Wine for winter: picking the perfect malbec

Born in France and made famous by Argentina, malbec is a wine whose star is still on the rise. Here's what you need to know about its production.

By Fiona Beckett
Published 17 Dec 2020, 08:00 GMT, Updated 8 Dec 2021, 15:39 GMT
Grape harvest in Argentina

Although it has its origins in France, malbec is often associated with Argentina, where the high altitude and semi-arid desert conditions of Mendoza are an ideal terroir for the grape. 

Photograph by Getty Images

One of the first wines to capture my imagination was cahors, from southwest France, where it’s known as ‘black wine’ because of the intensity of its colour. It seems a shame, therefore, that there’s now a tendency for producers from the region to put the name of the grape front and centre on their labels, rather than that of the region. The reason? Cahors wines must have a minimum of 70% malbec, and they’re hoping to capitalise on the grape’s growing popularity.

Despite the malbec grape being native to this part of France and having a long history in local winemaking, it’s primarily associated with Argentina, the world’s biggest exporter of malbec wine. The variety found in the South American country — to which malbec cuttings were imported, via Chile, in the mid-1800s — comes from stock that predates phylloxera, a blight that decimated French vineyards later that century, and from slightly different clones than those still prevalent in its homeland.

The high altitude and semi-arid desert conditions of Mendoza, where most of Argentina’s grapes are grown, act as an ideal terroir for the grape — and the reliable combination of perfect ripeness and supple tannins has made Argentinian malbec one of the most popular reds on the market. It’s produced in other parts of South America, too: over the border in Chile, for example, and in Peru (for a fresh, fragrant taste from Peru’s Ica Valley, try Santiago Quierolo’s Intipalka Valle del Sol Malbec 2018, sold by Corney & Barrow). And while there are malbec producers elsewhere in the world, including South Africa and Australia, the grape’s other main growing region is still France, where it’s also known as auxerrois or côt noir.

In Bordeaux, malbec is mainly used as a blending component, although it’s increasingly bottled on its own. The grape thrives further south, too, with producers in the Languedoc region creating wines in a fresher, juicier style (Martinfort Malbec 2018, from Shropshire-based Tanners, is very easy-drinking). 

These days, it’s not uncommon for French winemakers to take advantage of Argentina’s near-perfect weather conditions (by teaming up with South American producers or launching their own overseas operations) in order to produce malbecs with more finesse than could be achieved back home. Château Lafite Rothschild, for example, has joined forces with top producer Nicolás Catena Zapata to run the Bodegas CARO winery, and luxury brand LVMH (owner of Moët & Chandon) has established the Bodegas Chandon wine estate.

Master of Wine Tim Atkin, who authors an annual guide to Argentinian wines, claims “the best is yet to come” for the country’s reds. And with this high acclaim in mind, it might be best to stock up on malbec while it’s still affordable.

Published in Issue 10 (winter 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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