Get acquainted with malbec

TWO ARGENTINE WINES: the complex high-altitude Colome Authentico Malbec from Salta, and the price-friendly Gato Negro entry-level fruity Malbec.

MALBEC is one of most underrated red wine varietals in the world.

It is absolutely one of my favorite mono-varietal wines of all time, same as I adore mono-varietal Nebbiolo from Barolo and mono-varietal Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero and Rioja. I am just surprised Malbec is not as popular a red wine as it should be. Let me express my opinion on this varietal below.

The Bordeaux Connection Malbec — known way back as either Auxerrois or Côt (which is still the varietal name used in the Loire region, in the Touraine AOC) — has been a regular fixture in the Bordeaux red blend, especially in the 19th century leading up the creation of the sacred Bordeaux Grand Cru Wine Classification of 1855. Unfortunately, the phylloxera epidemic from the 1850s to 1880s, and then the severe frost of 1956, practically wiped out this grape varietal in the region. Most, if not all the Grand Cru classified Medoc wines had malbec in their blend during the crucial classification stages, making malbec a true noble varietal.

Malbec was and is still one of five grape varietals allowed in a Bordeaux red blend, which include the omnipresent cabernet sauvignon and merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. The previously allowed 6th varietal in Bordeaux, carmenere, found its way to Chile, in a similar way to how malbec found its way to Argentina also in 1850s, with both South American countries literally saving these two historical varietal grapes from possible extinction. Right now, roughly 75% of all malbec vineyards are in Argentina.

HOW MALBEC REACHED ARGENTINAGifted agronomist Michel Aimé Pouget probably wasn’t expecting that his defection to South America following Napoleon III proclaiming himself Emperor of France in 1852 would turn the inevitable irrelevance of malbec into a huge resurgence.

In 1853, Argentinean President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento commissioned Pouget to lead the Mendoza agricultural college, Quinta Normal de Agricultura, where he initiated the planting of French malbec in Argentine vineyards. Pouget was right about his theory that the malbec varietal would be suitable to grow in the warmer climate Argentina offers. Since then, Argentina never faltered on its way to becoming the most important wine country when it comes to producing Malbec wines.

The beauty of Argentine malbec is that this varietal grows and adapts to multiple terroir and growing conditions from north to south of the country, even if the large wine region of Mendoza produces over 80% of the varietal. Mendoza itself has three major subregions, namely: Maipu, Lujan de Cuyo, and the Uco Valley.

Then there are malbecs you can fßind in Argentina’s southernmost wine region of Patagonia, and my favorite Malbec region of Salta, in the northwest part of the country, where the highest vineyards can be found over 3,000 meters above sea-level.

Sherwin A. Lao is the first Filipino wine writer to be a member of both the Bordeaux-based Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux (FIJEV) and the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers (CWW). For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, wine consultancy and other wine related concerns, e-mail the author at wineprotege@gmail.com, or check his wine training website https://thewinetrainingcamp.wordpress.com/services

RENAISSANCE OF CAHORS AOCCahors AOC in southwestern France is where malbec is said to have originated. While its being used as a blended varietal in Bordeaux got vignerons interested, it was the immense commercial success that Argentina had with this varietal that got the Cahors AOC wine region back onto the wine map.

Many in Cahors still call their Malbec as Auxerrois or Côt Noir. The Cahors AOC requires a minimum of 70% of their wine to be made with malbec, and you can encounter several Cahors wines either using 90% or even 100% malbec. The other allowed red varietals (in small percentages) are tannat and merlot.

Interesting enough, tannat is another varietal from southwestern France (from Madiran AOC) that made its way to South America, this time to Uruguay, where it is considered their adopted national grape.

Cahors wines, especially those made with an overwhelming majority of malbec, are more rustic, herbaceous, and tannic, with fuller body and darker hues than their Argentine counterparts.

MALBEC’S VERSATILITY, PRICE-FRIENDLINESS AND FOOD-PAIRINGMalbec is one of the most versatile red wines ever, as you can have it medium-bodied and fruit-driven, or you can have it viscous, full-bodied, and complex. Malbec can also do well without oak-aging because it has inherent phenolics coming from its pulp, skin, seeds, and stems that other varietals need oak to possess.

Malbec’s natural alluring aromatics, plummy flavors, not-too-dry taste, and juicy palate, together with its gorgeous dark purple color, even in an entry-level Argentine wine, are already quite delectable.

The expensive Malbecs, given the more concentrated yields and extra oak-aging, have extra body and complexity for lingering luscious finishes.

Malbec prices are also quite reasonable as you can get an entry-level Argentine Malbec at less than P500/bottle. For more expensive Uco Valley or Salta region wines, prices can go up to a few thousand pesos, with icon wines like the Colome Altura Maxima Malbec (from the highest vineyard in Argentina) fetching P5,000/bottle.

Not surprisingly considering Argentina’s meat-heavy diet, Malbec pairs extremely well with all kinds of meat, notably with BBQ (Argentine asado). The flavor profile of Malbec extends to food with umami flavors like Japanese teriyaki dishes, Japanese unagi, Korean beef bulgogi, Chinese sweet and sour pork, and even our very own Filipino sweet-style spaghetti.

And of course, on their own, the unoaked Malbecs are already quite quaffable and enjoyable.

In conclusion, I hope we can add Malbec to our red varietal choices when we shop for wines. Move aside popular varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Shiraz, and make room for Malbec. Oh, and there is also such a thing as Malbec Day created by the Interprofessional Wine Union of Cahors (UIVC) and Wines of Argentina that is celebrated annually on April 17.

Try a Malbec soon and let me know your thoughts.

Sherwin A. Lao s the first Filipino wine writer to be a member of both the Bordeaux-based Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux (FIJEV) and the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers (CWW). For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, wine consultancy and other wine related concerns, e-mail the author at wineprotege@gmail.com, or check his wine training website https://thewinetrainingcamp.wordpress.com/services