Malbec: another European immigrant in Argentina
How the Malbec grape survived in the New World
Welcome Avatar! What better moment to talk about wine now that we’re on the verge of Sober October in the Jungle? We still have 2 weeks in September, so this article shouldn’t hit any nerves for Jungle members that adhere to the zero alcohol challenge next month. Let’s dive into the history of this emblematic grape in Argentina.
Malbec - a short history
For the origins of the Malbec grape we have to head back to the Old World, since there were no grapes originally in the Americas.
First mentions appear around 1150 AC, when French Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine married King Henry II of England. This promoted trade between the two countries, and Malbec (called Cahors after the French region), spread to the British isles.
England began to frequently import wines from Cahors, until the year 1337, when Europeans started doing what they do best: wage war. Although it maintained its good name, Malbec from the south-west of France began to falter in England.
In the next couple of centuries, France favored exports in the rest of the European continent and much later after the Spanish and Portuguese had planted their flags in the Americas, to the United States.
The rise and popularity of Malbec seemed to be unstoppable until the dawn of the 19th century, when Malbec got rugged and Cahors wine ceased to be prestigious.
The reasons for the resounding fall in popularity were several. In the first place, the winemakers of Bordeaux made a fantastic lobby effort to take over the most important foreign markets.
Secondly, wine growers turned to other grape varieties that gave better results in their terroirs. This is how the Merlot and the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes gained in importance, and Malbec slowly disappeared from the scene in Europe.
The Malbec Pandemic - almost NGMI
The most important reason for its downfall during this time however, was that the Malbec grape was almost wiped off the face of the earth by the disastrous phylloxera plague.
This bug almost single handedly destroyed most European vineyards. In particular, the Malbec vineyards were severely damaged, to the point of extinction.
There is still no cure for this louse btw, so this might be one of the reasons why wine producing countries like Chile and Argentina are so obsessed about not allowing any fresh foreign agriculture product into their countries.
In this way, Malbec, once the protagonist, was largely relegated and became a supporting actor on the international scene.
In 1840, Malbec arrived in Chile, along with other varieties of grapes and high-level French specialists.
President Domingo Sarmiento, the Argentine president at the time, was a man of imports, especially from Europe. He imported immigrants, grapes, and buildings. In 1853 Malbec was introduced in Argentina by Michel Aimé Pouget at the Quinta Agronomica de Mendoza, after a request by Sarmiento himself.
Pouget noted that the Malbec grape adapted particularly well to the Mendoza terroirs, and that its results were superior to those obtained in France.
Its expansion in the local vineyards was unstoppable, growing year after year its volume in relation to the total planted area.
Halfway through the 20th century around 1956, another disaster struck in Bordeaux, when frost killed off 75% of the Malbec crop. From then on, its expansion in the Argentine vineyards has been unstoppable.
During different economic crises Argentina suffered in the 20th century, some Malbec vineyards were uprooted to make room for the Criolla Grande and other national varieties.
However, the grape was rediscovered at the end of the 20th century and the Argentine wine industry focused on the production of premium wines for export.
Malbec is the most exported wine in Argentina by a long shot, bringing in 500M+ revenue on an annual basis. It is also the most widespread and produced variety in Argentina.
With 46,366 hectares planted in Argentina, Malbec represents 23.8% of the total cultivated (processing) in the country and 40.3% of the surface of red grapes, being by far the most extensively cultivated variety, having increased its surface by 168% in the last 20 years (period 2001 - 2021).
The province of Mendoza leads the ranking chart above with the largest surface area planted, with 84.6% (39,248 hectares), followed by San Juan with 2,917 ha (6.3%) and Salta with 1,647 ha (3.5%).
These regions produce excellent wines, and some of my personal favorites with more “body” come from the Salta / Cafayate region, at a much higher altitude than the Mendoza vineyard (the highest bodega in the world in Salta is located at 3,000m+ above sea level). This gives the grapes a more intense sun exposure during the day, while cooling off quicker at night, which produce a more intense taste in the Malbec grapes.
Autist note: if you like road trips, doing a round trip from Salta down to Mendoza and back over the Ruta 40 is highly recommended. You will come across Colomé, the highest bodega in the world mentioned earlier, and many more bodegas worth visiting. Also, the scenery along every mile along the way is absolutely stunning. More info on road trips in Argentina and neighboring countries here.
These districts are located at the foot of the Andes, between 800 and 1500 meter above sea level.
In the province of Salta in Northwest Argentina, you can find the highest vineyards in the world where Malbec (and other grapes) are produced as we’ve seen above.
In terms of active Malbec vineyards in other countries, Chile has about 6,000 hectares planted, France 5,300 and in the coldest regions of California there are only 45 hectares. Australia and South Africa also grow some Malbec, but their production is negligible in comparison.
In 2021, Argentine Malbec reached at least 122 countries, making it the most exported variety by far.
The United States is at the forefront of Malbec exports with 372,188 hl exported, followed by the United Kingdom (221,470 hl), Brazil (128,749 hl), Canada (83,489 hl), Mexico (44,535), the Netherlands (34,921) and China (26,654 hl).
Argentine Malbec vines differ from the original French ones in the sense that they produce smaller fruits in smaller, tighter clusters.
This suggests that the plants imported by Pouget and by later French immigrants were a unique clone that may have become extinct in France due to frost and the phylloxera epidemic.
Argentine Malbec wine is characterized by its dark color and its intense and fruity flavors like plum, with a velvety texture.
Although it does not have the tannic structure of a French Malbec, the texture tends to be smoother. Argentine Malbec wines have great aging potential similar to French wines.
One more fact. The name Malbec derives from the Hungarian nurseryman Malbeck, one of the first to identify and expand it in Cahors.
The name Malbek was deformed, replacing the "k" with the "c", possibly alluding to a similar word in French that means "bad peak", as a result of the harsh and bitter taste that this grape gave in that region.
Personal note: I will be adhering to Sober October, so no Malbec for me next month.
See you in the jungle, frens!
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