It may have escaped your notice, but last Thursday 17th April was Malbec World Day. Why Malbec World Day and not World Malbec Day, I know not. Admittedly I have not turned the British Library upside down in my quest for the truth, nevertheless I haven’t found the answer, so the eccentric word order remains a mystery.
I say Malbec. You say? Argentina I’d wager.
Argentine Malbec has become a successful and succinct partnership in our minds. Usually reasonably priced, often generously fruited and with, it must be said, a fair whack of alcohol, this is a wine style that was always going to find a large following in the UK.
Malbec, as a variety, has a much longer history than our fondness for its South American incarnation. It originates back in France, around the town of Cahors in the Southwest of the country. Back in its native land the variety is most often known as Cot. Cahors is its homeland, but it can also be found as far north as the Loire Valley and downriver from Cahors in Bordeaux. The fact that one of the names the Bordelais gave the grape was Malbec (or sometimes Malbeck) gives us a clue that it was from here that it first made its way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Apparently we can be confident that a certain Michel Pouget first brought Malbec vines to Argentina in 1868. It was clearly a raging success and is now the most widely planted quality wine grape in the country. Argentina is a big producer of wine, perhaps bigger than we imagine, sitting at number 5 in terms of global production behind France, Italy, Spain and the USA. Much of what they produce is consumed by their own thirsty local market, with the US the most important export market.
A few Malbec vines have made it across the Andes to Chile, but it remains mostly an Argentine speciality.
Altitude is all important in Argentina – the weather at lower levels is far too warm to produce good quality wine, so vineyards are generally tucked up into the foothills of the Andes, primarily in the province of Mendoza. In fact, looking at a map, it looks like a mere hop, skip and jump from Mendoza to Santiago in Chile – albeit there is a 6,000m Andean mountain ridge between the two.
The other distinguishing feature of Argentine viticulture is dependence on irrigation – the air in those high altitude (often over 1,000m) sites is clear and dry, with the city of Mendoza itself averaging just 200mm annual rainfall, which is getting on for desert conditions. This means low incidence of problems like rot and easy ripening of grapes, but also means a need to find water from somewhere in order for the vines to survive.
The immigrants who came to Argentina in the early days, many from Italy and Spain, brought with them their taste for wine; apart from the Welsh, who brought tearooms, crocheted teacosies and Welsh cakes to their enclave in Patagonia.
Recommended Malbec (and Cot)
Trapiche Pure Malbec - £8.99 from the Co-operative
Pure as in unoaked, this intensely coloured wine is so dense it actually feels thick. Plenty of dark chocolate and black cherry flavours to keep fans of big boned wines happy. If the weather is barbecue-friendly, this wine’s smoky, punchy flavours would be just the ticket.
Bodega Colomé proudly trumpet wines made from the highest altitude vines in Argentina (and possibly the world) from their vineyards in Salta, far north of Mendoza. Their Colomé Estate Malbec is £17.49 in Waitrose and combines full-bodied fruit (and 14.5% alcohol) with altitude-driven freshness in a beguiling way. Their Amalaya red blend is predominantly Malbec, plus some Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tannat and gives a taste of the same style at a more consumer-friendly price of £10.99 (£9.99 if you buy 2) at Majestic. The price is due to rise to £11.99 from 29th April, so it would be worth your while to sniff some out sooner rather than later if you can.
The name Susanna Balbo is synonymous with quality, so if you see it, give the wine a punt. Majestic again have Ben Marco Malbec from her Dominio del Plata winery for £15.99 (down to £12.99 when you buy 2). She is also the winemaker behind The Society’s Argentine Malbec (£7.25 a bottle from The Wine Society).
Nicolas Catena was a pioneer of high altitude winemaking in Argentina and his Malbecs are ever-reliable. His Catena Alta label is top of the quality tree but will set you back getting on for £30 a bottle. More readily available is the straight Catena Malbec: £13.99 or £9.99 if you buy two at Majestic, or £12.99 from Waitrose.
Back where it all started, Malbec, or Cot, from Cahors typically has more tannin and acid structure and a more savoury character than the Argentine version. Basic Cahors can be a rather underwhelming experience, but ambitious producers are doing their best to build (or perhaps rebuild) a reputation for quality with concentrated and ageworthy wines.
The wines of two of the best producers, Clos Triguedina (£20.49) and Château du Cèdre Cahors (£17.99), are available at Guildford’s own Caves de Pyrène and other independent merchants. Clos Triguedina is also available through The Wine Society for £16 a bottle.