Vino 101: Argentinean Malbec


Argentina’s Malbec, From Rags To Richesmendoza-vineyard-wine-tour

When French engineer Michel Pouget planted Malbec vines in Argentinian soil in 1868, he had no idea that his simple deed would eventually transform the variety into one of the cultural icons of his adoptive home country. One hundred and forty years later, Malbec is on a firm path to earn a place in the pantheon of things Argentinean.

Argentina’s cultural landmarks are easily recognized across the globe. Maradona, the soccer genius given to tantrums and extravagance. Tango, the dance that has imprinted the world’s psyche with its overtones of passion and romanticism. Evita, former President Peron’s lover and wife, whose destitute, later powerful—and finally tragic—fate, has inspired novels, plays, operas and films. Apparently, the South American nation is not done with producing such icons: today, Malbec is synonymous with fine wine from Argentina.

Although widely planted in France, where it merited close to sixty names—many associated with its dark complexion—the grape’s standing took a nosedive when in 1956 a frost killed 75% of the Bordeaux crop. Malbec does not handle frosts too well and it is also very susceptible to rot and mildew, which makes for a troublesome cultivar in its motherland. Uneasy vineyard owners pushed Malbec to the back seat in favor of more robust lineages of Vitis vinifera, like Cabernet and Merlot. While it withered in France, Malbec thrived in the dry, warm, sun drenched conditions of Mendoza, the premier wine region of Argentina.

Traditionally, Argentinean winemakers made Malbec into lower quality, mass consumption products intended to satisfy the needs of the internal market. And this was a demand of gargantuan proportions: being descendants of immigrants of Italian and Spanish origin, Argentinians have been known to drink up to ninety liters per capita a year. Only within the last decade and a half have winemakers concentrated on increasing quality rather than quantity, and the results are becoming apparent. Exports are booming, and Mendoza is changing quickly from the sleepy Andean town that it used to be into the exciting wine capital of the Americas.

Good Malbec from Mendoza displays a palette of dark ruby tones. It is fruity on the nose (with a predominance of plum and ripe cherry), medium- to full-bodied and generally boldly oaked. Mendoza is producing ever more quality wines, many of them with a reasonable price tag. But as the push for quality is relatively new, it is not hard to come across unbalanced wines, while others are excessively oaked. There is plenty of room for improvement and, for the moment, in the Argentinean industry, quantity still has the upper hand over quality.

In North America, a few wineries are getting a firm footing with Malbec, among them, Catena, Altos Las Hormigas, Luigi Bosca and Benegas, all of them priced between $15 and $30 CDN. In the higher price bracket, Dona Paula and Achaval Ferrer deliver the varietal’s full potential. For those who are looking for a good budget wine, Los Primos, Pascual Tosso and La Puerta are excellent choices.

Mendoza’s Malbec is here to stay, and the story of the underdog that today enjoys a global reputation is a great tribute to the ingenuity of the Argentinian winemakers and to the qualities of the variety that someone once called “the failed grape.”

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