Malbec is one of the original five main Bordeaux wine 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 1700’s, 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.
Malbec was an important grape varietal in much of the southwest area of France, especially in Bordeaux, prior to the phylloxera epidemic. 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 1800’s. After the phylloxera epidemic, in Bordeaux, much of the vines devoted to Malbec were destroyed. Malbec 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 and with the large size of the berries had the propensity to produce dilute wines. The final fall from favor for Malbec in the Bordeaux region 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. However, even today, Malbec continues declining in popularity in Bordeaux.
Malbec is the star grape of Argentina. It is thought that the grape was first brought to Argentina in the 1850’s by Michel Pouget. 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 to reach its best expression. When ripe, it 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 plum and blackberry. 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 Patagonia and Rio Negro.
In France, Malbec produces a different expression than what is created in Argentina. This is important because the wines made in France are quite different than the wines produced in South America from Malbec. In France, Malbec is often more rustic and tannic, which is why in much of France, it’s 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. Malbec is now so popular, the grape has its own holiday, International Malbec Day, which is also known as World Malbec day 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.
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% and 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 uses 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 is in Pomerol at Chateau LEnclos. They devote close to 3% of their vineyards to Malbec. However, that is topped by Chateau Clos Rene, with 10% of their vineyard devoted to Malbec! 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 Theinpont 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 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 a wine from 100% Malbec!
Today at least 6 small Bordeaux producers actually hold the record for the percentage of the variety as they all produce wines from 100% Malbec: Chateau le Geai, Chateau Magdeleine Bouhou, Chateau Saint Suplice from from Pierre and Christophe Duberge which produces Cuvee Malbec, Chateau Tire Pe and Chateau Tour Birol with Hommage aux Roy plus Chateau Civrac, located in the Cotes de Bourg. All those estates produce Bordeaux wine made from 100% Malbec. All 6 of those wines are sold as generic AOC Bordeaux.
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 South West 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. 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 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, the 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 1990’s, Malbec began increasing in popularity. Plantings grew more than 700%, moving from about 1,000 acres to more than 7,000 acres today!