Malbec: Old World v. New World

Malbec in Argentina
Malbec in Argentina

I don’t run across Malbec in my travels, but when we do cross paths in New York, it always catches my eye. What a wallop of inky, dark fruit! Think black current, mulberry, plum, and blackberry enlivened by a racy acidity. Now that winter is nigh, it’s the perfect mate for slow-cooked pot roasts with root veggies, fowl with fruit compote, or Thanksgiving bird. The first thing to know about Malbec is that there’s a big difference between Old World and New World styles. This was driven home at a Wine Media Guild tasting I attended that pitted 9 Malbecs from France against 18 from Argentina and Chile.

Historically, France has the edge. Malbec has been growing there for 800 years. In 1152, a marriage between a local damsel and the future king of England, Henry III, spurred its development in southwest France and soon “the Black Wine of Cahors” was in high demand, especially among the Brits. Malbec then spread west, where it worked its way into the Bordeaux blend, south to the Languedoc, north to Loire, and beyond.

But it took another 700 years to arrive in Argentina. South America’s first grapes were brought by Spanish conquistadors—the Mission grape, Garnacha, and Moscatel for spirits. Malbec finally arrived on the scene in the mid-1800s, a concerted effort by Argentine aristocrats who spent part of their year in France. (Buenos Aires used to be the most French city of South America.)

Today, Argentina accounts for the lion’s share of Malbec worldwide: 72%, compared to France’s 20%. What’s more, where Argentina has volume producers, Cahors is still a land of small farmers. The average Cahors winery is a petite 36 acres, and no one brand dominates. Cahors Malbecs are brought into the U.S. by boutique, specialized importers, and there’s never a plentitude of any one label. So if you find one you like, snap it up!

The second thing to know about Malbec is that climate, more than clones, is the most important variable. So altitude matters. I learned that lesson firsthand at the Society of Wine Educators conference last summer, when Laura Catena presented five separate lots that go into their top wine, Catena Alta Malbec. Vineyard altitudes ranged from 2850 to 4725 feet; otherwise, the juice was treated identically. Those component wines were like distant cousins: one was plumy, soft and generous; another intense, juicy blackberry; another all floral and minerality. The resulting cuvee (still 100% Malbec) was the best argument for blending I’d ever tasted. The whole was markedly greater than the sum of its parts.

At the Wine Media Guild tasting, the Old World v. New World dicotomy was very much in evidence. The Argentine and Chilean wines were seductively fruit-forward and generally more extracted. Some veered dangerously towards oak-fetish turf, but most kept that temptation in check. The Cahors wines, in contrast, had more freshness and acidity, making them better food wines. Some also had a touch of earthiness—an earmark of Old World wines that I positively adore.

Among my favorites:

ARGENTINA & CHILE

Dolium Malbec Rosé 2010 ($12, Vision Brands) – Who knew Malbec could make a rosé this good? Lovely berry-stain color, with wild-berry fruit backed by a savory, herbal tang.

Achaval Ferrer 2008 ($23, TGIC) Unfined and unfiltered wine, this offered soft, plush, black fruit and a touch of oak, kept in harmonious balance

Viu Manent, ViBO 2007 – Uco Valley, Argentina($37, Wine Symphony)

Viu Manent, El Olivar (cru) 2007 – Chile($25, Wine Symphony)

My Peruvian friend calls Chileans “the entrepreneurs of South America.” The Viu family offers proof. A third-generation Chilean winery, they expanded into Mendoza in 2005 (where 90% of Argentina’s Malbec is grown).  Their ViBo offered smooth, polished fruit with some dry spice, while the Chilean cru El Olivar was a good example of the more concentrated, hedonistic style of Malbec, wrapped in a layer of vanilla oak.

CAHORS, FRANCE

Georges Vigouroux, Pigmentum Malbec 2005 ($12, Baron Francois, NY) Who says you can’t get good cheap wine from France? This would be a great buy at double the price. It had that earthy character (some call it “meaty”) that distinguishes certain French pinot noirs, and it graced this wine, making it my favorite of the bunch.

Chateau Eugenie, Cuvee Reservee de l’Aieul 2006($20, The Wine Company, MN) A delicious marriage of juicy black fruit and dry spice, with some tannic backbone and old-world earthiness. Very food-friendly, and another winner in my book.

Clos Triguedina, Probus 2007 ($50, Eagle Eyes, IL, MI) A more concentrated example from Cahors. For budgetary reasons, many Cahors winemakers do not use oak, and many make only one simple wine. This is a more ambitious style, with concentrated fruit, decent tannins, and polished oak that doesn’t overwhelm. Quite clean and harmonious.