April 17th is the day when the whole world salutes Malbec, Argentina’s signature grape varietal. Though it originated in France, Malbec has found its best and most successful expression in Argentina.
Since 1868, when it was first introduced in the country by French agriculturist Michel Pouget, Malbec has adapted so beautifully to its new home, that most winemakers are convinced it is Argentina where this grape had always belonged. It is one of Argentina’s greatest exports along with beef and the tango.
Recognized as Argentina’s national varietal, Malbec is the country’s most planted grape. This inky violet red grape produces plump, full-bodied wine with a charge of sweet blueberry and violet flowers on the nose and ripe dark fruit (mainly blackberry, black cherry & plum) on the palate, with flavours of chocolate, coffee, vanilla, sweet spices and a touch of tobacco.
The smooth almost velvety tannins make Malbec wines approachable and easy to drink even when young. This is precisely why these smooth fruity wines are so popular in India, as most Indians find highly tannic astringent wines disagreeable.
Malbec pairs very well with Indian cuisine and this is another reason why it is fast emerging as the favourite red wine of many. To be frank, wine drinkers these days consider it more fashionable and super cool to order a Malbec than a Cabernet Sauvignon.
And since we Indians are careful with our money, most often, Malbec offers good value compared to the red wines from Italy and France.
Since I rarely miss a chance to drink Malbec, I was happy to accept the invitation of the Ambassador of Argentina to India, His Excellency Daniel Chuburu, who had organised a tasting of Malbec wines at his residence on April 17th, 2018, to celebrate Malbec World Day.
Popular Malbec wine brands available in India like Trapiche, Bodega Norton, Trivento were represented at the tasting, along with some others like Rutini, Alpamanta, Escorihuela 1884 and Alma Mora, which do not have a presence in India as yet. Hopefully, some wine importers will take notice and bring them here.
Along with Malbec, there was also the award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon La Mascota 2013, Bodega Norton Sauvignon Blanc and Alma Mora Chardonnay to show that Argentina is known not just for Malbec, but other wines too.
However, since the occasion was Malbec World Day, I will focus only on this varietal in this article.
A visit to Mendoza in March 2017 exposed me to diverse styles of Argentinian Malbec. I found a Malbec from Salta tasting different than the one from Luján de Cuyo, Uco Valley, San Pablo or Río Negro.
Talking to the winemakers, wine bar owners and other people related to the wine industry, it was evident that these are exciting times, not just for Malbec, but Argentine wine in general. In fact, some of the best wines I tasted were varietals like Bonarda and Cabernet Franc.
I was told that a lot has happened in the last 30 years leading to a diversity of styles, terroirs and flavours. Pioneers like Nicolás Catena (Decanter Man of the Year 2009) are credited with putting Argentine wine on the world map. It was partly due to his endeavours that Argentine wines now possess a level of finesse and elegance which was not there earlier.
Before 1990’s wines were targeted more for the domestic market and it was about quantity than quality. Now Argentina is actually making ‘thought-provoking’ wines, many of which I was fortunate to taste.
So what has led to this revolution?
In the words of renowned wine writer Jancis Robinson “Considerable investment in new vineyard areas, improved winemaking technology, and continued research and innovation have all played a part in the transformation of Argentine wine from rustic ferment to world-class quality”.
It was in Valle de Uco, the most fashionable wine area of Mendoza and rising star of Argentina, that I saw first-hand how a new winegrowing zone with cool weather has led to newer fresher styles of Malbec wine. Earlier plantings in hot regions had meant limited complexity.
In contrast, Uco Valley is a young terroir with cooler temperature where a combination of high altitude, limestone soil and high level of UV light has resulted in producing the most floral and deeply coloured of the country’s Malbecs.
The wines from Uco Valley have an incredible freshness as the cool weather helps to maintain acidity and structure while the intense sunlight helps ripen the grape fully, despite the shorter growing season. Combine this with very poor soil, good drainage, continuous breeze, low-yields and what you get is high-end distinctive wines with high natural acidity.
In some parts of Argentina, Malbec is being grown at altitudes as high as 3000mt or 9800ft, and as far south as Chubut in Patagonia, which is the southernmost point of wine growing. While the cold, on one hand, limit the cultivation of grape, the intense sun promotes their development. The result is wines with mature flavours.
The emphasis in Argentina, like elsewhere in the world, is on producing terroir-specific wines. While some winemakers are resorting to later pickings and use of more new oak to give their wines an “international style”, the more innovative ones are resorting to whole bunch fermentation and sparse use of oak to impart a freshness to the wines.
Most Indians, however, have a preference for riper oakier style, quite like the Americans.
Incidentally, Malbec grown in Argentina does not show any of the weakness the grape was known for in France, its original home, where it was prone to frost, mildew and other viticultural hazards.
Argentinian clones are different from those found in Cahors in southwest France where plantations of Malbecs are still popular. The wines taste different too. The ones from Cahors are a little tart, more tannic and slightly bitter than the soft fruity Argentine Malbecs.
It is the Argentine terroir combined with the sunlight, dry air, a wide range of diurnal temperatures (warm days and cold nights) that enhances the meaty textures and fat sweet tannins of the Malbec wines giving then intensity and softness at the same time.
So go ahead and order some Malbec!
By: Lavina Kharkwal
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