Malbec World Day falls on 17th April this year and many of you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. It’s a celebration commemorating the day back in 1853 when Malbec was brought to Argentina. Most folks are surprised to learn that despite flourishing there, Malbec isn’t an Argentinian grape . . . it originated in France. If you are a fan of this grape you might like to learn it’s story – and pick up some insider tips on bagging a good bottle or two . . .
Malbec is a bit of a mystery; legends abound as to its heritage and it’s said to have gained its name from a Hungarian peasant by the name of Malbeck who took the grape to the Medoc in Bordeaux in the early 18th century. However we do know that it originated in France and, thanks to modern science, we also know its parentage.
The Mother of All Malbecs
In 2009, a team of researchers discovered that a long lost grape ‘Magdeleine Noire des Charentes’ was the mother of both Malbec and Merlot. Magdeleine Noire des Charentes was discovered growing in northern Brittany in 1992. Tradition had it that this grape was grown up house fronts and verandas in the Middle Ages as the grapes were eaten for their flavour rather than made into wine. But as the mother of Malbec Magdeleine Noire has turned out to be surprisingly important and further research is underway to discover more about the grape.
The Magdeleine Noire vine was found growing on the hill Mont Garrot by the banks of the River Rance near the monastery of Saint Suliac. The monastery’s vineyard was known to have existed between 1460 and 1477 but was abandoned more than 200 years ago. After further investigation this grape was found in 4 villages in the Charentes, who called it Magdeleine – probably because of its early ripening on July 22nd, the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene.
It’s unlikely that Malbec originated in the Charentes; it’s a tricky grape to grow and it needs more sun and heat than either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to mature. It’s more likely that it developed nearer to Cahors as its father is the near extinct Prunelard from neighbouring Gaillac in southern France.
Like most offspring once Malbec had found its feet it was off on the move. Wine makers used the rivers of France as a trade routes in the past and cuttings would have been taken up and down stream to various locations throughout France. At one point Malbec was grown in 30 different departments (counties), a legacy that is still present in the abundance of local synonyms for the variety. It is known as Pressac on the Bordelaise Right Bank (Saint Emilion and Pomerol) and Cot in Cahors. Local lore has it that it became known as Pressac after Chateau de Pressac in Saint Emilion introduced it there between 1737 and 1747. Just to throw a spanner in the works there is also a Chateau Pressac in Charentes – the home of Malbec’s mother, Magdeleine Noire and a village called Prayssac in Cahors, the capital of French Malbec production.
In Bordeaux Malbec makes up part of the blend for Clarets. It was once prolific throughout Bordeaux and in 1855 all the Grand Crus Classes all had Malbec in their vineyards, including the Premier Crus. But thanks to the Phylloxera disease that wiped out French vineyards and the Great Frost of 1956 Malbec was badly hit and practically disappeared. The reason for this was that as Malbec is difficult to grow and ripen in Bordeaux’s climate wine makers replanted with Merlot instead of struggling on with trickier Malbec. Over the past decade this has started to change and Malbec has been making a comeback thanks to the spice and colour it gives to blends. If Bordeaux becomes hotter due to climate change, then Malbec would have a chance to ripen more consistently – so you may start to see more Malbec in your Claret in the future.
Where to find Bordeaux Clarets using Malbec
The Cotes de Bourg have the highest percentage of Malbec, using more than any other AOC.
You can also find petit chateaux scattered throughout the Entre Deux Mers, the Cotes de Blaye and the Right Bank (Pomerol, Fronsac and Saint Emilion) using Malbec.
Prestigious chateaux use Malbec as well as smaller producers, notably Premier Cru Chateau Cheval Blanc, Haut Bailly, Coutet, Clerc Milon, Brane Cantenac, L’Enclos, Clos Rene, Gruaud Larose and Domaine de Chevalier.
Further south in warm Cahors Malbec found its true home. The grape migrated to Cahors much earlier than to Bordeaux. Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II drank Cahors Malbec at their wedding in 1152, Pope John XXII and Peter the Great, Tasr of Russia, chose it for their communion wines, and King François I of France was such a fan he asked Cahors wine makers to create him a vineyard at Fontainebleau. It was from Cahors that Argentina gained its first Malbec vines in 1853.
Although the Cahors vineyards were decimated by Phylloxera and also hit by the Great Frost wine makers successfully replanted their Malbec vines. It was a long struggle but worth it. The ‘black wines’ of Cahors are achieving cult status. There has also been a recent influx of money and ambition into Cahors, from foreigners whether they be from New York or Paris such as the family behind the Cartier empire which is determined to produce in Le Pigeonnier a Cahors worthy of cult prices. But the fact remains that a great deal of Cahors is pretty rustic stuff, often a little thin and animal on the mid-palate.
Where to find Cahors Malbecs
The medieval vineyards of Cahors cover 2 key areas:
The limestone terraces along the valley of the River Lot: Mercues, Parnac, Prayssac, Grezels, Puy l’Eveque and Vire sur Lot. The terraces produce fruity, rounded Malbecs.
The limestone Causses plateau which produces fine wines that are firmer, more tannic wines than the terraces.
Malbec producers to watch out for are Clos Triguedina, Chateaux de Chambert, Lamartine, Eugenie, de Haut Serre, du Cedre and Saint Didier Parnac.
Malbec, the Ex-Pat
Malbec travelled from Cahors to Argentina in 1853 when the agronomist Pouget was tasked with bringing the vine to the country to transform its wine industry. During the 1990s Malbec became Argentina’s star performer and it is now the main producer of Malbec in the world. France has maintained its links with Argentina with Grand Cru Classe owners setting up vineyards there. Caro is a joint venture between Premier Cru Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Nicolas Catena, Catena Zapata, Cheval des Andes is a joint venture between Premier Cru Chateau Cheval Blanc and LVMH’s Terrazas de los Andes. The renowned French oenologist Michel Rolland also produces Yacochuya with the Etchart family.
Where to find Argentinian Malbecs
Mendoza is the main Malbec producer in the country, representing 85% of all Malbec vineyards. The Lujan de Cuyo district here was the first Denomination of Origin (DOC) of the Americas. Notable sub regions include the Uco Valley and Tupungato.
San Juan is the second largest producer and is hotter and drier than Mendoza. Notable sub regions are Calingasta, Ullum and Zonda.
La Rioja was one of the first areas to be planted with vines by Spanish missionaries and has the longest continued history of wine production in Argentina.
Southern Patagonia (Neuquén and Río Negro) is cooler and Humberto Canale imported vine cuttings here from Bordeaux, establishing the first commercial winery in the region.
Salta includes some of the highest elevated vineyards in the world with many planted over 4,900 feet (1,500 metres).
My recommended Malbec: Domaine du Prince – L’Envoi du Prince, Cahors
L’Envoi du Prince comes from one of the oldest estates in Cahors, Domaine du Prince, owned by the Jouves family. The family have been wine makers since the 1550s and have been at Domaine du Prince for over 300 years; their land and vineyards has passed from father to son since ancient times. Domaine du Prince is perched on the Causses plateau, near the village of Cournou, overlooking the township of Saint Vincent Rive d’Olt in the River Lot Valley. This is considered to be the finest growing areas for Malbec, the grape responsible for the black wine of Cahors.
According to local legend, a family ancestor once delivered wine to the King of France, and perhaps to the Russian Tsar (Cahors wine was a favourite at the Russian court of Peter the Great). Because he met the King in Paris, he was nicknamed ‘The Prince’ by the villagers (‘lou prince’ in the local dialect). Hence the name of the estate. This nickname is still used today by the old farming families of Cournou and ‘Prince Jouves’ is even recorded in the old tax documents from the era.
Today, the latest generation of the family, brothers Didier and Bruno, run the estate. Thanks to their heritage and passion for their craft they know the land, and even individual vines, by heart. However they have moved forward, with a focus on expressing the superb characteristics of their terroir and are working on a project with Leonardo Erazo Lynch, Technical Director of Malbec producer Altos Las Hormigas – the premier wine making appellation in Argentina, to showcase the expression of Malbec on various soils in Cahors.
Silky and full of fragrant fruit with mellow tannins. Lush flavours of rich, ripe redcurrant, black raspberry and black cherry with smoky notes of spice, violets and a touch of fennel. Supple and expressive with beautiful balance. Cellaring potential 10 years.
The inky black wines of Cahors are more structured than their Argentinean Malbec counterparts. They are known for their dark brooding potency whereas Argentinean Malbecs tend to be more fruit forward. Being well structured, L’Envoi du Prince is delicious with food; pairing well with duck breast and pheasant, mushroom, tomato and pesto based dishes, lean red meats such as beef and venison and sharp cheeses such as cheddar or parmesan.