Like so many popular varietals, Malbec can trace its roots back to France, where it got its start a one of only six grapes permitted in the complex, luscious blend that is red Bordeaux. It was always kind of the odd grape out though, never achieving a starring role until it found a way to shine—in South America.
In 1956, wicked frost covered Bordeaux, killing some 75% of the crops. Most vineyards replanted without Malbec, but winemakers in Cahors, where Malbec is known as Côt Noir, were the exception. While Malbec acreage fell into a deep decline in France, Argentina took up the slack thanks to cuttings brought over in the mid-1800s.
Today, there are more than 50,000 acres of the grapes in Argentina, much of them in Mendoza, a region at the foothill of the Andes known for traditional wines with international appeal. You can find Malbec in other countries too, namely Chile, the United States, Northern Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, and even Israel, but it’s hard to argue with the plush, juicy wines wreathed in violet you get from Argentinian masters.
If You Like This…
Achaval-Ferrer Finca Bella Vista Malbec, 2013 – $115
Malbec is typically an affordable drink that’s tasty if occasionally dense, but there are some high-end bottles that showcase just how magnificently nuanced and utterly focused the wine can be. Achaval-Ferrer’s ‘Finca Bella Vista’ is one such bottle. AV isn’t a single vineyard but rather several old-vine sites scattered around Mendoza. Wines are nurtured to show beautifully while still expressing the best of their terroir. Low yields contribute to the comparatively lofty costs, but the perfect balance of typicity and complexity makes this purchase worth the price.
The perfect balance of typicity and complexity makes this purchase worth the price.
Wild strawberries and jammy blueberries dance with the more expected dose of dark plum, all of which slowly gives way to a faint but detectable thread of Asian five spice and chocolate. It’s dense, full of pleasantly angular acidity, and delicious with grilled meat.
Local: Achaval-Ferrer Mendoza Malbec, 2017 – $22
If you could look up Malbec in a wine dictionary and taste the result, this is what you’d experience. You get the same meticulous vineyard management and terroir-based wines you’ve recently (about three paragraphs ago) come to expect from Achaval-Ferrer, but the complexity has been dialed back in favor of fresher, subtler characteristics that create a wine that feels drinkable even on casual occasions and yet still special.
[This wine] will doubtlessly appeal to Malbec fans and anyone who loves a fruit-forward wine with integrity.
Sip through a slew of purple fruit and crushed violet with a sprinkle of pepper and coffee grounds cut by bouncy acidity. It’s a full-bodied, juicy wine that lacks some of the heft of the Finca Bella Vista but will doubtlessly appeal to Malbec fans and anyone who loves a fruit-forward wine with integrity.
A Little Far-Flung: Savage Grace Wines Dineen Vineyard Cot, 2017 – $26
Savage Grace bills their wines as having global perspective and local flavors. Owner-winemaker Michael Savage started off in 2011 with a single bottling of Cabernet Franc but has since expanded his portfolio to include everything from Gruner Veltliner to Syrah to Cot, which is what they’re calling their Malbec—a throwback to Old World styling, for sure.
Expect a Malbec that’s more cool-climate Loire than hot and ripe Argentina.
And the wines carry a heavy Old World influence too, though Savage’s commitment to low-intervention winemaking lets the very New World terroir alter each grape in a natural but definitely noticeable way. Expect a Malbec that’s more cool-climate Loire than hot and ripe Argentina—hence the lighter, more herbaceous taste and aromas. It’s a surprise to sip this and find dried flowers and herbs and black pepper almost overshadowing the plum, but you’ll find the elegance and acidity in the background, delivering some familiarity when your taste buds have almost thrown up their hands in confusion.
If you like light and graceful Pinot Noirs, you’ll like adore this fun bottling from Savage Grace.
Out There: Chateau Lagrezette Chevaliers de Lagrezette Malbec, 2013 – $25
Heading back to France isn’t truly such an “out there” idea, but given the relative rarity of Malbec in the old country these days, it’s not necessarily the first place you’d look for an exciting bottle. That’s why it’s so important to slot in another look at what’s happening there, this time courtesy of Alain Dominique Perrin and his 500-year-old estate.
This is Malbec in Cahors, where it was born and where it shines again if you know where to find it.
This is Malbec in Cahors, where it was born and where it shines again if you know where to find it. Though technically a “second wine”, meaning it’s not quite as ooh-lah-lah as the winery’s grand vin, the Château Chevaliers Lagrézette Malbec is hardly a consolation prize. It’s structured and full of ripe, juicy fruit, though that will shift as the wine continues to age. The blend features 85% Malbec with 12% Merlot and 3% Tannat, a harmonious trio that work together to create a round, solid wine that’s heady in both color and aroma.
It’s got a light but persistent finish with grippy tannins that insist on being noticed. Elegance and tenacity—Malbec through and through.