Today is World Malbec Day, known in Spanish as El Día Mundial del Malbec. Nowadays this deeply coloured, exuberant purple grape is so closely associated with Argentina that it comes as a bit of a surprise to find that it hails originally from…France. Known as Cot in its homeland – Cahors in southwest France – it was brought to South America by French agronomist Michel Pouget way back in 1852. But while Cot/Malbec continues to play a leading role in Cahors (in fact it’s enjoying something of a renaissance on Argentine Malbec’s coattails), it’s in the vineyards all along the eastern edge of the Andes that this distinctive vine variety has really found its feet: today there are over 30,000 hectares (76,000 acres) planted throughout Argentina – six times as much as in its original terroir.
The grape in its adopted home is celebrated for its ability to make huge quantities of juicy, fruity, uncomplicated red wine at a fair price – the kind of tipple that’s perfect for the upcoming barbecue season. But there’s a new wave of Malbecs that merit more than the obligatory char-grilled steak. On a recent visit to Mendoza and Salta, two of the country’s most significant wine regions, I found (aside from a warm welcome and some gorgeous wines) a buzz of excitement, plenty of experimentation and an unshakeable belief in what has become their signature red wine grape. And for every diehard Argentine wine drinker who regards anything but a full-blooded 100% varietal Malbec as a wine for wimps, there are plenty more who are coming round to the idea that careful and balanced blendings with other red grapes, notably the two Cabernets, have a bright future.
Edy Del Popolo has worked for the past 24 years for a number of top bodegas in the Uco Valley in Mendoza province, identifying, selecting and planting vineyards for them in the best sites. Del Popolo recently purchased 1.5 hectares (barely 4 acres) of his own in the sub-region of Gualtallary, a top appellation in the Valle de Uco south of Mendoza. Here his intimate knowledge of the local terroir gained over many years has served him well. In fact, he’s the ultimate ‘terroirist’, never happier than when digging deep trenches to study what’s going on below ground with a view to planting the most appropriate vines – in his case principally Malbec and Cabernet Franc, which he combines in varying proportions. The first harvest from his micro-winery, Per Se Vines, was in 2012. “I like non-interventionist viticulture”, he explains – “I want the place to express itself without my fingerprint showing.” Per Se Jubileus (mainly Malbec “with a few bunches of Cabernet Franc thrown in”) is a joyous wine with good ripe tannins while La Craie (a Malbec-Cab Franc blend) is all restrained elegance overlaid with subtle hints of orange and lemon zest.
Fincas y Bodegas Montechez is another new venture in Mendoza’s Valle de Uco, but on a totally different scale. Founded in 2005 by a group of businessmen-farmers, this is a huge estate with 100 hectares (250 acres) of vineyards, planted mainly with Malbec plus some Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay. Visiting with General Manager Juan Argerich, I marvelled at the eye-watering level of investment in the heart of the prime Altamira appellation. Serried ranks of vines , every row drip-irrigated and draped in anti-hail netting, stretching away as far as the eye can see and framed by the snow-capped Andes. The aptly named Vivo is a bright, lively Malbec, briefly aged in used French and American oak barrels and designed for early drinking; Reserva is discreet and elegant after a slightly longer spell in used barrels; and Limited Edition, with 16 months in all French oak (new and used), is the aristocrat, dark and brooding and promising a long and distinguished life.
The Lagarde estate in Luján de Cuyo a little south of Mendoza is bigger still, comprising some 245 hectares (619 acres) including a parcel of 100 year-old Malbec vines from which prized drops of juice are still coaxed. Founded in 1897 and thus one of the oldest wineries in Mendoza, it nonetheless looks resolutely forwards – “Honouring the past, imagining the future” is the house motto, explains Sofia Pescarmona (below), who runs the estate jointly with her sister Lucila. A pitch-perfect lunch in dappled shade in the winery courtyard opened with Viognier, the aromatic white grape from France’s Rhone which Lagarde is proud to have introduced to Argentina, elegant, dry and devoid of any of the clumsiness sometimes associated with the variety. The house pink, 50% Malbec and 50% Pinot Noir is a delight with all the fruit and fragrance that’s missing from many a rosé. On the Malbec front there’s a whole slew of juicy 100% varietals (Primeras Viñas, Guarda, Lagarde and Altas Cumbres ). For a special occasion, look out for their super-elegant blend Henry Gran Guarda, a very Bordelais blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. At the top of the range, their Malbec Primeras Viñas, made from the tiny quantities of fruit delivered by their oldest vines, is like an elegant lady of a certain age, elegant, discreetly perfumed and with great poise.
Some of the country’s most ambitious vineyards – and some of its most dramatic scenery – is to be found up in the northwestern province of Salta, which borders with both Chile and Bolivia. The drive up the bone-crunching dirt road from Molinos to Bodega Colomé, established in 1831 and now owned by the Hess Family Wine Estates, is an adventure in itself that involves splashing across shallow rivers and plunging through dusty canyons of pink sandstone. Wine-growing here at 2,300 meters (7,000 feet) above sea level in desert-like conditions with an annual rainfall of barely 120 millimeters (4 inches) is not for the fainthearted. Vineyard Manager Andrés Hoy shows me some of their oldest vines, planted in the mid-19th century and now impressively gnarled with trunks the size of elephants’ legs. Colomé produces several whites including Salta’s fragrant, crisp signature wine Torrontés, as well as three different Malbecs: Estate, a Malbec-rich wine with a small proportion of other red varieties; Auténtico, 100% Malbec, unoaked and unfiltered with rich red fruit flavours; and Reserva made with fruit from vines aged between 60 and 150 years old, with a 2-year spell in new French oak barrels and one more in bottle.
Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya is a boutique winery in Salta’s Calchaquí Valley, a joint venture between the Etchart family and French winemaker Michel Rolland. The estate’s 20 hectares (50 acres) used to be planted largely with Torrontés, the finely aromatic white grape (pictured below) that thrives in the rarefied altitudes of the northwest; nowadays Malbec rules, plus Cabernet Sauvignon and a little Tannat. Ranked by Wine Advocate as one of Argentina’s top 5 wineries (Parker points abound here), they make 3 impressive reds in which the Rolland fingerprint is clearly visible: opulent and mouthfilling Malbec Yacochuya has a little Cabernet Sauvignon added to the mix and is aged in new oak; San Pedro de Yacochuya is a dense and delicious 100% Malbec; and the impressive Yacochuya made from 60 year-old Malbec vines is one to cellar.
Last stop was Bodega Tukma in Tolombón south of Cafayate, where José Louis Mounier, one of Salta’s most celebrated winemakers with an impressive track record working for many of the region’s top wineries, is responsible for winemaking. The estate has around 25 hectares (62 acres) of vineyards scattered throughout the Calchaquí Valley, with red wine production centred on Tolombón. Their entry-level Malbec Reserva is an uncomplicated, fruit-forward Malbec that’s perfect with a plate of empanadas, while Gran Corte, a blend with Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon for which the grapes are rigorously selected and the wine aged for 1 year in new French oak, calls for your best bit of bife.
Consult www.wine-searcher.com for worldwide availability and prices of all wines mentioned.
[A version of this article first appeared on www.zesterdaily.com]