The now-famous grape variety malbec has a history that most fans are unaware of. While we love the ripe, lush and rich style of malbec from Argentina, its home in France produces a wine far from what we expect.
The grape is still grown predominantly in Cahors, in southwestern France. It was once fashionable in the wines of Bordeaux and still is one of the five permitted black grape varieties. The challenging needs of malbec grapes – they suffer from frost, rot and pests – have resulted in fewer plantings.
Cahors offers a climate and soil that differentiates it from its Argentinian cousins. The climate of Cahors relies on both the Mediterranean and Atlantic influence, which offers a dryer and warmer growing season than that of Bordeaux. Locally referred to as ‘Cot’ or ‘Auxerrois,’ the vines of Cahors typically lie on either the plateau soils of limestone or the terraces below comprised of sand and gravel. Each produces different wines.
Those from the plateau offer intense structure and longevity, which is typical of limestone based soils. When young, these wines are rather firm, austere and disjointed with high acidity and tannin. It can take years for these wines to integrate, become balanced and mature. Wines from the plateau can age similar to great Bordeaux upwards of 20 years and are well worth the wait and also very affordable with prices starting in the high teens.
The vines from the lower sandy, gravely vineyards offer wines that are softer are more approachable when young. They are still incomparable to the wines of Argentina, but are considerably softer than wines from higher up on the limestone plateau.
Malbec has really come to fruition and popularity since finding its new home in Argentina. Considerably warmer and dryer, the wines of Mendoza are ripe, lush and very approachable when young. There are a few exceptions, but typically the wines of Argentina lack the structure for long term aging. That’s OK – if you want to age some bottles of malbec, seek wines from Cahors.
Argentina’s viticultural history dates back to the 1550s when Spanish settlers planted vines on the Atlantic coast. However, it was Jesuit missionaries who planted vines on the eastern hillsides of the Andes mountains, now known as Mendoza. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that immigrants from Italy, Spain and France truly laid the foundation for today’s Argentinian wine industry. With them, the immigrants brought new varieties and tried-and-true wine-making skills. Because of Argentina’s political and economic woes, it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that the country’s viticulture really began to make its claim in the global market.
A great experiment to conduct with friends is to open a bottle of your favorite Argentinian malbec and taste it beside its French counterpart. While most will favor the Argentinian example as a cocktail wine, the Cahors will likely show better with grilled red meat as its companion rather than on its own. Regardless of the radical differences between the two continents and hemispheres the experience will likely result in a jovial evening of food, wine and friends.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at email@example.com.