If you find Merlot a little too thin and weedy or Cabernet too big and structured, then Malbec might be the happy middle ground.
From its home in the South-west of France to its adopted home in Argentina, Malbec is a grape that seems like it should appeal to a wide range of people, particularly in Australia.
Yet it missed the boat somewhat in the heyday of big, bold, oaky reds, while it is now being overtaken by lighter varieties such as Gamay, Sangiovese or Tempranillo. As we move to Autumn and winter though, it is a grape you should have on your list to explore this year.
Malbec is one of the five permitted varieties in the blends of Bordeaux, once a popular feature in the wines of the right bank where Merlot tends to dominate today.
As recently as 1956 when a severe frost hit Malbec in Bordeaux, the Bordelaise began to shun the variety to the point where it rarely features nowadays. It’s best known outpost in France today is Cahors where it makes up the majority if not all of the blend, the wines though can be very rustic and too dry in their youth for many.
Malbec found its way to Argentina in the late 1800s by a French agronomist contracted by the Argentine government to establish an agronomy school and introduce French grape varieties to Argentina.
Of the varieties introduced, Malbec adapted to soils and climate of Mendoza quickly and easily allowing it to proliferate as the dominant variety in the region. The warm, dry climate allowed the grape to grow vigorously and ripen easily making for wines of bold, sweet ripe fruit that could be sold to the mass market, much the same as cheap Australian Shiraz was during the 1990s.
In a similar vein to Australian Shiraz though, Argentine Malbec is a more diverse picture these days with high altitude, cool sites becoming more popular among growers, and a better understanding of how the various soil profiles within regions impact on the final wine.
Good Malbec is as warm and comforting as any red for autumn and winter.
The nose often inviting with ripe cherry, plum and violets which follows on to the palate with mouth filling flavours of red fruits, spice and vanilla/mocha if oak is used. The tannins are velvety compared to the more astringent Cabernet and given Malbec has fewer compounds that contribute the green/herbaceous notes to others in the cabernet family, it can be picked a little earlier to retain vibrant acidity – lending a juiciness to flavours. As you look towards higher altitude areas such as Salta, further north in Argentina, or to limestone soils the wines can show a little more finesse and earthy/mineral qualities that offset the bold fruit and structure.
Catena Zapata Malbec 2016 – $29
The Catena family are credited as pioneers of high-quality production in Mendoza. After planting Malbec in the early 1900s, second generation Nicoles introduced the best techniques in viticulture and winemaking from European regions, which set a new benchmark for the region to follow. They continue to innovate today and this particular wine is a blend of their higher altitude sites around Mendoza ranging from 900 to 1,500 metres. The 2016 vintage was one of the coolest in the past decade, which helped to retain plenty of natural acidity in the fruit. Sourced from varied soils of loam and limestone it combines cool, ripe red cherry and plum fruits with a fine, dry and velvety texture. An excellent introduction to modern Argentine Malbec from one of the pioneers.