France’s Forgotten Grape
Malbec is no one-man band. Over the centuries it has played back up to some of the world’s finest wines – adding a damson note to classic Bordeaux, structural metre in the Loire and gamey accents in south western France. As malbec was once widely grown throughout France, it has hundreds of synonyms such as Cot or Auxerrois Noir, but its most commonly used name is malbec apparently based on the French words, “bad beak” – not to be confused with bad beat.
Once a standard performer in the “big red” sextet of Bordeaux grape varieties, malbec is rarely seen in Bordeaux today. Like many musicians, malbec has a few vices, susceptibility to mold being one of them. As a thin-skinned grape variety, malbec is highly vulnerable to frosts, mildew and rot – as well as a vine disturbance called coulure wherein grapes fail to develop. Nearly wiped-out in the 19th century by a nasty root-piercing bug called phylloxera, when devastated again in 1956 by frost, few Bordeaux producers replanted malbec, opting instead to increase plantings of merlot, which is far easier to manage.
A few malbec vines retired to a warmer south western France appellation called Cahors and – like aging musicians – there they play their music to a small number of loyal fans and chance tourists. Well on its way to obscurity, malbec staged a comeback in the 1990’s that would make Tina, Carlos and the artist formerly known as [Prince Symbol] envious. Malbec’s career rebounded due to dry sunny conditions high in the Argentinean Andes.
By ditching the dank, moldy scene of Frances’s traditional malbec sites, this variety found a new groove in keeping with Argentinean rhythms. Malbec is not new to South America, but only recently did producers begin giving malbec the audience it deserves. When well-nurtured, Malbec is a thrilling, dark purple color, fat and fleshy with dense plum, blackberry and violet-scented fruit somewhat along the lines of Australian Shiraz. Malbec’s tannins – a natural substance that dehydrates your mouth – are much drier and firmer than those of Shiraz though the dryness appears mainly after swallowing, as though strumming one measure behind the band.
The Mendoza region is where malbec plays its finest riffs. High altitude vineyards give the variety exposure to intense UV light. Long sunny days tempered by the cool evening temperatures allow the variety to ripen slowly, extending its ripening period up to three or four weeks longer than when grown in France. Due to significant variation in day and night-time temperatures (easily fluctuating 27° Fahrenheit between night and day) malbec grown in Mendoza retains a crisp acidity as crucial to wine balance as rhythm to music. Good quality Argentinean Malbec can be found via suppliers such as Concord, Force 8, Kedington, Northeast, Orient Pacific, Ponti and Telford.
Malbec’s international comeback tour has been so well-received that Chile is now experimenting with the variety, California has increased plantings and South Australia is taking a second look at its historical plantings. Be wary, though, like many comeback performers, Malbec producers occasionally overdo the staging. Resembling a blast of stage-fog, spicy vanilla-scented oak notes from masses of new French barrels can mask the grape’s talent – or lack thereof. Viewing Argentina’s success with envy, Cahors producers have now taken to aging its malbec in new oak as well, though the more restrained, gamier base-notes and drier, firmer French tannins still mark Cahors with a distinctly French beat.