The Future of Malbec
By: Will Lyons
Back in the 13th century, Malbec was the toast of the town. It was the grape variety of choice for royal households, Papal courts and the landed classes who enjoyed quenching their thirst on the "black" wine. The grape was planted widely in French wine regions such as the Loire Valley, where it was known as Côt, and in Bordeaux, before eventually finding its home in Cahors, in southwest France.
This wine is the flagship of Hervé Fabre's range and is planted on vines that he says are more than 67 years old. It gives some indication as to how good Malbec on its own can be. The overall character of the wine is one of super concentration, with a soft, supple texture. The tannins are very fine and the nose is floral, with an overwhelming smell of violets. If it has a downside, I would argue the alcohol is a little high; a couple of glasses of this wine and you really start to feel it. The counter argument, offered by Mr. Fabre, is that if he made wines that were lower in alcohol, they would be harder, higher in acidity and have slightly greener tannins. In short, the wine would be more difficult to drink and wouldn't offer such an immediate appeal.
But over time its popularity waned, eclipsed by varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. By 1956, when Bordeaux was particularly hard-hit by frosts, it was virtually forgotten, consigned by some as a poor-quality blending partner. In Cahors, however, it produced a deep, tannic purple-black wine that can be unapproachable in youth, but with time produces wines deep with flavors such as black cherry and ripe fruit. It was through producers such as Château du Cédre in Cahors that I was first introduced to its charms. Paired with the local food, duck breast or foie gras and a large slice of bread, it makes for a wonderful winter glass of wine.
The story of Malbec doesn't end in the southwest of France, where for the last 20 years it has been enjoying a glorious retirement. No, retirement never suited Malbec; having tasted the cup of fame, albeit more than 600 years ago, it was determined to reach those heights once again. Opportunity came in the guise of Argentina, where its success as a single varietal has been nothing short of astonishing. Not that it was easy—as recently as 1990, the amount of Malbec planted in Argentina had fallen from 50,000 to 10,000 hectares. Today, Malbec is one of the most important grape varieties in Argentina, where a number of winemakers have managed to derive a style that is richer and riper than those found in France. The warm days, cool nights and the long growing season allow the grape to ripen more fully, producing a softer style with notes of jam, leather and dark chocolate.
One winemaker who has been at the forefront of Malbec's renaissance in Argentina is Hervé Fabre. Born in Bordeaux, Mr. Fabre was one of the first winemakers from overseas to recognize the potential the grape variety had in Argentina. Chile was his first stop in South America but he found nothing there that he thought was truly original. In Argentina, though, Mr. Fabre was surprised by the quality Malbec achieved. In Bordeaux, Malbec was mainly used to add color to the wine, but the climate isn't warm enough for it to ripen consistently. Foreseeing its potential, he began buying up a number of sites with old vines. Back then, Malbec was being used as a blending variety, but Mr. Fabre was sure of its potential as a single varietal.
Interestingly, Mr. Fabre believes that having established itself on the international markets as a single varietal, Malbec is now ready to carve out a niche as a variety that can create a reputation as a key component in producing high-quality blends.
I recently had the opportunity to taste through some of the blends he has been producing in Argentina. Now at this stage, I have to declare an interest. I do enjoy Malbec, but in small doses. I need to be in a Malbec mood, if you know what I mean. It's a big wine, frequently 14.5% alcohol, and sometimes a little overwhelming; so what I am looking for is a blend that freshens the variety. I found that in Vinalba's 2009 Reserva Malbec-Cabernet Franc blend. The Cabernet Franc gives the Malbec a little freshness and an almost menthol character, which I liked. I also found it blended well with Cabernet Sauvignon, which gave it a tighter, more savory bent. With Touriga Nacional, a grape variety more commonly planted in Portugal's Douro Valley, it takes on a little more sweetness. Blended with Syrah, it felt a little lighter, with the Syrah really dominating on the nose. We also tasted a Malbec blend from 1996 that was alive with floral and plum characters, illustrating just how long this variety can cellar. Mr. Fare now has plans to blend Malbec with other grape varieties such as Tannat and Tempranillo. If they prove successful, who knows? Perhaps Malbec's best days are yet to come.
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