A Six-Bottle Master Class to Malbec

Malbec being poured for a flight
Getty

America loves Malbec. Originally from France, this black-skinned grape became synonymous with Argentina, where ripe, juicy bottlings from Mendoza turned it into a household name. As its popularity grew, winemakers increased plantings around the globe.

Today, consumers can explore new sites in California and Washington, or rediscover historical vineyards in Malbec’s homeland. Whether meaty and tannic or floral and fresh, there’s a Malbec for everyone.

Malbec shows a range of flavors and textures, depending on its origin, climate and how it’s aged. Bottlings range from meaty and tannic to floral and fresh. A side-by-side analysis is the best way to recognize such characteristics.

As you taste, search for aromas and flavors, but also think about texture. Does the Malbec’s acidity feel sharp? Do the tannins feel rustic or velvety?

Organize your tasting by three key categories: Old World bold versus Old World light; New World Argentina versus New World U.S.; and unoaked versus oaked.

Of course, you’ll need to pick up a few bottles, so we’ve included tips on what to seek out. Feel free to ask your retailer for exact bottle recommendations.

Malbec grapes on the vine
Malbec growing in Argentina/Getty

Old World Bold vs. Old World Light

The Old World for Malbec means France. Specifically, Southwest France.

Within Southwest France sits Cahors, an appellation that specializes in bold, tannic Malbec. In fact, the name Côt stems from a contraction of Cahors. Other synonyms for Malbec includes Cot Noir, Auxerrois and Pressac. Cahors lies inland between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Hot, dry summers discourage disease, and create ideal conditions for Malbec.

The Cahors style is often medium- to full-bodied and earthy. The best examples, many from the terraced vineyards of the Lot Valley, shed rusticity for powerful fruit and refined tannins. Though the dominant grape of the region, not all wines labeled Cahors are 100% Malbec. The grape must compose a minimum of 70% of red Cahors wine, the rest made up with Merlot or Tannat.

Old World Bold vs. Old World Light Malbec Flight

Wine 1: Look for wines labeled under the Cahors appellation from Southwest France for a bold, structured version of Old World Malbec.
Wine 2: Loire Valley red wines labeled “Côt Touraine Rouge” showcase the lighter side of the variety.

Long appreciated for its inky hue, the grape spread from Cahors around the country and is used to boost to lighter blends. Lovers of Bordeaux might recall Malbec as one of the varieties permitted in the region’s blends.

Beyond Cahors, Malbec has a tiny foothold in the Loire Valley. Though used typically to create dry, savory reds with Cabernet Franc and Gamay, the grape stands on its own in the Touraine appellation. Here, varietal Côt wines show off the grape’s fresh, elegant side when grown in a cooler region.

Lower in alcohol than Cahors bottlings, Côt carries a juicy fruitiness and modest tannin structure, which makes it a lovely summer sipper, especially with a slight chill. Flavors include black cherry, blackberry, pepper spice, licorice and even a hint of violet, a trademark aroma of Malbec. Look for “Côt Touraine Rouge” on the label to indicate an example of a varietal wine.

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New World Argentina vs. New World U.S.

Malbec emigrated from France to Argentina, which quickly became a leader in Malbec production, its climate a natural fit for the variety. Mendoza, San Juan and Salta are the three main growing regions, though Mendoza’s wines represent the style most known.

Dry, with plenty of sunshine, Mendoza’s climate allows Malbec to blossom into a spicy, lush, velvety wine. Easy to love, especially due to its soft, ripe tannins, Malbec is accessible and can be enjoyed young. It brims with a mix of red and dark fruit, with notes of chocolate and warm spice. Argentine Malbec also offers a lot of wine for the dollar.

Deeper into Mendoza, where Malbec grows on higher-elevation sites like those in the Uco Valley, the grape captures more acidity, aromatic intensity with violet notes, and a jewel-toned, purple hue. Firmer tannins help these wines age.
Given the success of Malbec in South America, many U.S. producers have embraced the variety.

New World Argentina vs. New World U.S. Malbec Flights

Wine 1: Malbec from Mendoza is commonplace on the market. Seek out examples whose labels list the Uco Valley as the subregion, to explore high-elevation Malbec.
Wine 2: Look for Californian Malbec from Sonoma Country, or one of the many AVAs within the region, like Alexander Valley, Rockpile or Dry Creek Valley.

American Malbec shares some characteristics with Argentina, especially in California and Washington, where vineyard climates are similar. However, Argentina’s vines are older and planted on their own rootstock at higher elevations typically, factors that can contribute to differences in taste and structure.

California, followed by Washington State, led the U.S. in Malbec production and the effort to achieve a terroir-driven style. California wines are easier to find because Malbec is plentiful there, grown from Sonoma down to Santa Barbara. California Malbec often shows dark fruit and stewed plums alongside sweet spices.

Washington is a rising star with nuanced, beautiful Malbecs. The only troubles are limited production and increased demand. When you find one, expect both sweet and savory spice woven through flavors of blueberry, blackberry and plum.

Vineyards in Argentina
Vineyards in Argentina/Getty

Unoaked vs. Oaked

From France to Argentina, Malbec expresses the terroir of its site and climate. However, the winemaker’s hand shapes its final taste. The vessel in which they ferment and mature plays a part in that.

Before the advent of stainless steel, winemakers kept their wines in oak, clay or cement.

The French crafted barrels, or staved containers, with wood from the forests of Limousin and Vosges. Hence, the phrase “aged in French oak,” which many winemakers say with pride. However, the arrival of temperature-controlled steel tanks in the 1950s changed winemaking.

Unoaked vs. Oaked Malbec Flights

Wine 1: Argentine producers like Trapiche and Zuccardi make unoaked versions of Malbec that see time in stainless steel and/or cement vats.
Wine 2: Search for an Argentine or other New World Malbec—most will list the oak usage on the back label.

Stainless steel preserves primary fruit flavors and aromas. It also prevents oxidation, due to its impermeability. Malbec aged in stainless steel will be fruit-forward and clean with modest tannin. In short, it’s meant for joyous consumption in its youth.

Concrete and clay are a happy medium between stainless steel and oak. Both offer porosity for micro-oxygenation, clay more than concrete. Neither imparts flavor. The result is a clean wine with softened texture from the evolution of tannin without notes of oak.

Oak barrels, on the other hand, do several things. They impart flavors like baking spice (nutmeg, clove and vanilla), all dependent on the age of the barrel and the toast level of its wood.

Barrels can also change the structure of a red wine. They increase ageability through wood tannin, and soften other astringent tannins through contact with oxygen.

Barrels do not control temperature, which provides a suitable environment for malolactic fermentation.

Thus, flavor, structure, and price will be the key differences between unoaked and oaked Malbec wines.

Published on April 20, 2020
Topics: Wine Basics