The Grape & The Travel
When we talk about Malbec, nowadays, we are inclined to think about it as the signature grape of South America. This is not incorrect, with Argentina being a stronghold with over 76,000 hectares of planted vineyards: they produce Malbec wines across three regions, mainly and most famously from Mendoza, but also from San Juan and from Salta.
The prominence of Malbec in Argentina is even more evident when we think that France, the second producer for this particular grape variety, accounts for just 15,000 hectares, merely a third compared to the South American giant.
Then United States follow with over 3,000 hectares and wine regions such as California, Washington and Oregon are the variety’s most representative. Chile comes close – with 2,500 hectares of planted vineyards – then South Africa and Australia are paired together at over 1,000 hectares. And finally New Zealand closes the list, representing the grape with only 200 hectares.
But the way things are today, is it really how they used to be in the past?
If we read about it, Malbec is one of the most significant examples of how grapes travel across the world and how different countries adopt them at different times, for different reasons.
Historically, Malbec is indeed a French grape. Back in the days, it was cultivated in 30 different areas in France. Signs of this legacy are still present in the list of local synonyms of the variety, easily surpassing 1,000 names. Malbec is still one of the grape varieties allowed in Bordeaux, but the frost of 1956 drastically changed its geography within France.
As a matter of fact, with the frost wiping out a vast portion of the vineyards, winemakers decided to take that as a chance to replant different varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with Malbec reduced to only 1,400 acres in the region by the year 2000. At the same time, in the region of Cahors – in the SouthWest of France – winemakers went the opposite way: Malbec was a primary choice when replanting, with the region been granted AOC status in 1971. From that point, each wine must have at least 70% of Malbec in the blend.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that normally the blend is then completed by Bordeaux varieties like Merlot, for example.
An Argentinian Finest
The establishment of Malbec as the Argentinian signature grape variety was a combination of factors happening in the Country, especially in the 19th century. First, provincial governor Domingo Sarmiento managed to import the first Malbec cuttings from France through the agronomist Miguel Aimé Pouget. At the same time, in those years many growers were escaping the effects of the phylloxera epidemic that devastated vineyards in Europe, with Argentina being their primary choice of destination.
The Malbec clusters in Argentina are actually a little different from their French relatives: they have smaller berries and tighter, smaller clusters. This lead to believe that the first cuttings imported in the Country were a unique clone, now extinct in France due to the phylloxera epidemic first and, later on, the frost.
There was a time when Malbec popularity decreased in Argentina, but with the shift to more premium wine production dedicated to export, the grape has seen his popularity increasing again since the late 20th century.
As Malbec is a delicate grape and very susceptible to viticulture common hazards like frost, coulure, downey mildew and rot, its adoption in New World areas might have been encouraged by more favourable climate conditions.
In California there are today about 3,000 hectares of vineyards planted with Malbec, although a significant part of production is still used for blending. Popularity is increasing though, with more single grape wines of this variety being promoted by vineyards.
As popular as it might be in Chile, it is not one of the main grape varieties in the Country, but rather used for some high-quality productions. And we can observe a trend along those lines in Australia and New Zealand, as well as within the wine scene in South Africa.
For different reasons, Malbec has been flourishing in different places and at different times. It is indeed a history of travelling, deeply bounded to the journey of the winemakers that brought the grape around the globe. As we read about the many factors behind the grape’s travel, we’re not too wrong if we say that Malbec is a wonderful tale about adaption. And nature, as we know, has plenty of stories like these to tell us: we just have to tend our ear and listen to them.
Perhaps with a glass of red wine in our hand.