant pink to magenta in color, free of any tannin, and when chilled, provide the answer to all of your warm-weather, red wine drinking needs. Many producers cultivating Côt in the Loire Valley practice organic and sustainable farming, making you feel even less guilty for polishing off an entire bottle (not that you ever should feel such a way, of course.)

Moral of the story here is that Malbec actually brings much more to the glass than meets the eye. The wines can range from light and chuggable to full-bodied and rustic, with significant vineyard plantings all throughout the Old and New world. In fact, it seems like there is a new region experimenting with Malbec plantings almost everyday in the booming world of wine. Stay tuned and keep drinking to stay up to date with the latest progressions in the Malbec craze; we know we certainly will be.