France may be the birth place of Malbec, but this grape has exploded in popularity the past few years, all thanks to Argentina. Bringing it back from relative obscurity, it has flourished in the high Andes mountains, producing powerful and approachable wines. But, we can trace its history back to a little village in the south west of France.
Originating in Cahors, a South West region of France, Malbec is one of the six Bordeaux varietals. Referred to as the “black wine of Cahors” due to Malbec’s deep and intense colour, these wines have been around for quite some time, with records of it being sold in London dating back to the 13th century.
This thin-skinned “black grape” is something of a rustic relative of Merlot so it shares its sensitivity to rot, frost, and pests. It’s this senstive nature that caused Bordeaux wine growers to start steering away from this varietal when frost killed over 75% of the crop in 1956. Despite being very hot in the summer, the nighttime temperatures in Cahors can drop quite a bit, preserving acidity in the grapes, which is one important factor that differentiates them from their South American cousins (but more on them later). The limestone dominated soils of Cahors produce the darkest, most tannic Malbecs and aid in maintaining acidity. Cahors wines achieve their ultimate character and potential with aging.
We have Argentina to thank for Malbec’s wave of success and popularity, quickly making it a consumer favourite and go to BBQ wine for summer time. In fact, if it wasn’t for Argentina, Cahors and Malbec in France would probably be only known to the thirstiest of wine geeks.
Malbec found a new home in Mendoza, Argentina where a nostalgic French botanist planted it by order of the mayor in 1868. Where Cahors relies on deep flavours and high tannin/acidity, Mendoza Malbecs are much riper and richer, being more up front with their fruit flavours. It is that classic New World style in play here: ripe, sometimes jammy fruit, higher alcohol, lower acidity, and softer tannins creates a very approachable and smooth wine.
Let’s take a closer look at the characteristics of these dramatically different wines:
The 2014 Appellation Paraje Altamira Malbec is sourced from a single vineyard in the new official Paraje Altamira appellation, where the soils are rich in limestone. The grapes from this vineyard planted in 1997 with a massale selection from the old vineyard used for the Lunlunta fermented in equal parts in stainless steel and open top 225-liter oak barrels where the wine is kept for around one year before it’s blended, not necessarily in a 50/50 proportion. This is surprisingly fresh for a vintage like 2014 and with the telltale chalky tannins that are making the wines from Altamira famous.
The 2012 Malbec Catena Zapata Nicasia Vineyard feels fresher and more harmonious than the 2011, when in reality the vintage character is the opposite. It is sourced from the vineyard that names the wine and that is located in Altamira. The Malbec grapes fermented in open barrels and cement vats with 15% whole-cluster Cabernet Franc. There is one extra level of precision and harmony here. It has an elegant nose and the palate almost reflects the tension in the skin of the grapes with its a velvety texture and great acidity. This is really tasty and long, it could be the best Nicasia ever produced.