The history of Malbec: French origins with new roots in Argentina

The history of Malbec: French origins with new roots in Argentina

International Malbec Day, or Malbec World Day, on 17 April is a great excuse to open a couple bottles of your favourite Argentine variety. Although Malbec became internationally famous coming from Mendoza, Argentina, its story stretches much further back in history.

French beginnings: Côt, the Black Wine of Cahors

Malbec is a French variety that was widely planted throughout the Middle Ages in different regions in France, where it was so common that it had over 1000 synonyms. It was the local grape for many growers, and each called it by its own name (Auxerrois, Pressac, Doux Noir, Quercy and Plant du Lot were just a few). In its hay day, Malbec was known as the ‘black wine’ and favoured by Russian Tsars and French aristocracy, most notably a favourite of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Malbec, or Cot, in CahorsIn its hay day, Malbec was known as the ‘black wine’ and favoured by Russian Tsars and French aristocracy. Eleanor of Aquitaine was rumoured to be a fan of Malbec, opting to serve it at her lavish parties.

However, with time those names – and those vines – disappeared. Malbec was problematic, it was too sensitive to the wet and cold weather of much of France’s wine regions and was relegated to the bottom of the pile. When phylloxera swept across Europe, most growers never replanted Malbec – they opted for more hardy varieties instead.

The only region that kept Malbec as its flagship variety was Cahors, where it went by the name of Côt. There, in South West France, Malbec remained King. Known for its particular character, Cahors wines were an incredibly dark colour with tight acidity; they were wines that required a few years to loosen up.

A voyage to South America & the start of a new life in the New World

Mendoza the new home of Malbec, Malbec World Day

If it weren’t for Domingo Faustino Sarmiento or French agronomist Miguel Pouget, Malbec’s story may have ended in Cahors. But a new chapter was written as Sarmiento, a local governor with a fondness for education, ordered more French varieties to come into Argentina, and his hired agronomist, Pouget, brought Malbec cuttings.

First planted in Argentina in the mid-1800s, Malbec began to thrive. The warm, sunny climate meant it had none of its usual problems with rot and frost, and the variety produced full and ripe wines, quickly spreading across most of Argentina’s wine regions. In its peak, there were over 50,000 hectares of Malbec planted.

However, a turn of events meant that most of those old Malbec vines were torn out, and replaced by other varieties. But the story doesn’t end there. Some vintners kept their Malbec vines and started to make wines that gained international recognition. As the reputation of Malbec grew abroad, producers started replanting it domestically. And the vineyards (which had dropped down to just 10,000 hectares) began growing in numbers once again to eventually make Malbec Argentina’s most planted grape.

Today Malbec is the champion of Argentine wine – it is the variety that took Argentina to an international stage and has made it famous worldwide. With 85% of the world’s Malbec, Argentina is the greatest advocate of the variety and has explored its many different faces across the different terrains of the wine regions.

Argentine Malbec today ranges from the rich and complex Malbec of Maipu’s older vines, through to the cool, floral notes found in the rocky higher lands of the Uco Valley, and the dark, spicy Malbec with spiky acidity found in the high altitude vineyards of Salta. There is a multitude of expressions of Malbec in Argentina that would take you a lifetime to discover.

Malbec beyond Argentina

However, you’ll need to also spare some time for the other modern Malbecs of the world. Cahors in France continues to produce Côt (although many now market it as Malbec), but Chile is, in fact, the second-largest producer of Malbec.

Malbec vines have been planted around the port of Concepcion in Chile for centuries and you’ll find very old vines of Malbec in Itata, Maule and Bio Bio in particular. There are also new plantings of Malbec in valleys as diverse as Colchagua, Elqui and Casablanca.

Joining the New World Malbec party are wine regions in the USA, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, each with growing plantations of this variety, which has well and truly established itself as a world favourite. Happy Malbec World Day!

Amanda Barnes

Amanda Barnes

Amanda Barnes is a British journalist who has been living in the Southern Hemisphere for the last six years, has tried over 500 Malbecs, eaten over 600 Chilean oysters and still has a functioning liver and kidneys (as far as she knows).
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