Malbec and the best of both worlds

For once, France can’t take any credit for the success of one of its own grapes. Once upon a time, Malbec was from France and not given much at- tention, but the neglected grape found a happy home in Argentina where it gets to bask in both sunshine and limelight. The arrangement seems ideal: Country helps grape, grape helps country. But Malbec’s biological parent wants to share in its kid’s newfound success. Should Malbec return to its native soil, or lay down roots in its adopted land?

Some like it hot: Argentina’s dry climate, sunny days and high altitude make for optimal growing conditions for the heat-loving, thin-skinned Malbec grape.

Dating back to southwestern France in the 13th century, Malbec is one of the six grapes allowed in the famous red blends of the Bordeaux region. However, after the frost of 1956 killed 70 percent of the Malbec vines, the grape’s inclusion in Bordeaux wines to- day is minute at best. Other small plantings of Malbec exist in the Languedoc and the Loire Valley, but France’s biggest stronghold remains the region of Cahors (60 miles southeast of Bordeaux), with about 10,000 acres planted. Cahors blends its Malbec with small amounts of Merlot and Tannat. The British lapped up this inky “black wine” until a 1373 mandate following the Hundred Year War gave growers a financial incentive to plant along the Gironde River in the Bor- deaux region. Add in Malbec’s extreme sus- ceptibility to frost, downy mildew, and rot, along with an identity crisis of having more than 50 nicknames, (Côt Noir, Auxerrois, and Pressac being the most common), and you’ve got a grape destined for failure.

Malbec’s rise began in the mid-19th century when a French agronomist brought
grapevine cuttings from France to plant in Argentina. Among them were Malbec. This thin-skinned grape that requires lots of sun and heat to ripen thrived in the Argentina’s high altitude, dry climate, and 300- plus days of annual sunshine. By 2003, the country was growing 100,000 acres of Mal- bec, and by 2008, it had become a star with one easy-to-pronounce name, like Cher and Madonna. The wines are just as airbrushed and two-dimensional too. They seduce you with an unctuous mouthful of plump blackberries and blackcurrants and then caress you with tannins as soft and sultry as velvet. Acidity is often lacking in these wines, but for most people, that isn’t a deal-breaker. If there is a third dimension coming through in Argentinean Malbec, it is usually oak. When done well, cinnamon and cedar commingle in a subtle swirl. When overdone, you are sucking on vanilla-flavored bark chips.

What French Malbec has that Argentinean Malbec doesn’t is an iron- and lime- stone-rich terroir that imparts a smoky, meaty quality not unlike, well, bacon fat. If I had you at bacon, and if you like a wine with a little more tannic grip and puckery acidity (especially when you are eating something deliciously rich and fatty, like duck breast), then you might appreciate the classic version over the newfangled one. Think more Sean Connery and less Pierce Brosnan.

With Malbec, no matter what it calls it-self or where it considers home, you’re guaranteed a big, bold wine exploding with ripe purple fruit that’s ready to drink now for a good price. With all that going for it, I’d say the future is pretty bright for this once-orphaned grape.

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