There are some varietals that are classic. They travelled well to adapt what nature provided and blossomed successfully to create a new mark and identity. Then they travelled further to reach our palates, impressing us with their dynamic shades and personalities, provoking new thought and emotion. And then there are varietals that required revivals through various Plan Bs to make a consolidated mark on our memories and the wine lists we praise. Nature came harsh upon them at times, economies, wars, and politics handicapped their progress and dented their sheen, and our ever-evolving palates somewhat disowned them on the way for others. One such varietal is Malbec and it has had its share of rocky roads. Seldom a strange look wouldn’t dawn on a vino’s face when asked about Malbec in the late-1990s. However, it has come a long way since then, and today it’s not only a requisite for any praiseworthy wine-list anywhere in the world, it’s amongst the sommeliers’ favourites to fill their wine enthusiasts’ cups with consistency.
It was born in the heartland of Bordeaux, and was well nurtured for long, where it was originally called Cot and Pressac. It flourished even proudly in the neighbouring Libourne and South-Western regions. However, the consecutive catastrophes of Phylloxera and Mildew between 1850 and 1880 caused economical droughts for the wine-growers and they were forced to restrict the array of varietals that once filled their vineyards to a few. Relying on the top performers and price-fetchers, settling for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc seemed sensible. Malbec lost a major fraction of its acreage then. And the remainder was lost when this thin-skinned, rot-prone varietal miserably failed the test of the famous 1956 frost in Bordeaux. It wasn’t completely wiped out of its birthplace yet though. It survived in the drylands of Cahors, not far from Bordeaux but definitely drier and virgin from the ideal of the ocean’s diurnal effects. It was the star in Cahors and still is with minimum of 70% to achieve the Cahors AOP denomination. As called by the Britishers, these ‘black wines’ boast masculinity in their tannin-rich, spicy liquid, and often require mellowing with Merlot and Tannat coming to assist. Auxxerois is what the locals call it here.
Malbec had learnt its lessons on its way. Play of nature’s aggression is not what it can withstand, survive, and triumph competently After losing its appeal and importance in France, it now seeked a foreign haven. It was looking for the vastness where it could enjoy its sunbathing hours, which are considerably more than the thick-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. These hot pastures would also guarantee ripe tannins, at the cost of its balancing acidity however. Thus, the virgin high-rising hills of South America were congenial for the varietal and it backpacked its way happily to Argentina to find its true spirit.
Clonal selection is of key importance with Malbec as it may pose a challenge otherwise fitting with the change in soil, weather conditions, and other indices. Grafting over over-productive roots in Bordeaux in early 1900s was another factor that lead to its fatal demise. Bearing that in mind, in 1853, Argentina saw the arrival of a strain called, well, ‘Malbec Argentino’. It was a stable, higher quality clone than the one used in Bordeaux at the time. Over a short period of time, it overtook Criolla Grande and Cereza to become country’s most planted varietal for bottled table wines. The idea was to replace jug wines made from these existing varietals and put in place a formidable local identity that would not only mark the rise of clean, varietal-driven, quality produce, but also of Argentinian wines and their potential to the world. Mendoza’s vineyards of Lujan de Cuyo, neighbouring the Andes Mountains, attracted the varietal and there started a spree of new-age winemaking that leaned on Malbec and allowed it to display its true potential. Cold nights at high altitude ensured long growing season, extra phenolic and flavour ripeness, without loosing its acidity. Paucity of rain also ensured minimalistic rot in the region, the most prominent threat to the varietal usually. Ample supple tannins, with balancing mouthwatering acidity, and a palate filled with ripe dark fruits, blackberries, dark cherries, milk chocolate, damsons, and tobacco leaf that are supported often with a mix of oak is a framework that Mendoza’s delectable drops promise today. Better wines are said to come from 1000 meters altitude and above as they display elegance and finesse. Those sourced from the lower vineyards are bitterly batted for jamminess, and lack of structure, leaning towards flabby mouthfeel owing to the lack of acidity. Malbec admirers cannot do without Malbec, and it’s quasi-sacrilegious to not have Mendozian drops in the mix. Thanks to such highly regarded phenomenon, approximately 75% of the Argentine acreage is now under Malbec, and it doesn’t seem troublesome at all.
Sudden rise in Malbec’s demand and acceptance by global palates in the recent past has lured foreign interest and investments in Argentina. Giants like Michele Rolland (Clos de los Siete), Donald Hess (Colome and Amalaya), and renowned wineries like Chateau Cheval Blanc (Cheval des Andes), Lafite Rothschild (CaRo), LVMH (Terrazas de los Andes), and Montes (Kaiken) are some of the investors here, not of plain money, but trust and confidence. They stand testimony to the promise of the rocky infertile soils of the dramatic Andes and the potential Malbec easily showcases on it. Thanks to such brands the shyness towards paying big bucks for Argentine wines has vanished. They’ve also elevated Malbec and made it travel internationally, although with limited success, to Chile, United States, Australia, New Zealand, and India.
Some of the Cahors pioneers like Chateau Lagrezette, Chateau de Haute-Serre, Chateau de Cayrou, and Chateau de Cedre, are to thank to keep the varietal alive. And those Argentine like Bodega Catena Zapata, Alta Vista, and Norton for aiding it regather from its scarred sheen.
As the world celebrated its 6th edition of World Malbec Day on 17th April, it not only rejoices the varietal’s gentle nectar and various shades, but also its journey so far. Humbled from its rise and fall, and eventual triumph in a new avatar to become an integral part of our daily doses, Malbec preaches a lesson of determination and passion in its every sip. To that and the future it holds, SITP raises its glasses, and says Salud!!