Malbec’s journey, from the vineyards of South-West France to the Argentinean desert
April 17 is Malbec World Day
Like all great destinies, Malbec’s path has been circuitous. Its cradle lies in the ancient province of Quercy, in South-West France, with the town of Cahors at its centre. Here, it would forge a strong reputation for itself, finding favour with history’s illustrious figures, among them Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry III, who referred to it as the “black wine” due to its opaque hue. The locals call it Cot and by law, it must account for at least 70% of the blend for AOC Cahors wines. It lends its name to the Cot family of grape varieties hailing from South-West France and renowned for their abundant pigmentation and polyphenols. Malbec’s family tree reveals it to be the son of Prunelard and Magdeleine noire from Charentes, the half-brother of Merlot and a cousin to Tannat and Négrette. After spreading to a number of wine regions, like Bordeaux – where at one point it was the predominant varietal in Côtes de Bourg and Blaye blends – its hour of glory would wane from the 19th century onwards, in favour of less fickle varieties that were not as susceptible to the vagaries of the weather. Bordeaux, which reached a peak of 5,000 hectares of Malbec in the 1960s, was subsequently home to fewer than 1,000 hectares. The fatal blow was delivered with the arrival of phylloxera in Cahors where the 40,000 hectares of Cot were decimated in just a few years. Now destitute in its homeland, an opportunity would arise in 1840 in Chile, where it had taken up residence at the school of agriculture headed by Michel Aimé Pouget. The agricultural engineer himself was forced into exile following Napoleon III’s coup d’état. Then in 1853, he was commissioned by the Argentinean President, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, to set up the Mendoza agricultural college – the Quinta Normal de Agricultura – where he established a range of French grape varieties, including Malbec. The French varietal’s immediate and exemplary adjustment to Argentina’s soils and climate instantly made it a firm favourite and it subsequently spread throughout the country, from the highlands of Salta down to Patagonia, dominating plantings from the turn of the 20th century. An early-ripening cultivar, highly sensitive to damp conditions, it thrived on Argentina’s dry ambient weather and sunshine. It had found its Promised Land and continued to gain traction at a rate of knots, rising to 58,600 hectares in 1962, before the country was plunged into recession and Malbec once again fell by the wayside. When Argentina re-emerged in the 1990s, the varietal was but a shadow of its former self, covering just 10,500 hectares, but true to character it soon picked up again. Once the country’s trade links had been re-established in the 2000s, its export growth was continuous, fuelled by its instant appeal worldwide. Foreign investments too, stoked by the country’s currency devaluation, drove its return to prominence. Its success stems from its charming style: its beautiful brooding palate; its dense velvety, silky texture; its majestic tannin structure; and its flavours of plum, black berry fruits, spices and violet. Malbec is multi-faceted and depending on where it is grown and the winemaking techniques utilised, it can be juicy and simple, or seriously structured and lingering with remarkable ageability. It currently covers 31,000 hectares and Mendoza is its favourite playground, accounting for 85% (26,600 ha) of Argentina’s plantings, followed by San Juan and Patagonia. Malbec now boasts its own world day, April 17, to mark the date in 1853 when the Quinta Normal de Agricultura in Mendoza was established, and the varietal began its felicitous journey South.