South American Malbecs

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The Next Big Thing - from Bon Appetite

"Malbecs generally have power and straightforward charm rather than finesse and subtlety - which makes them great wines to drink with steak. Beef is, after all, Argentina's favorite food, so it makes perfect sense that the nation's best red wines are crafted to go with the simple, hearty flavors of grilled meats."

Malbec - Another ripe, lush black grape variety, once popular in Bordeaux as a component but gaining a modern stronghold in Argentina and Chile. Malbec is also used as a blending grape, and at times, in varietally labeled bottlings in the U.S. It's rich inky color and fat and juicy personality mean that it's brilliant when served with dishes where the juiciness has been stripped out (more medium well done preparations of red meat, stews and such). The deep legendary wine of Cahors, made from Malbec, is traditional with such rib sticking dishes as cassoulet.

Malbec: Old Grape, New Continent by Jonathon Alsop October 2000

Unknown, unloved, unappreciated, underused, ignored... this pretty much sums up the attitude of winemakers toward a red grape from western France called malbec. Over the last 25 years or so, this hardy grape has lived something of the ultimate immigrant success story, flourishing in South America while simultaneously declining in importance and respect at home in Europe. Today, malbec has found a new home in Argentina (and Chile, to a lesser degree) where it is slowly but surely getting the love it deserves while kicking some serious bung in the marketplace.

One of the factors contributing to the decline of malbec in the old world is its nomenclature: malbec is called by so many different names in France that its names have come to mean almost nothing there. The Oxford Companion to Wine cites a list of nearly 400 synonyms for the grape (cot being the most popular) which points to how widespread malbec must once have been.

Growing side by side with the rightly famous cabernet sauvignon and merlot, however, malbec doesn't stand a chance. These days, used as a minor blending grape in some red Bordeaux wines, it is grown principally in the Cahors region south of Bordeaux. Malbec is still there, but it is a memory, while the future is 10,000 miles away in Argentina.

Ironically enough, Argentina gave up on malbec in the 1980s and actually initiated a "vine pull" program till only 10,000 acres of the grape were left. Just as they finished the job, the potential of malbec became obvious with the growth of wine exports from South America in the 1990s. Winemakers were left pining for every acre of malbec they'd yanked up and planted with still-immature grapes of the moment.

In South America, malbec achieves a ripeness and richness completely unlike its old self. It generally comes out deep and dark in color, almost inky sometimes, which is not a surprise. But the tannins are plenty but velvety, and flavors of ripe plum and berry is typical.

More than 25,000 acres are in production now, mostly new plantings just coming of age. Malbec's new world persona is reminiscent of California merlot: strong on fruit and structure, amenable to barrel fermenting and oak aging, enough tannin to let you know you've tasted something real, but smooth and user-friendly at the same time. The skeleton of South American malbec is red Bordeaux in style, but the dominating flavors are chocolate and raspberry instead of earth and autumn leaves.

In short, malbec is the next merlot, a serious red wine that's round, smooth on the tongue, and easy to love. South American wines are under-valued anyway (good for us!), and malbec represents a tremendous bargain in the US right now.


Not many Americans think of Argentina as a large wine producing country, but it has a very long history of making "vino" and there are nearly half a million acres of vineyards down there! While Chilean wines have become popular here, largely due to low prices, Argentina remains relatively unknown. This anonymity means, at least for the time being, some fertile grounds for value-conscious consumers.

The first vines went into Argentina's soil, cuttings being brought from Spain, around the middle of the 1500s. An influx of Italian and Spanish helped promote the growth of vineyards in Argentina. In 1853 the first agricultural school was set up and its director, a Frenchman, introduced French grape varieties and new viticultural techniques.

A real turning point was in the 1880s, seeing the construction of waterways, bringing much-needed water to the deserts of Argentina and allowing for agriculture in previously arid lands.

There are four major wine regions in Argentina: Mendoza, San Juan, La Rioja (nothing to do with Spain's region of the same name) and Rio Negro. By far the most important, at least presently, is Mendoza. This region produces something like 70% of the wine in Argentina.