Writing about gauchos these past two weeks has us thinking about malbec.

But where does this quintessential Argentine grape come from?

For that we return to our essay from earlier this year, about M. Malbeck and the origin of the “black wine.”

More on that in a moment. But first, how much can you tell about a wine from its bottle?

This week, resident wine expert Julien Miquel goes through the most important bottle shapes… why the British are to blame for the most common styles… how to guess a wine you’ll like from its bottle… and a look at some unusual regional shapes and colors…

Monsieur Malbeck, revisited (continued)

What is malbec?

Vin de Cahors? Auxerrois? Côt? Black wine?

Trying to trace malbec back to its early origins in France is more an exercise in etymology than history. They say it once grew in Cahors, in southwestern France just north of Toulouse. Whence the name, vin de Cahors. They called the grape côt, sometimes côt noir for the wine’s dark color, and sometimes Auxerrois, a strange name given that Auxerre lies on the northern fringe of Bourgogne where pinot noir and chardonnay dominate. One struggles to imagine malbec growing there.

Is it a southwestern grape? A northern grape? Or a Bordeaux grape?

Credit: Google Earth

During the middle ages wine from Cahors had a strong brand in the name “black wine.” It was enjoyed by kings, popes, and tsars.

But wait – isn’t malbec a Bordeaux grape?

Well, kind of. Some claim malbec as part of the Bordeaux diaspora. But the malbec that grew in Bordeaux before the phylloxera outbreak of the 19th century may have been, in actuality, a relative newcomer to the area.

And that, dear reader, is where M. Malbeck enters.

We don’t know who he was. We have only the foggiest idea of when he lived (late 18th c.). But we do know what he did... or what the myths claim he did. It is alleged that sometime in the 1780s, a man by the name of Malbeck planted the first malbec grapes in Bordeaux.

The Bordelais must have taken to calling the grapes after their primo plantatorem, which is how Argentina winds up planted with “malbec” rather than “côt or auxerrois.

Although the Argentine wine industry goes back 500 years, the malbec era began around 1845, right in time the arrival of French agronomist Michel Aimé Pouget, charged by Argentine president Augustin Faustino Sarmiento with modernizing the country’s production.

Long time readers will know the story by now. A decade or so later the phylloxera blight killed off almost every malbec vine in Europe. A frost annihilated the few survivors several decades later. Malbec vines found in Argentina today are often far older than any found in France. The Argentine vines are also the “un-grafted” variety – that is, they are the original European plants. After phylloxera the Europeans replanted their vineyards by grafting their vines onto American rootstocks immune to the bug.

In the end, phylloxera worked out rather well for malbec. At elevations up to 10,000 feet higher than Bordeaux, with 80% more UV exposure, and 79% less rainfall, the vine thrived along Argentina’s western frontier. 

Today, malbec vineyards follow the Andean foothills from Patagonia in the south to Salta and Jujuy in the north. Along the way, the wine shape shifts from a limber mineral wine in Patagonia, to a big spicy red at the midway point around Uco Valley (southwest Mendoza), to the hard-edged black pepper and fruit malbecs of extreme altitude Calchaqui Valley.

Monsieur Malbec has come a long way. But finally, at the edge of the world, he feels at home.

Until next week,

The Wine Explorer

Bonner Private Wine Partnership