Ahh, Malbec, one of the most recognized grape varieties used in quality wines in South America. As we take today to celebrate Malbec World Day with a glass or two of our favorite malbecs, we caught up with Coravin Guest Contributor Jacqueline Coleman for a history lesson on this grape that got its start in France.
Arguably the prized gem of Argentine winemaking, Malbec has come a long way from its origins in France to become one of the most recognized grape varieties in the production of quality wines in South America. As we celebrate Malbec World Day each year on April 17th, it’s a good time to reflect on the remarkable history of the grape born in France that has won a place in the cultural heritage of Argentina and in the hearts of wine drinkers around the globe.
Humble French Beginnings
Malbec, or Côt Noir as it is also known in its primary French growing region of Cahors, is a thick-skinned grape that tends to make dark, inky-purple, full-bodied red wines regardless of the region where it’s produced. Though most often associated with Argentina in modern winemaking, Malbec is not a native grape to the South American continent. Originally one of the approved six red grape varieties allowed in a Bordeaux blend, Malbec lost popularity in that region after a major frost during the 1956 growing season decimated more than 75 percent of the crop that year.
If we dig a little deeper into Malbec’s history, it is claimed that Côt originated in the northern areas of Burgundy but found favor in the vineyards of Bordeaux and in the Southwest French region of Cahors, which is often thought of as the historic and spiritual home of Malbec and where it is still one of the main red grape varieties as a single varietal and in quality blends. It was in the mid-19th century that Malbec was brought over to Argentina as a way to boost the national wine industry there. Because Malbec demands a large amount of sun and heat to grow to perfect ripeness, the high altitude and intense sun exposure of in the Argentine growing regions surrounding the Andes made it a prime location for Malbec to express itself in its most perfect form. Some may say that Malbec simply found a more favorable home in the warmer winemaking regions of Argentina.
Malbec in Argentina
What are the differences between Malbec in France and its more modern iteration in Argentina? Most of it comes down to the strong tannins of the French version versus the fruitiness found in Argentine Malbecs. In Argentina, Malbec has evolved into a rich, full-bodied and silky fruit-forward version of itself compared to the more terroir-driven style of its French native land. As the country’s flagship grape, it is now planted more by acreage in Argentina than in any other country in the world, and growers have successfully harvested the grape across the country from the northern winegrowing regions of Salta down to Patagonia along the Andes Mountains. However, Mendoza still reigns king as the top-producing region for Malbec in the country, followed by San Juan and Salta.
A Global Day of Malbec
In 2011, Wines of Argentina, an organization tasked with promoting the industry, established April 17th as Malbec World Day or “Día Mundial del Malbec,” and the government of Argentina has continued to support their efforts each year as the world celebrates Malbec. April 17th was chosen as the day to celebrate this grape because this was the day in 1853 that a bill was submitted to the Provincial Legislature of Mendoza for the foundation of a Quinta Normal and a School of Agriculture to begin cultivation of the grape that would put Argentina on the map as a major wine-growing country.
Though its origins may be in France, Malbec is very much an international varietal with a strong economic and emotional connection to Argentina. However, the prized agricultural gem of Argentina can still be celebrated each April by digging deeper into the French “roots” of Malbec wine.
What’s your favorite Malbec? Share with us in the comments, or, tell us over social media by tagging Jacqueline Coleman (@historyandwine) and us (@Coravin) across all channels!