Malbec is a wine with a very interesting history. Malbec, which is also called Côt or Auxxerois, comes from Sud-Ouest, France. However, it’s now Argentina’s most important grape.
Malbecs are produced worldwide and are available in a range of different qualities and price points. Whether you’re looking for a cost-effective, quality bottle, or a lavish expensive one, you’re sure to find something you’ll love in a bottle of Malbec.
What is Malbec?
Malbec is a dry, full-bodied red wine. It originated in France, where it is usually referred to as Côt, pronounced “coat.” Malbecs are known for their rich, dark fruit flavors and their smooth, chocolatey finish. Typically, Malbecs have medium tannins and medium-low acidity, with red plum, blackberry, vanilla, sweet tobacco, and cocoa.
Malbec thrives in the sunshine, making warm climates like Argentina’s perfect growing regions. The sun helps Malbec grapes produce thick skins and high color pigment, also known as anthocyanin. Malbec grapes are known for their inky dark color, which gives the wine a bright magenta rim and an opaque purple color.
Malbec struggles to maintain its acidity in lower elevations but does incredibly well in high elevation spots. There is a large diurnal temperature shift, meaning warm days and cold nights. Temperature is extremely important for Malbec wines. Storage temperature during aging can have a huge impact on the overall flavor composition.
Malbec is incredibly fruity and smooth, so it doesn’t require much oak-aging. Most affordable Malbec wines age four to six months, and top-shelf Malbec may age 18 to 20 months.
Malbec originated in France, but now it makes up three-quarters of Argentina’s vineyards. How did this come about? Well, before Argentina, Malbec was a very minor grape variety in South-West France. Malbec wines weren’t extremely popular until a softer, more tannic Malbec grape was planted in Argentina in 1868.
Malbec’s popularity is owed to an immigrant who brought Malbec grapes to Argentina from the Cahors appellation of France. The first recorded reference to these Malbec grapes dates back to the 16th century. However, it wasn’t called Malbec, but Auxerrois. It wasn’t called Malbec until the 1780s when it was planted in Bordeaux by a Monsieur Malbeck.
Malbec was overshadowed by other wines produced in the area, and the Cahors region was landlocked. Hence, producers had a very difficult time shipping their products. Its popularity faded over the years, but Malbec was usually overshadowed by other French reds like Bordeaux. That is, until the mid-1800s.
Malbecs in Argentina
The most important move in the history of Malbec wine was the grapes’ voyage to Argentina in the mid 19th century. The vines were planted in Mendoza, Argentina’s main wine production region. The vines thrived in Mendoza’s Uco Valley. The high altitude allows the grapes to produce the acidity needed for a vivid, elegant wine.
Today, Malbec is Argentina’s signature red grape, and Argentinian Malbec is shipped worldwide. Malbec vineyards currently account for more than a third of all black grapevines. They cover twice the area of the next most planted variety.
In addition to the Mendoza region, Malbec is grown in other areas of Argentina, such as San Juan and Salta. San Juan is the second-largest wine region in Argentina. It offers a dry climate, which produces more medium-bodied wines. Salta is home to Argentina’s highest-altitude vineyards, and grapes that grow here develop an incredibly thick skin to withstand the intense UV-B radiation. Salta Malbecs are typically more robust, tannic, and flavorful.
While most Malbec is now grown in Argentina, some regions in France still produce it. South-East Bordeaux and the Loire Valley grow Malbec grapes to this day, and Malbec is one of the six grapes allowed to be blended in Bordeaux wine. Malbec is also grown in the United States, specifically in California, Washington, and Oregon. Argentina’s neighbor Chile produces some Malbec as well.
What should I look for when purchasing Malbec?
There are so many amazing Malbecs out there, ranging from affordable to expensive. When searching for a great Malbec wine, keep an eye on the label. There are a few terms to be on the lookout for that usually signal quality in Malbec.
If a Malbec is labeled “manual harvested,” it usually means quality. While mechanized harvesters continue to improve, they’re still no match for a delicate set of hands and a keen eye for grape quality. “Extended aging” is another good signifier of quality, as good Malbec can handle some cellar aging. The more time a wine spends aging in a cellar, the higher the winery’s investment into developing their bottles before they go to market.
The acidity of your Malbec should typically be around 5–7 g/L, and the best Malbec wines usually have a pH range of around 3.65–3.75. Residual sugar level should be little to none, preferably less than 1 g/L.
When it comes to price, there are a few different rankings. Entry-level Malbecs usually cost between $12 and $20. There are good introductory Malbecs and are often smooth, juicy, and fruity, without much oakiness.
Malbec wines in the price range of $20 to $50 are usually great quality, oak-aged. They offer more chocolatey flavors and velvety textures. If you want to splurge on a bottle of Malbec and get something in the $50 to $250 range, you’re probably getting something from an icon producer. However, compared to wines like Burgundy, whose iconic bottles start at $250, Malbec offers incredible quality for the money.
Our favorite Malbec wines
We’ve gathered our favorite bottles of Malbec from a variety of regions and at a range of price points.
1. Dona Paula Los Cardos Malbec
You’ll notice the first thing about Dona Paula Los Cardos Malbec is its gorgeous, intense, purplish-red color. It offers intense sweet and spicy aromas of red berries, plum, black pepper, mint, and graphite. On the palate, the wine is soft, velvety, fresh, and well-balanced. Dry and full-bodied, this is an incredible quality bottle, especially given its reasonable price point.
2. Antigal Malbec
From the Mendoza region of Argentina, Antigal Malbec is full-bodied, dry, and bright. It’s oak-aged for eight to ten months and offers blackberry, boysenberry, cocoa, fig, and cassis flavors. On the nose, you’ll find aromas of plum, strawberry, and blackberry, with subtle hints of violets, vanilla, and milk chocolate. This wine is brightened by natural acidity and offers a silky texture and a beautifully persistent finish.
3. Don Miguel Gascon Malbec
Also, from the mountainous Mendoza region of Argentina, Don Miguel Gascon Malbec is full-bodied and dry. On the nose, the flavors are subtle, but the flavors on the palate are quite concentrated. The blackberry and plum flavors lead into more complex notes of cocoa, anise, and spice. Fine tannins and lovely acidity give this wine a beautiful structure.
4. Francis Coppola Diamond Collection Malbec
Hailing from California, the Francis Coppola Diamond Collection Malbec is incredibly dramatic in style and fruit-forward. This wine offers lush, velvety flavors of plums, black cherries, cassis, and spice aromas, coupled with a unique mineral character. It is rich and full-bodied, with supple tannins and tremendous flavor complexity.
5. Graffigna Malbec
Another Argentinian Malbec, Graffigna Malbec is lighter-bodied, and deep red in color with purple hues. It offers complex berry aromas that are highlighted by delicate black pepper and toasted notes. This bottle offers well-integrated tannins, around, velvety body, and a long, persistent finish.
6. Catena Zapata Nicolas 2008
While technically a blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Malbec, the Catena Zapata Nicolas 2008 blend is too luxurious not to include on this list. It has an intense, dark violet color, with bluish-black tones. This bottle offers super-ripe aromas of black cherry, dark chocolate, and licorice, with softer accents of minerals, violets, pepper, and herbs.
It is full-bodied, powerful, and complex, with fresh currant and mineral flavors. It’s definitely more a splurge, but if you want to make an investment in a quality Malbec, this one is an amazing choice.
Malbec is an incredibly interesting wine with a very rich history. From a relatively obscure grape in France to Argentina’s most prominent grape, Malbec is now produced and shipped worldwide. There are so many wonderful bottles of Malbec on the market today, you’ll have a difficult time choosing which one to try first.
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