75. GRAPE VARIETIES – Number 25: Malbec
Malbec has taken the wine world by surprise. If you had asked any winemaker in 1985 if they thought that Malbec would be so popular in 2015, none of them would have said yes. In fact, Jancis Robinson's book Vines, Grapes and Wines, first published in 1986, doesn't classify it as a "Classic Variety", or a "Major Variety" - you will not even find it listed under Malbec, but under Cot (another name for it, used in the Loire), in the section for "Other Varieties".
Malbec started life in France, being widely planted in Bordeaux as a component in claret. However, after a severe and widespread frost in Bordeaux in 1956, which killed many Malbec vines, they were replaced with other varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which were more fashionable and produced better quantities of fruit more reliably – it is very susceptible to coulure, poor fruit-set, where the small berries fall off soon after flowering. It is still to be found, however, in the less important parts of Bordeaux such as Entre Deux Mers and Bourg and Blaye. Its reputation in Bordeaux is not good, where it seems to produce "a sort of watered-down rustic version of Merlot" (Jancis Robinson). Malbec famously also produced the "black wine" of Cahors. And it is to be found all over south-west France, and in the Loire. But France is not in love with the variety, and plantings throughout the country have declined over the last half-century.
Step up Argentina! Malbec flourishes in Argentina. The vine seems particularly well-suited to the growing conditions there, and in recent years production has gone from strength to strength. There are now many serious and very delicious Malbecs being produced – more concentrated, more elegant (though still with an attractive touch of rusticity), showing flavours of mulberry and elderberry. They are deep in colour, rich in alcohol, soft, with unaggressive tannins, and, if grown at altitude, with a refreshing acidity. In fact, this seems to be the key to top quality Malbec: it needs the cooler climate of higher altitudes to give it vital freshness.
Malbec is also grown widely in Chile, and to a limited extent in the U.S.A., Australia and Italy.
One wonders if the French, seeing the success that the Argentines are having, might start reviving an interest in the variety. Already some heavyweight investors have been buying up properties in Cahors and offering their wine at ambitious prices.