Malbec Wine Grapes, Flavor, Character, History, Wine Food Pairing Tips

Malbec Wine Grapes

History of Malbec

Malbec earned fame as one of the original five main Bordeaux wine grape varietals. Malbec is an offspring of an old, almost non-existent grape variety, Magdeleine Noire des Charentes.

Originally the grape was first known as Auxerrois. In time, that grape changed its name to Noir de Pressac, which was shortened for expediency to Pressac. Malbec was also known as Cot.

At first, the grape enjoyed popularity in Saint Emilion and in other Right Bank areas. In the 1700s, Sieur Malbek brought the grape from the Right Bank and planted it in a wide variety of terroirs in the Medoc. Due to the success and popularity of Pressac in the Left Bank of Bordeaux, it was renamed Malbec, in honor of Sieur Malbek.

It is thought that the grape reached its zenith in popularity in Bordeaux by the time of the 1855 Classification. Numerous chateaux classified in 1855 used it in their blends prior to the onset of phylloxera. It is thought that some estates used as much as 50% in their blends during the earlier part of the 1800s, especially in the Right Bank.

In fact, in those days, Malbec was an important grape varietal in much of the southwest area of France, especially in Bordeaux, prior to the phylloxera epidemic. After the phylloxera epidemic in Bordeaux, much of the vines devoted to Malbec were destroyed. Malbec often had difficulty ripening in Bordeaux, due to the grape’s natural susceptibility to various diseases and problems including frost, mildew, and coulure.

However, Malbec had other issues in Bordeaux. The grape is naturally prone to high yields. Malbec grapes, due to the large size of their berries, often had the propensity to produce dilute wines. The final fall from favor for Malbec in Bordeaux began with the famous frost of 1956.

After the frost, growers began replacing it with varieties better suited to the region like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Even today, Malbec continues to decline in popularity in Bordeaux.

Malbec in Argentina

Malbec is the star grape of Argentina. It is thought that the grape was first brought to Argentina from France in the 1850s by Michel Pouget. Malbec with firmly established in Argentina shortly after that. The dark-colored, thin-skinned Malbec grape requires specific climatic conditions to fully ripen. In Mendoza, Malbec became a star!

The Malbec plantings in Lujan de Cuyo can produce just fabulous wines. Mendoza, has the perfect terroir for Malbec, with its dry climate, sunny weather and high elevations. Here, Malbec is able to reach its best expression.

When ripe, Malbec adds color, tannin, and spicy characteristics to the wine, producing deep-colored, rich wines with freshness, balanced acidity, lush, round, supple textures, and flavors of plums, blackberries.

Mendoza is of course not the only region in Argentina to produce Malbec. You also find plantings in cooler terroir that produce good, but less exuberant wines in regions like Patagonia and Rio Negro.

In France, Malbec produces a different expression than what is created in Argentina. This is important to note because French Malbec wines are quite different from the wines produced using South America Malbec. In France, Malbec is often rustic, and tannic. This explains why in much of France, Malbec is only used as part of the blend.

But in Mendoza, Argentina, Malbec is the undisputed star of the show. Other areas in Argentina are also perfect for the grape including Salta, La Rioja, San Juan, and Catamarca. Today, Malbec is now so popular, the grape has its own holiday, International Malbec Day, which is also known as World Malbec day which is celebrated every April 17.

Malbec with wine and food pairings. Malbec is a food-friendly wine, which is easy to pair and match with foods. For the best Malbec wine and food pairing tip, ask anyone from Argentina.

They will tell you Malbec is perfect with grilled or barbecued meats and sausage. Due to its rich, supple textures and spicy personality, match Malbec with beef, veal, chicken, pork, sausage, braised or stewed dishes, spicy cuisine, cured meats and dry cheeses.

Malbec in Bordeaux

Today, Malbec is only used as a minor part of blends in Bordeaux. Domaine de Chevalier has one of the larger portions of Malbec remaining in Bordeaux with close to 5% of their Pessac Leognan vineyards devoted to Malbec. In St. Emilion, Jean Faure is planted to 6% Malbec, Chateau Coutet St. Emilion is planted to 5% Rol Valentin also uses over 5% Malbec in their blend as does Chateau Soutard. In fact, some Malbec is even planted at Chateau Cheval Blanc!

Haut Bailly in Pessac Leognan and Gruaud Larose in St. Julien both have small plantings in their vineyards. Chateau Clerc Milon in Pauillac and Brane Cantenac in Margaux use the varietal in their blend. In the Right Bank, the original name for the grape was Noir de Pressac. In fact, that is where Chateau de Pressac takes its name.

Today, not much Malbec is planted or used in the blends for Bordeaux wine. One of the larger amounts of plantings found was in Pomerol at Chateau LEnclos. Previously they devoted close to 3% of their vineyards to old vine Malbec. Those vines have since been removed.

However, that is topped by Chateau Clos Rene, with 10% of their vineyard devoted to Malbec! In the neighboring appellation of Lalande de Pomerol, Siaurac has close to 10% and Canon-Chaigneau and La Sergue include close to 5% Malbec in their vineyards.

Some of the less prestigious Bordeaux appellations retain slightly larger plantings of the grape including the Entre Deux Mers region, Cotes de Blaye and Cotes de Bourg areas where some estates bottle Bordeaux wine produced from 100% Malbec.

The vineyards of  Bouscat La Gargone from Bordeaux Superieur are planted with 18% Malbec and the wine used in Bouscat Les Portes de l’Am, a Bordeaux Superieur from the same producer has a whopping 25% Malbec included in the blend!

Those Bordeaux chateaux could have the largest holdings of Malbec vines in the Bordeaux appellation. However, the wine with the highest portion of Malbec included in the blend is made by Nicolas Thienpont at his estate in the Cotes de Francs appellation. Chateau Puygueraud Cuvee George included 45% in the blend for the 2010 Bordeaux vintage. Chateau Bel-Air la Royere in the Cotes de Blaye appellation is another fan of the variety, as 45% of their vines are planted to Malbec.

However, some vintages feature a much higher percentage of Malbec. Chateau Gros Moulin uses 60% Malbec in their Heritage 1757 wine, Chateau de Bouillerot Cep d’Antan devotes an average of 75% of the blend to Malbec. Chateau Bechereau Couleur Malbec in Montaigne St. Emilion includes 82% Malbec in the blend.

Another property in Montaigne St. Emilion, Chateau Tour Bayard produces L’Angelot, a small cuvee that uses 95% Malbec in the blend. Chateau Croute-Mallard in Cotes de Bourg is made using a whopping 95% Malbec in the blend. But Chateau Relais de Poste Cuvee Malbec has them all beat, as they produce wine from 100% Malbec!

Today more than 12 small Bordeaux producers make wine from 100% Malbec: Chateau Le Geai Ultrableue – Bordeaux Superieur, Famille Rochet Le Paon – Bordeaux Superieur, Chateau Magdeleine Bouhou – Cotes de Blaye, Chateau Saint Sulpicem and Chateau Bonnange with two wines, Le Cot and Noir Malbec. In Entre-Deux-Mers, you find from Pierre and Christophe Duberge Cuvee Malbec.

There are a few Bordeaux estates producing Malbec dominated wines without aging in French oak barrels. Chateau Cazebonne Feldspath de Peyron in the Graves appellation makes a Malbec, aged in amphora and so does Chateau Beaulieu with Vitis Amphore, made using 100% Malbec. 70 Ares Lamartine in Cotes de Castillon is 100% Malbec.

AOC Bordeaux, Chateau Tire Pe les Malbecs, and Chateau Gouache, Chateau Tour Birol Hommage aux Roy – Cotes de Bourg and Chateau Civrac, which is also in the Cotes de Bourg appellation and Chateau Haut-Meyreau Invindia l’Instant H Malbec. Petit Val in St. Emilion produces Valentina from 100% Malbec. It is important to note that many of these 100% Malbec wines are sold as generic Bordeaux, Vin de France, or Vin de Pays Pyrénees-Atlantiques.

While all the estates listed above produce Bordeaux made from 100% Malbec, in truth, Cahors remains the spiritual home for Malbec in France. AOC law dictates that no less than 70% of the variety be included in the blend. The grape continues to enjoy a long history in the region that could date back to the ancient Romans. It continued to be popular in the middle ages.

In Southwest France today, Malbec remains especially popular in the Cahors appellation. Two of the better producers in Cahors are Lagrezette Le Pigeonnier and Clos la Coutale.

In Argentina, several quality producers are making wine from 100% Malbec with great success in the high altitudes and terroir of Argentina. In fact, the fruit reaches its best expression today in the Mendoza region of Argentina. There are numerous producers making outstanding wine in Mendoza from over 25,000 hectares of Malbec now planted in the region.

Several Bordeaux chateaux are working in the Mendoza region today including; Chateau Lafite Rothschild partnered with Catena Zapata, Chateau Cheval Blanc with the aptly named Cheval des Andes, Leoville Poyferre with Cuvelier de Los Andes.

The Clos de Los Siete project, spearheaded by Michel Rolland with Catherine Pere Verge who owns numerous estates in Pomerol produces Monteviejo and Helene Garcin with Vignobles Garcin and Poesia and the Bonnie family of Chateau Malartic Lagraviere, are just some of the better-known producers from Bordeaux working with Malbec in the Mendoza region of Argentina.

Malbec is also planted to different levels of success in Chile, with plantings of more than 6,000 hectares of vines. Malbec is gaining footholds in Napa Valley, and Paso Robles in California, Washington state, Oregon, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada. In California, until Prohibition became law in the United States, Malbec was a popular grape that was often used to produce inexpensive jug wine.

By the time Prohibition was ended, very little Malbec remained planted in California. By the mid-1990s, Malbec began increasing in popularity. Plantings grew more than 700%, moving from about 1,000 acres to more than 7,000 acres today!