When we think Malbec, we think Argentina. But like all popular grapes that flourish in the “New World,” Malbec has not always been Argentina’s grape to claim. This is the story of how Argentina took the grape from France and ran with it.
Legends say that a Hungarian immigrant named Malbec planted the grape all over France centuries ago, hence its namesake. The grape was France’s most widely planted grape and produced wine during the country’s early winemaking years.
Malbec especially took root in the region of Cahors. Cahors was a dominant winemaking region in southwest France during the High Middle Ages, and Malbec was their champion grape. People all over Europe sought Cahors wine, and the region had trade routes established throughout the continent.
Power slowly started to shift from Cahors to their neighbors Bordeaux in the west. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bordeaux, much like today, was the most famous wine region in the most famous winemaking country in the world. And like in Cahors, Malbec dominated Bordeaux. Up until the mid-19th century, it was the most planted grape in Bordeaux.
In the mid-19th century, Argentina’s provincial governor Domingo Faustino Sarmiento hired a French agronomist named Miguel Pouget to bring grapevine cuttings to Argentina from France. Argentina lacked a formidable wine industry at the time. The objective was obvious: Build a thriving wine industry in the image of France.
Malbec was just one of the many varieties Pouget brought with him, and he planted the grape in the Mendoza region. Mendoza sits on the foothills of the Andes. The grape thrived in this new climate and soil and quickly became Argentina’s most planted grape. Winemakers in Argentina took a liking to it, more so than other varieties introduced from France at the time. While Argentina was still years away from making world-class wines, Argentine winemakers finally had a foundation and identity to build upon.
Meanwhile in France, Cahors was badly hit by “the Great French Wine Blight,” a blight that wiped out over 40% of France’s vineyards in the mid-19th century. The long and rich winemaking history in Cahors disappeared, along with their plantings of Malbec.
Bordeaux, the other Malbec-producing region, experienced the same blight, and to boot, experienced a frost that destroyed much of their Malbec acreage. Vintners in Bordeaux took this as an opportunity to replace Malbec with different varieties, like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These varieties grafted best to imported American rootstocks, which was a new method to help prevent future blights.
The once widely popular Malbec became obscure. Bordeaux saw little future with the grape. While Bordeaux still allows Malbec in its wines today, it’s uncommon to find more than 1% Malbec in Bordeaux blends, while Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot make up the majority of Bordeaux’s famous red blends.
Argentina hasn’t always produced high-quality Malbec. In fact, for the first 150 years of its winemaking history, the country produced wines strictly for domestic consumption. It’s only until the end of the 20th century when Argentina started to make wines fit for export. And now they’re renown for making large quantities of world-class Malbec at a range of price points.
There are over 76,000 acres of Malbec planted in Argentina. The next closest is France (13,000 acres), followed by Italy, Spain, South Africa, New Zealand and the US. In other words, Malbec is Argentina’s grape.
On Vivino, Argentinian Malbec is the number one most-rated wine style, with over 550,000 ratings in the past year. The average rating for this style is 3.59, placing it around average for a wine style, an impressive feat given the quantity of ratings. In the 2014 Wine Style Awards, all Top 10 Argentinian Malbecs rated 4.5 and higher, a testament to Argentinian winemaking and just how good Malbec can be.
Indeed, Malbec is Argentina’s, the country taking full-advantage of France’s indifference toward the grape the past 200 years.
How to Enjoy Malbec Day
This Friday April 17 is World Malbec Day. In order to best experience Malbec Day, you’re going to need to celebrate in style, Argentinian style. Imagine all the stereotypes associated with drinking wine, and do the opposite. Argentinians are known for turning any gathering into a party, and continuing well into the night.
Don’t buy a Malbec from France or California or elsewhere
Do buy an Argentinian Malbec
Don’t spend more than one second thinking about food pairing
Do order a great steak and prepare to be amazed
Don’t debate the fine points of your glass of wine
Do enjoy a glass past your normal bedtime, as the Argentinians do
Enjoy Malbec Day. You might just discover your next favorite wine style.
Lacoste, Pablo. “The History of Malbec.” Wines of Argentina.
New York Times. “A Sip, a Tango: Malbec Old and New.” 8 February 2006.